“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” ― John Muir
Somehow we are already in the second week of July (whaaaat? How did this happen?) I travel a lot in the summer, but luckily, living in Denver, even when I'm at home an adventure is only a short drive away. I get asked a lot to recommend day trips and hikes around Denver - so, while I could never make a list of all my favorites, I put together 10 of the (mostly) easy, close hikes around the Denver area that would be perfect for almost anyone.
Below is a short overview of each hike, necessary info/links, what to do after, and a "water bottle score" - how difficult the hiking is on a scale of 0 (not really even a hike) to 5 (climbing a 14er) for a visitor. I've started with the hikes closest to Denver and ended with those the farthest. You need a car for all of these except in Boulder where you can take the bus from Denver.
General tips for all of these hikes: try to go on a weekday! Colorado people stereotypes are true - they love to hike - and the weekends are insane pretty much everywhere. If you must go on a weekend, at least go early! This will also help with sunburn, fatigue etc that you may not expect if you aren't used to the elevation.
If you go on any of these hikes, or have other questions, let me know! Enjoy :)
Lair O' The Bear - Morrison, CO - 22 miles from Denver
Headed to Red Rocks for a show or a hike? Keep going a few miles west on Highway 74 to Lair O' The Bear park. This is a relatively small, family friendly hiking spot right off the road. There are trails, a river, and picnic tables a-plenty. Trails are open for biking and the creek is popular for fishing.
This is a great place for families, those who are not used to the elevation, or anyone who wants a quick getaway from Denver.
Water bottle Score: 1/5
After: go back to Morrison, visit the quaint downtown shops, and eat at Twin Forks or the Morrison Inn.
Site and trail map here.
Mt. Falcon - Indian Hills, CO - 25 miles from Denver
Once you've enjoyed your afternoon in Morrison, don't be confused by the signs for Mt. Falcon Park there. There are two ways to enter this park, and that is not the one you want. Just trust me here. Head to the West trailhead in Indian Hills (From U.S. Highway 285, take the Indian Hills turn-off, follow Parmalee Gulch Road for 5 miles to Picutis Road, then straight ahead to Mount Falcon Road).
This park is one of my favorites for painting, reading, taking visitors, and even hiking (ha). It has trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There are tons of picnic areas, remains of an old castle, a lookout tower with amazing panoramic views, and a picnic shelter that used to be the summer home of John Brisben Walker.
Water bottle score: 2/5
After: Head down to Mac Nation for lunch and then a stroll through the Mirada Gallery (both on Parmalee Gulch Road - can't miss them)
Site and trail maps here.
Chautauqua Park - Boulder, CO - 28 miles from Denver
There are tons of hiking trails in Boulder, but this is a great place to start. The Boulder Chautauqua is the only remaining Chautauqua in operation west of the Mississippi - regularly hosting performances, lectures, and events. Check out the ranger station when you arrive then start hiking!
My favorite trail is accessed from behind the dining hall - I start on the Mesa trail, climb up McClintock, up a secret trail (can't reveal everything!) then head back down towards Bluebell Mesa, sometimes heading over to Baird, Ski Jump, or Amphitheater Trail before heading back down the Chautauqua trail. (map)
You can't go wrong here. All the trails are well marked (except to my secret spot :)), generally well trafficked, and generally loop into another trail. Just start walking and you'll find great things.
If possible, like most of the trails on this list, go early on a weekday. - it gets super crowded. If you can't get here on a weekday, there are shuttles on weekends or paid parking (free on weekdays).
Water bottle score: 2.5/5
After: eat lunch or happy hour at the Chautauqua Dining Hall (try the Big Country Salad and the cilantro jalapeno margarita) and/or make a quick stop at the general store (open in the summer months) for some ice cream (or picnic foods and a strawberry lemonade)
Site with much more info here.
If you want to get out of the foothills and into some higher, cooler, mountain air - head west on I-70 to Echo Lake. It's been my favorite spot since I moved here (and I wrote a whole post about it here) to get away.
To get there, take the Mt. Evans exit off of I-70, turn left and follow the road about 13 miles to the lodge - stop at the two lots on the way up to see a waterfall and a great view of Mt. Evans. Once you get to the parking lot, the views are immediate. You can picnic, fish, or just walk the short trail around the lake, or catch the Chicago Lakes trail out farther into the Mt. Evans Wilderness.
Water bottle score: 0/5 for the lake 3.5/5 for Chicago Lakes trail
After: Check out the Echo Lake Lodge for souvenirs, great food, and a great bar view. Then if you're risky, take the Mt. Evans road all the way up to the Summit (in the summer only) - it's the highest paved road in North America!
Site and trail map here.
St. Mary's Glacier - Idaho Springs, CO - 45 miles from Denver
After you come down the mountain from Echo Lake, go West on I-70 to the St. Mary's exit (a mile or two). Follow it up until you reach the parking lot (map) This is on private land so you MUST pay a $5 parking fee -- bring cash there is nowhere to get any. The trail is super short, about 1.5 miles round trip, but steep and rocky so if you aren't used to the high elevation it could take some time to get up. As you near the top there are several trails but they'll all get you to the lake. There you will find a beautiful view of the Rockies, a glacier, a lake, and plenty of room to relax or picnic (or just watch people snowboard down the glacier).
This is a great short hike for visitors or families as long as you are in moderate shape. It's also a great way to beat the summer heat.
Water bottle score: 2.5/5
After: head down to Idaho Springs and explore the downtown, soak in Indian Hot Springs, or visit the Argo mine. Drink at Westbound and Down, eat at Da Rivuh, and shop at The Soap Shop.
