Day Hikes in Colorado – Mags Favorites

Living in Colorado, it is very easy to get some in wonderful day hikes without going very far.

From where I live, it is about a 45 minute or so drive to a trail that takes me to the Continental Divide.  Or I can drive less than 10 minutes to some local foothills trail are also challenging, beautiful and can be anywhere from a short three mile loop to an all-day, marathon length, hike.

 

Backpacking gets me immersed in the wilderness more. But sometimes you just want to be out for a day with friends and grab a brew afterwards. Some of my deepest friendships in Colorado were formed while sharing journeys in the outdoors. And many of those journeys were done a day at a time.

I’ve included some favorite day hikes below.

I’ve avoided listing hikes to the 14ers. There are plenty of web resources for hikes to these high peaks  of Colorado.  And I can honestly say that, with the exception of two moonlight excursions to Longs Peak (a very beautiful summit that was throughly enjoyed when there was no one at or near the summit), my handful of times on 14ers have been disappointing: Very crowded and congested trails, and less a wilderness experience than more like a workout at a gym that happens to have a good view. If you want to explore the high peaks, you may want to look into trail-less 13ers.

Speaking of trail-less routes, as with my backpacking loop ideas, I decided to stick to hikes than are done on trail. Some of my favorite hikes have been off-trail; I’ll let you look through my photos and look at maps for off-trail jaunt ideas. 🙂

If you are new to Colorado and/or dayhiking, you may want to read my my intro guide for day hikes . It will give you a good overview of equipment you may need and a few tips for hiking. As always, these hikes are suggestions. You are responsible for your own personal safety and comfort level. This little article is just an overview is not a substitute for knowledge and skill in an outdoor setting.

Cheers!

–Paul Mags

The Colorado day hikes are:

#1: The Local Fav: The Bear Peak-West Ridge Loop

Total Length: 9 miles
Total Elevation Gain:~3200 feet
Maps: Sky Terrain Boulder/Nederland Map
Dogs: On leash in some parts, under voice control in others
Please see the Boulder OSMP site for more details
Permit: None Needed

I could easily write a whole article about my favorite hikes in the Boulder Open Space.  The foothills top out at just over 8000′, but provide some challenging hikes that have great views towards the Continental Divide, are covered with wildflowers in the spring and sparkle with color in the Fall.  I often do quick, three-mile hikes before I have a prior commitment or even spend the whole day doing a 14 or even 26 mile loop!  In short, I never get tired of hikes in the Boulder Open Space.  Having such a great area close by is one of the many reasons why I love living in Colorado.  If you some ideas for hikes in the Boulder area, you can’t go wrong by looking at Protrails.com Great website!

If I had to give an absolute favorite hike in the Boulder Open Space, it would be the Bear Peak-West Ridge loop.   The hike is steep in places and requires some minor scrambling at the top, but it is a hike I never seem to find tiring. The loop I suggest is a bit longer than the one normally suggested (the alt route has been GPSd at 9 miles R/T and a little over 3200′), but it  shows off a little more variety and does not repeat as many of the trails.

The hike starts at  NCAR at the end of Table Mesa Dr.

Follow the interpretative trail and follow the signs to the Mesa Trail. You will descend and walk up again to a large water tank. On the way to the water tank, you’ll have a great view of Boulder’s famous Flatirons.

Flatirons view near NCAR

Descend from the tank and continue to the Mesa Trail. Bear to south (left)  and continue on the Mesa Trail.  The Mesa Trail is probably among the most well known trail runs in the country. This trail can be Boulder’s superhighway, but in the spring it features many amazing wildflowers and a great view of Boulder’s skyline (the foothills, not CU!  ) above.

Continue along the Mesa Trail and you will see the split for Bear Canyon. You’ll come down this way later. Instead continue on the Mesa Trail steadily heading south until you come to your “exit ramp” – the Fern Canyon Trail.

