Colorado is a boundless wonderland for hikers, offering mountains, valleys, forests and aspen-rimmed meadows to lace up and explore – all in the backyard of our thriving Mile High City.
Trails of all varieties weave past red rock spires, plunge into granite canyons and cut through verdant glades all along the Front Range. Now that summer’s here (almost), what better way to enjoy our state’s stunning natural beauty than to fill a water bottle, pack the gorp and sunscreen and set out on a trail?
We consulted local trailblazer and CU Denver alumnus Bernard Wolf (geology, ‘85) for some of his favorite – and convenient – hikes in the foothills and beyond. He came up with a list of 10 go-to hikes that never fail to satisfy. Many of these trails are also mountain bike-friendly, so be sure to check the web links for more information.
No matter your ability level, you’re sure to find a hike – or several – on this list that will have you breathing deeply of soul-freshening mountain air.
Hike: Matthews/Winters Park. Jefferson County Open Space Park.
Distance: 4.2-mile loop – Morrison Slide Trail, looping back on Red Rocks Trail.
Where: Trails on both sides of Colorado Highway 93, just south of Interstate 70
You’ll hike past red rock formations, sage brush and spring wildflowers. Enjoy a view of downtown Denver when you crest the hogback. Deer are frequently seen grazing on the foothill grasses. The Morrison Slide Trail is pretty steep, gaining more than 400 feet in about a half-mile. The route mellows on the Red Rocks Trail on the way back to the parking lot.
Wolf’s take: “The scenery over the hogback is great. Last summer the wildflowers were off the hook with all the rain we had.”
Hike: North Table Mountain Park. Jefferson County Open Space Park.
Distance: 7-mile loop on the North Table Loop.
Where: Just north of Golden on Colorado Highway 93, east side of highway.
Difficulty: Mostly easy
You’ll enjoy panoramic views of the Denver area atop this mesa that rises just north of Golden. The plateau is home to deer and prairie dogs, and in the skies you might see red-tailed hawks and golden eagles that nest in the mesa cliffs. Also, keep your eyes on the trail, because the arid landscape is prime habitat for rattlesnakes. The park offers 15-plus miles of trails; the North Table Loop which encircles the mesa is a seven-miler.
Wolf’s take: “You start with a lung-burner incline, and then the loop is very nice. There are actually a few trees on top. Once you’re on top of the mesa, you feel like you’re on this island of wilderness surrounded by urban areas.”
Hike: Frazer Meadow via Horseshoe Trail. Golden Gate Canyon Sate Park.
Distance: 4.5 miles, out-and-back trail
Where: Golden Gate Canyon State Park. Take Highway 93 north out of Golden, turn left (west) on onto the park access road and follow 13 miles. Turn right on Crawford Gulch Road and look for Frazer Meadow parking lot on the left.
The Outdoor Adventure Center on the Auraria Campus is an excellent resource for students looking for adventure in the Colorado outdoors. The center, located in the PE/Events Center Room 001, offers hiking, cycling, rock climbing, canoeing, snowshoeing and other excursions. The center also offers gear rentals for all of your outdoor needs. For information, call 303-556-2391 or visit the Campus Recreation at Auraria website and click on “Outdoor Adventure Schedule” in the menu.
The 14,000-acre park has a total of 12 trails, each named for an animal and marked with critter footprints. The Horseshoe Trail follows along Ralston Creek, crossing it several times via footbridges. At a clearing surrounded by aspens, you’ll come upon a deserted cabin with a historic marker about the homesteader. It’s an out-and-back trail that climbs about 1,000 feet. Enjoy conifer forests, views of peaks and aspen groves.
Wolf’s take: “The trail starts off kind of steep, but eventually it goes through nice aspen groves, so it’s especially nice in the fall. The trail goes up where the forest thins and opens into a couple nice meadows.”
Hike: Mount Falcon. Jefferson County Open Space Park.
Distance: A total of about 13 miles of trail in the park. Recommended: 2.1-mile loop and 3-mile loop.
Where: From U.S. 285, take the Indian Hills turnoff, follow Parmalee Gulch Road for five miles to Picutis Road, then straight to Mount Falcon Road. You can also access the park on the east side, via Colorado Highway 8 which runs south out of downtown Morrison.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Web: Mount Falcon Park
Mount Falcon is a family-friendly park with many trails to choose from, offering views of the Continental Divide to the west and panoramas of Denver and the plains to the east. Picnic tables and shelters are available. Kids enjoy an old wooden tower as well as the stone-wall remnants of a castle built by the visionary John Brisben Walker. For a 2.1-mile loop, take the Castle Trail to Tower Trail to Meadow Trail and back to Castle. For a slightly longer hike, giving you 1,000 feet of elevation gain, take Castle Trail to Tower Trail and return on Parmalee Trail.
Wolf’s take: “There’s a lot of interesting stuff to see at Mount Falcon. You can do multiple trails. I always cheat and do it from the west side, because it’s a brutal incline from Morrison (east side).”
Hike: Royal Arch Trail. Boulder Mountain Park.
Distance: 3.2 miles, out-and-back trail
Where: In Boulder, take Baseline Road west toward the foothills. Chautauqua Park will be on the left.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Web: Royal Arch Trail
This hike of 1,300 feet elevation gain gets your heart pumping and gives you an up-close look at Boulder’s majestic Flatirons – and you’ll walk under an impressive rock arch, to boot. Royal Arch is actually located in the red rock of the fifth Flatiron. The hike climbs rapidly, winding through about a dozen switchbacks. Sturdy hiking boots are a must as the trail gets quite rocky. It’s an up-and-back hike. Start on Bluebell Road Trail and connect to Royal Arch Trail to reach the end. Chautauqua Park offers more than a dozen trails to explore.