Herman Gulch - near Idaho Springs, CO - 54 miles from Denver
I try to get to the Herman Gulch Trail a few times a season. It's a fairly easy 7ish mile out and back trail right off of I-70. Like literally right off - it has it's own exit! Exit 218 if you'd like to try it for yourself. It's unmarked, so you just turn left and voila, the parking lot and trail! So easy! The trail is a part of the Continental Divide Trail - a 3,100 mile trail that crosses from Mexico all the way to Canada.
Interesting fact: only about 200 hikers attempt to thru hike the Continental Divide Trail each year - and it takes about six months to complete! The other two "Triple Crowns" of long-distance hiking: The Appalachian Trail (2,184ish miles) and The Pacific Crest Trail (2,654 miles) have thousands who attempt a thru hike each year, but much much less who actually complete it.
Back to my (much shorter) hike. The Herman Gulch trail starts out fairly steep through the trees until you come to a beautiful meadow with wildflowers when in season. The hike continues through the meadow and a few shady areas (wear sunscreen!) until the final ascent to the Herman Gulch Lake.
This hike is good for everyone! The elevation gain can be tricky if you are from out of town or not active, but with plenty of water and breaks you should be fine. The actual trail is not difficult or technical.
Water bottle score: 3/5
After: go back East to Silver Plume and visit Bread bar (on weekends) or on to Georgetown to walk the quaint downtown, or drive up Guanella Pass.
Site and trail map here.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area - Ward, CO - 57 miles from Denver
Way up in the mountains of Ward, Colorado, you will find one of the most beautiful places - not just around Denver - but around anywhere. Brainard Lake is part of the Forest Service (so you can use your America The Beautiful pass to get in without the $10 fee), and is near the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. There are lakes, camping, picnic areas, you name it. All of the recreation area is above 10,000 feet, so you can only access from around late June to October.
Brainard Lake and Long Lake are easy to get to, while my other favorite hike - Mitchell Lake to Blue Lake is a bit longer. The hikes are so beautiful, with many alpine lakes on the way. Find more information about the trails here.
Water bottle score: 3/5
After: head to Nederland and visit the Carousel of Happiness, then over to Salto Coffee Works
Mt. Bierstadt - near Georgetown, CO - 60 miles from Denver
I've climbed two 14ers (all on my own woo!), since moving to Colorado. Mt. Bierstadt was the first - chosen because it is generally seen as an "easy" 14er. Now, for those of you who probably don't live in Colorado, a 14er is a mountain that is over 14,000 feet in elevation. There are 96 in the United States, with a whopping 53 in Colorado. So even an "easy 14er" is not so easy.
That said, if you are acclimated to the altitude, and in decent shape, this is a great trail to start bagging peaks. It is only about 7 miles, with an elevation gain of 2,850 feet. The top is a bit of a rock scramble but totally doable even for the scaredy cats like me.
14er tips: Start early! Thunderstorms kick up over the mountains almost every afternoon in the summer, and they can be (and are) deadly when you are above the tree line. Also, these trails are super busy so starting early gives you a head start (and parking space) over the masses. Wear layers - it's cold, hot, windy -- be prepared for it all. Bring lots of water! You will need it. Pay attention to the weather, and don't be afraid to take lots of breaks. Remember trail etiquette and if you start to feel weird - go back down! Altitude sickness is real and it is torture (and happens to even the fittest people).
To get there, follow Guanella Pass from downtown Georgetown about 12 miles to the top. You will see the parking lots and millions of Subarus.
Water bottle score: 4.8/5
After: head back down to Georgetown and ride the historic Loop Railroad. Visit the Rock Shop, and eat at The Alpine.
More information here.
Emerald Lake - Rocky Mountain National Park - 64 miles from Denver
Many of the trails on this list are fairly popular, but this might be the most popular of them all. With good reason. Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park are an easy day trip from Denver, and if you only have time for a hike or two, this one packs a punch.
Enter RMNP, then either head up to the Bear Lake lot (if it's early on a weekday) or park in the park and ride and catch a shuttle to Bear Lake (recommend this). Bear Lake is one of the most popular lakes in the park, with an easy and accessible trail around it. If you decide to go on, you will walk about 3.5 miles and see four amazing alpine lakes.
Again, this trail is very popular, but I still recommend it if you're in the park. If you want more of a workout, head down towards Glacier Gorge when you reach Bear Lake on the way down and catch the shuttle from there.
Water bottle score: 3/5
After: explore the park! Then head in to Estes Park to walk the town, visit The Stanley Hotel and drink at Rock Cut Brewing.
More info here.
Manitou Incline - Manitou Springs, CO - 70 miles from Denver
If you're an extremist, or find yourself near Colorado Springs, you might want to hike the Manitou Incline. I wrote more about my experience here, but basically, it's this super steep former cable car route turned stairway. It gains over 2,000 feet in elevation in just under a mile and it's intense to say the least! Some parts have a grade of up to 68% (look at the picture above for some perspective).
If you're still interested, remember that because this is so steep, once you start - you have to continue. There is a bail out, but it isn't until about 2/3 up the trail. To get down you follow the Barr Trail back to where you began.
Water Bottle Score: 4.75/5
After: Explore Manitou Springs and stop by the The Mate Factor, then head over to Garden of the Gods for some much easier hikes, followed by dinner in Old Colorado City
Now get out there! And let me know if you want more recommendations, or other information :)