The Fern Canyon Trial  has an extremely steep, New Hampshire-like approach to the top (but a logical place to pause for a well-deserved break on the way up) of Bear Peak. But the views are the reward! On a clear day, you can see as far south as Pikes Peak,  with James Peak immediately in front and Longs Peak just to the north.  The summit has a great view to look at the open space as a whole. You will gain most of the elevation for the hike on this trail!

The trail does level out for a brief bit near the Shanahan Trail, but just when you think the hike has become easy, the stair stepper begins in earnest!

Hike up the steep trail, enjoy the cool rock formations and trees. Just when your quads go “NO MAS!”, you come to a small saddle.  Take a break, enjoy the views towards the Indian Peaks and nearby Green Mountain.

View to Green Mountain

After this breather, you start up the Fern Canyon trail again. If you have any experience from hiking in the Whites, you’ll feel right at home!  Eroded trail, rocky terrain and even a few roots. 🙂

You make it to a clearing and see the red rocks (or in winter, snow covered!) path for the final and steep push to the summit of Bear.

Final approach up Fern Canyon to Bear Peak

At a trail junction just below the summit of Bear, you do a little minor scrambling to the top.

Summit of Bear Peak

At the summit, enjoy one of the finest views in Boulder. On a nice day, this summit (and the Fern Canyon approach) can be busy, but you will soon leave most of the crowds behind once you descend.

Go back to the junction just before the summit and bear northwest (left)  on the trail that takes you towards the Bear Peak-West Ridge Trail. You will descend steeply for a bit down some switchbacks, but will soon level off on my favorite part of the hike – The West Ridge of Bear Peak.

The West Ridge is gentle, near flat, hiking.  Enjoy the tread, the views to the west and and a surprisingly quiet experience for an Open Space trail.

Continue to follow the West Ridge Trail until you cross a small stream and come to a junction. Go southeast on the Bear Canyon Trail and head back to NCAR.  In the spring, the creek flows quite high with some minor stream crossings.  In the fall, the canyon’s cottonwoods (and occasional aspens) are strikingly yellow.

Cottonwoods in Bear Canyon

Follow the trail under some powerlines and you are back on the Mesa Trail.

Rather than go up at a trail junction (just past a small kiosk at Bear Creek) and return directly to NCAR, get off the Mesa Trail and follow Bear Canyon (straight)  for a bit. This is an old service road and is very easy hiking along the cottonwood lined Bear Creek. The ground cover is often russet colored during the Fall.  After less than a half mile, you will come to a trail split. Though this trail has no official name (the map calls it Yuri Pass), there is a post with a “Dogs must be leashed” sign. Go northeast (left) here and follow this undulating trail for half a mile.

This wide open area is where the very edge of the High Plains meets the start of the Rocky Mountain foothills. Like all transitional zones,  it is a place I find dramatic.

Yuri Pass

Continue along this path for about half a mile until you reach Table Mesa Rd again. From there, take a sharp left and head southwest up an unnamed (though signed and maintained) trail that does back to top of the mesa.  On this path, you’ll often see NCAR employees commuting back to their nearby homes. What a commute!

Enjoy the view towards the Boulder skyline again.  At twilight, you can often see deer grazing.

Climbing up Table Mesa at twilight

 

Pop out at the top of the mesa and end the hike.  You have just been through one of the best parts of Boulder..the Open Space system!

Note: While this hike can be done in all four seasons, the ascent (and the descent!) of Fern Canyon can be dicey in winter and early Spring. Many people feel comfortable using some kind of traction device for this stretch. Though meant for trail running, this article gives a great overview for traction devices for lighter footwear. The only review missing is for in-step (4 pt) crampons. In-step crampons are a bit impractical for trailrunning and/or for some lighter footwear.  However, if you use traditional boots,  the four pt. crampons have proven to be a good option for hikers in icy, but non-technical, conditions.

Pre and Post Hike: In South Boulder, you can easily do a Sun to Sun hike!

Meet your friends for a quick coffee and a bagel at Caffe’ Sole’. The front patio has an awesome view of the ridge line you are about to hike.  Sip your coffee, nosh on the bagel and get ready to hike!