Wolf’s take: “Royal Arch is a butt-kicker for me. I’d call it a moderate to strenuous hike. You go up a ridge, then down and then back up.”
Hike: Woods Quarry. Boulder Mountain Parks
Distance: To the quarry is about a mile (Mesa Trail to Woods Quarry spur), so about 2 miles round trip. Hike can be extended to about six miles by taking side trips on Kohler Mesa, Enchanted Mesa and Skunk Canyon trails.
Where: Follow Broadway south from downtown Boulder and turn right (west) on Dartmouth. Turn left on Kohler Drive and right on Drake Street; at Vassar Drive turn right and follow west to Table Mesa Drive. Turn right and follow to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) parking lot.
Web: Woods Quarry
For geology and rock lovers, this hike is a must. From the NCAR lot, start out on the Mesa Trail and follow until you reach a water storage tank. Turn right (north) and follow the trail into a canyon. You’ll cross a steam then make a steep climb. Keep following Mesa until you see the Woods Quarry spur and follow the steep trail up to the abandoned quarry. Enjoy the view and the benches made of native rock. Be aware that black bears and mountain lions are known to inhabit this area.
Wolf’s take: “Woods Quarry is where the red rock (Lyons sandstone) was excavated that was used in the buildings on the CU-Boulder campus.”
Hike: Mason Creek to Old Mill to Staunton Ranch trails. Staunton State Park.
Distance: 7-mile loop
Where: Take U.S. Highway 285 south to Shaffers Crossing, about six miles west of Conifer. Turn north on Elk Creek Road and follow the signs 1.5 miles to the park.
Web: Staunton State Park
Getting to this park takes a little longer, but it’s well worth the drive. The hike takes you through stands of ponderosa pine, aspen and meadows of wildflowers. Numerous interesting granite rock formations, which are popular among rock climbers, come into view along the way. This relatively new state park offers numerous other trails, including a 10-plus-mile trek to Elk Falls Overlook. Staunton Park features numerous shelters and picnic areas, as well as ponds and falls. It ranges in elevation from 8,100 feet to over 10,000 feet, so sunscreen and water is highly recommended.
Wolf’s take: “Staunton’s awesome. Great variety of terrain – there’s something for everyone.”
Hike: Alderfer/Three Sisters. Jefferson County Open Space Park.
Distance: 4-mile loop
Where: Turn west on Buffalo Park Road from County Highway 73, just south of downtown Evergreen, and travel about one mile.
Alderfer/Three Sisters Park sits in the heart of Evergreen and was once a working ranch for horses and cattle. The family homestead and barn still sit on the park, which offers a variety of terrain from rolling hills to the challenging climb of Evergreen Mountain to the south. Alderfer/Three Sisters features the most trails per acre of any Jeffco foothills park: nearly 15 miles on 770 acres.
For a nice four-mile hike that takes you past rock landmarks “Three Sisters” and “The Brother,” park in the east lot off Buffalo Park Road and follow Hidden Fawn Trail to Sisters Trail, where you’ll hike between North Sister and Middle Sister before reaching the Ponderosa junction. At Ponderosa Trail, head east a short distance to the Brother spur. Follow the spur up and back for a look at “The Brother.” Back on Ponderosa, head west for about a half mile to Silver Fox Trail. Follow Silver Fox east to the Ponderosa junction and continue east on Ponderosa to the parking lot.
Wolf’s take: “There are lots of interesting rock formations and a nice ponderosa pine forest with groves of aspen in between. I’ve hiked at Alderfer/Three Sisters in spring through fall and it’s always amazing.”
Hike: Creek Bottom to Rimrock Trail. Castlewood Canyon State Park
Distance: 4.5 mile-loop
Where: Take Interstate 25 south from Denver to exit 182 at Castle Rock. Turn east on Colorado Highway 86d and go six miles to Franktown. Turn south on Colorado Highway 83 (South Parker Road) and drive five miles to the park entrance on the right.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
This hike is not in the foothills – it’s actually east of Castle Rock – but it’s still a scenic area of forest, sage brush and canyon. There are a total of 13 miles of trails, following along canyon walls carved by Cherry Creek, for exploring in the park. For the 4.5-mile loop, access from the West Side Trailhead Loop. Follow Creek Bottom Trail to Dam Ruins spur, to Rimrock Trail and back to Creek Bottom.
Wolf’s take: “It’s all forested, and you don’t expect it out in that neck of the woods. The trail has a pretty moderate elevation gain – about 200 feet. You start at the top of the canyon, work your way down and finish back at the top. The rocks at the top of the canyon are really cool.”
Hike: Apex Loop, Apex Park. Jefferson County Open Space Park
Distance: 5-mile loop
Where: Take Interstate 70 west to exit 259/Morrison. Turn right (north) onto U.S. Highway 40. Drive one mile to the entrance to Heritage Square on the left. Turn into the drive leading to the shopping mall, then turn right into the lower parking lot. Look for the trailhead sign.
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult.
Web: Apex Park
From the trailhead, take the paved trail to where you cross a wooden bridge and start a pretty steep climb. For the five-mile loop, follow Apex Trail to the Sluicebox Trail turnoff. Follow Sluicebox to Pick-N-Sledge to Argos and back to Apex Trail. For a longer hike, stay on Apex and continue past the Sluicebox junction to the Enchanted Forest Trail. This will take you along a shaded stretch with mossy, fern-covered ground. Loop back the parking lot on the Apex Trail.
Wolf’s take: “This trail has some historic significance. It’s the old wagon road from Golden to Central City.”