After your hike..go to the other Sun in South Boulder: The Southern  Sun brew pub! Conveniently located in the other side of the same plaza.  On a warm spring day,  sit on the patio, look at the ridge you just hiked and sip on some Razzie Wheat beers.  Mang’ on some great pub food (including quite a few vegetarian options). I like the Junk Burger myself.

If you want something more substantial for breakfast, or your hike finished a little early, the South Side Walnut Cafe serves breakfast and lunch. Traditional breakfast with a Boulder twist!
My favorite breakfast place in Boulder. Located in the same plaza as the other two places.

Finally, if you need some gear post or pre hike (or just want to look at some neat exhibits on mountaineering) stroll over a few steps from Southern Sun and  do some browsing at Neptune Mountaineering. One of the premier mountaineering and backcountry skiing stores in North America.  For you hiker trash,  look carefully and you’ll see an original friends on the wall that was  designed by a certain lightweight backpacking guru.

#2: Backcountry feel in the Denver Metro: Beaver Brook Trail

Total Length: ~11 miles using alternate routes off the main trail
Involves a shuttle
Total Elevation Gain: ~2000 feet
Maps: Trails Illustrated Map #100 – Boulder/Golden 
Dogs: On leash only
Permit: None needed

If you are looking for a surprisingly remote feeling trail in the Denver metro area, then look no further than the Beaver Brook Trail. This trail has been described as providing “the best primitive backcountry hiking experience in the metropolitan front range.”With the addition of two alternate routes off the main trail, I definitely find the Beaver Brook Trail to be a great early season or late fall hike that does indeed have a backcountry feel..

The hike is mainly on a nicely graded trail that is for hikers only. About half-way down the trail, you can take an option that encompasses wide open views in some meadows. Towards the end of the trail, there is a wonderful option that plunges into a remote feeling canyon that reminded me a little of the Gila River Canyon Wilderness.

Start this trek by parking one car at the end of the trail at the Genesee Park. This is where you will end the trek. While you can start from this end, it does involve more elevation gain. Besides, why not end at the best part of the trail? 🙂  Naturally, you can do this hike as yo-yo, too, for 20+ miles and over 4000′ vert gain.

Directions: Going west on I70, take Exit 253 /Chief Hosa exit. Turn right on Stapleton Rd. Follow this dirt road for perhaps 1/4 of a mile. Follow the signs to the Beaver Brook trail. Park. Now drive the other car to the start of your trek to Windy Saddle.

To get to Windy Saddle, go east on I70 and take Exit 254/Genesee Park and simply follow the signs to Lookout Mtn Rd and Buffalo Bill’s grave. If you miss the exit, have no fear! You can take Exit 256 as well. This map should help. If you have time, check out the grave and museum.

On the way to park the other vehicle, you may also want to pause and check out the local bison herd.

Buffalo Bill's grave

Otherwise, you will actually start just below the museum on Lookout Mountain Rd at the Windy Saddle Trailhead. If you wish, you can start the hike from the museum via trail after you pick up your Buffalo Bill t-shirt….
Note: You can directly access this trail from Golden, CO as well. The links have the directions from Golden.

Once you park the car, start from the Windy Saddle trailhead and briefly follow the Chimney Gulch Trail. After .2 miles of easy climbing, you reach the Beaver Brook Trail. This trail is for hikers only (no horses or MTBiking).

Once on the trail, you will enjoy rolling terrain that is very well maintained. The trail is extremely (too well?) marked with distinctive B/B markers that denote the miles.

Beaver Brook Trail marker

There are a few outcroppings with views to the James Peak Wilderness and Clear Creek Canyon below.

view to James Peak WildernessAt about mile 4.5, you will come to the Gudy Gaskill trail (named after the driving force behind the Colorado Trail). This option will give you a little break from the tree cover and will let you experience meadows with expansive views to the foothills around you.

on the Gudy Gaskill Trail
When you join up with the Beaver Creek Trail again, you start climbing up to the highpoint of this hike on the side of Bald Mountain. Enjoy the views and then start a steep descent down into the canyon.

At about mile seven, I’d take the Chavez trail into the canyon.  A pleasant stream goes runs through the canyon with stones smoothed from the spring run-off. In the fall, the cottonwoods are a vibrant shade of yellow. The canyon is extremely remote feeling. Hard to believe the canyon is so close to a major metro area.

On the Chavez Trail
Complete the trail, walk briefly on a dirt road and make it to your car. Pause and relish the fact that a little bit of wildness can still be found near the heart of “civilization”.

Post Hike: Astute readers will notice my post-hike comfort food tends to be a burger and beer. But sometimes, you gotta switch up the food to please the palette. When in the Golden, CO area it is really hard for me to pass up Ali Baba’s Grill. If you can’t guess by this name (like an Italian restaurant calling itself Luigi’s!), it specializes in Middle Eastern style fare. Like many good ethnic restaurants, it is located in a strip mall. But once you are in, esp if you choose to sit in the side room, the atmosphere and food is killer.

Cool down with a mango lassi, have some fresh hummus and end it with some lamb. Mmm.
Is it good? One friend from Israel swears by the hummus. Another friend who grew up in Iran loves the lassi. A former boss is Persian on his dad’s side and his father always insisted on visiting this place. And another friend, from a Lebanese family, told me about the place. Yeah, I’d say it is good. 😉

They do not have a liquor license (as of this writing). If you are really jonesing for a beer, The Spot next door is your traditional bar and grill place. It is popular with the many climbers of Clear Creek Canyon stopping in for a post-climb brew.

#3: Buffalo Mountain Loop: Ring Around the Buffalo

Total Length: ~15 miles
Total Elevation Gain:~3500 feet
Maps: Trails Illustrated #108 (Vail/Frisco/Dillon)
Dogs: On Leash
Permit: None Needed

Forming the dramatic backdrop of Silverthorne is the very distinctive Buffalo Mountain. Though “only” 12777′, it is by itself and dominates the skyline of Silverthorne by towering almost 4000′ above it.

Located in the rugged Gore Range, it is a mountain many people see but do not explore too much.

The Gore Range is surprisingly remote feeling considering how close it is to the highway. Probably, in part, because it does not have any 14ers. As such, it is ignored by many hikers…and trail maintenance crews! 

Every time I go in the Gore Range there is always route finding challenges (sometimes difficult, sometimes not so much), rocky, rooty and steeps trails…and awesome mountain scenery, secluded areas and wide open walking.

The loop around Buffalo Mountain is no exception. It will reward the hiker with a great hike that takes in views of the Continental Divide, two 14ers and the highlight of the trip: Eccles Pass which (as one website puts it) offers “magnificent views of Gore Range, alpine meadows, and the valley behind Buffalo Mountain…the pass at 11,900′ that will reward you with some of the most stunning scenery in Colorado.
Indeed.

The route for this trip loops around Buffalo and is about 15 miles with 3500′ elev gain.

The hike starts at the Meadow Creek trailhead just off of I70. (Take Frisco exit 203. Go into the obvious traffic circle, take the dirt road on the west side of the circle for ~1/2 mile to the trailhead. This road runs next to the highway)

Though near the interstate, within a mile or so of hiking, the trail will already seem much more remote.

I suggest going west to start this loop clockwise  so you can end at the easy hiking from Lily Pad Lake.

Going west, you will amble along the easy terrain of Meadow Creek. You’ll enjoy good views towards Dillon Reservoir. After a bit, you’ll pop out of the wood you’ll have exquisite views of the Gore Range and be ably to spy Eccles Pass.

View towards Eccles Pass

Along the way to Ecless Pass, you’ll come to a trail junction for the Gore Range Trail.This 45 mile trail goes along the Gore Range and is a bit off the beaten path in parts.

Gore Range Trail

Continue up to Ecless Pass.
The view from Ecless Pass, as describe earlier, is not hyperbole. It is a wonderful place to take in the extreme beauty that is found in the Colorado mountains.

view from Eccles Pass
View from Eccles Pass. Looking towards Buffalo Mountain

After the pass, you’ll quickly go by some unnamed tarns and have the opportunity to do a short side trip to Red Buffalo Pass.

unnamed tarn near Red Buffalo Pass

At less than a 1/2 mile round trip, it is really worth the quick side trip. Follow the obvious use trails up and to the pass. Red Buffalo Pass  has equally outstanding views. The highlight of this pass must be seeing Buffalo Mountain flanked by Grays and Torreys peaks . Two 14ers (Grays is the only 14er on the Continental Divide) that are usually busy and crowded. On this pass? You’ll likely have no company.  Enjoy the views along with the solitude.

view from Red Bufallo Pass #1
The flank of Buffalo Mountain flanked by Grays and Torrey’s
view from Red Bufallo Pass #2
The view of the ridge at Red Buffalo Pass

After all this magnificent mountain scenery, make your way  back into the trees, hike up some very steep and not-too-well-marked trails (pay attention!) and enjoy the occasional view towards the mountains.  Eventually you’ll break off from the Gore Range Trail and head south and east.

On this trail, you’ll  come to a junction for going up to the summit of Buffalo Mountain. At this junction, take the trail that takes you to the Buffalo Cabin *trailhead*  Get to the trailhead and follow the dirt road to the Lily Pad Lake TH.  You’ll know you are going the correct way as you’ll pass what looks to be telecomm equipment near  the road.  After a short walk on the road, you’ll reach the actual trail for Lily Pad Lake.

Enjoy the easy hiking and you will come upon Lily Pad Lake.  A very popular family hike (very gentle trail, only ~3 miles R/T), and it is very pretty.  A great place to wind down from the high country hike you just completed. Alas, there will be  much evidence of the current nemesis of the Colorado high country as well- Pine Bark Beetle kill.

Lily Pad Lake

The trail continues in a pleasant (if infected) wooded area.  You’ll drop lower and enter into the lower  elevations where much aspen is growing.

With the lighting at its best and the trees placed just so, the groves of aspens reminds me of a cathedral.

Aspen Cathedral

Not long after the lake, you’ll come down back to the split for the Meadow Creek TH. Follow the trail down and will quickly reach your vehicle.

The hike may be over,  but it is a hike you’ll always remember.

Post Hike:  After this hike, be sure to stop in nearby Frisco and go to the Backcountry Brewery. Really good beer on tap and an excellent pub menu. I love the 14er burger: 1lb of meat and double the cheese. Top it with bacon for a true carnivore delight! 🙂

#4: The Beer-Thirty Hike: The Colorado Trail/CDT along the Ten Mile Range

Total Length: ~14 miles

Total Elevation Gain: ~3500 feet
Maps: Trails Illustrated #109 Breckenridge/Tenn. Pass
Trails Illustrated #108 Vail/Frisco/Dillon

Dogs: You are not in a wilderness area. A well behaved Fido can run free for most of the route

 

Here is a hike that goes through the heart of the Ten Mile Range. Starting just off of I70 at Copper Mountain (or Wheeler Flats on most topo maps. I’m guessing Copper Mtn sounded “sexier”!), you quickly gain elevation and enter one of the prettiest parts of the Colorado Trail (which shares tread with the Continental Divide Trail in this section). Much like the Beaver Brook Trail , it is a hike not far civilization that feels very remote.

You’ll enjoy great tread, far reaching views and a high alpine experience. At the end of this hike you’ll end in the heart of Frisco and be able to grab a beer!

No need to worry about a shuttle, as you can grab a free bus back to your vehicle at Copper. All in all, an excellent day hike with easy logistics. And, did I mention, there is beer at the end of the hike?  🙂

Please note: This route is shared with MTBikers. While most mountain bikers are courteous, and your dog is allowed off-leash, you may want to keep your dog on leash if it is one to chase or get in the way of bikers.

On to the route description….

The route starts at Copper Mountain Ski Resort at the Wheeler National Recreational Trail (just off HWY 91.

Just after you get off the interstate, turn left to the Wheeler Flats trailhead. Park and follow a follow the gas line path for ~1/4 mile to a bridge.) Bear to the south a bit and you’ll follow this trail for ~1.5 miles as it becomes the CT/CDT. After about 2 miles, you are on the Miner Creek Trail (which is also part of the CT/CDT The trail is well marked throughout the CT/CDT section of this hike).

Now, your hike begins in earnest!

Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail meeting near Copper
Climb up (and up) the switchbacks through some pleasant forest. After about one mile, you now pop above the trees and start enjoying some alpine terrain.

Trail in Ten Mile Range
Continue along the trail and climb up along the gentle terrain.

The trail eventually reaches the crest of this hike at 12440′. Enjoy the amazing views towards the peaks. It is nothing less than glorious on a sunny day!

Crest of the Ten Mile Range on the CT/CDT

Continue down the trail and and continue to enjoy the views.

Open terrain on the CT/CDT
After a little bit, you’ll be back in the trees. Continue to follow the trail.  After about 5 miles past the highpoint of this route, you’ll come to the Peaks Trail.  After .3 miles, you come to a junction. Rather than follow the CT/CDT on the Gold Hill Trail, continue to follow the Peaks Trail north.

Follow the Peaks Trail down for ~3 miles.  You’ll follow the trail in pleasant wooded terrain that goes along a stream.  The Peaks Trail ends in the town of Frisco at Main St just west of the main part of town. You now have your choice of several options for libations. When I did this route, my friends and I ended the hike just in time for happy hour at a local pub. Now THAT is hiking my friend.  (If you look on your map, you’ll see a shortcut via roads into town off the Peaks Trail. Otherwise just follow the trail to the “official” trailhead).

As you quaff your beverage of choice, reminisce in the great hike you just had. And perhaps plan future ones?

To get back to Copper: Logistics are super easy. Simply go to one of the many Summit Stage stops along Main St. This free bus service goes throughout Summit County and makes planning hikes very easy!

The only hitch is that pets are only permitted in a pet carrier.  So, if you do take a dog, and if you go with friends, make the dog owner go on the bus to pick up the vehicle in Copper.  You and the rest of the friends can watch Fido and quaff down happy hour brews. It is what my friends and I did. 🙂

Post Hike: Many places to eat/drink in Frisco. For the burger and beer lover, you can’t go wrong with the Backcountry Brewery. Grab your brew, sit on the deck and chill after a great hike.

#5: A Great “View to Effort Ratio” Hike: Deer Mountain in Rocky Mtn NP
Total Length: 6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: ~1100 feet
Maps: Trails Illustrated Map #200 – Rocky Mtn National Park
Dogs:  Sorry, Fido is not allowed
Permit: None needed, but there is an admissions fee to the park

This is a great hike to see some high country scenery without too much effort. For anyone new to Colorado, an active visitor from lower elevations (after a couple days of acclimatization!) or anyone who just wants a great hike that does not take too long, I strongly suggest this one.

Since this article is not a trail guide, but just an overview of some favorite hikes (which is my way of saying I’m a lazy guy), I’ll just point you over to Protrailsagain for the details.

I’ll just add that right from the start of the hike (as soon you park your vehicle!) ,  you get amazing views of Longs Peak and Horsehoe Meadows.  A little further on, you get to see my favorite range in the park, the Mummy Range with its rugged 13ers that do not get as much traffic as nearby Longs.

Longs Peak and Horseshow Meadows from Deer Mountain

This hike is perfect for early summer/late spring hiking and makes a wonderful snowshoe trip, too.

View of the Mummy Range in winter

Pack a picnic (or maybe a thermos of hot chocolate in winter) and bask in the sun at the spacious summit; just watch out for the aggressive critters!

Is this Chip or Dale?

So, if you are looking for a hike that has a great view to effort ratio check out Deer Mountain.

Post Hike:Oskar Blues, of course! Great food, great beer and often there is live music. Conveniently located halfway between Boulder and Estes Park in the small town of Lyons. I love the Silo burger. Another carnivore delight: A half-pound burger, with bacon and pulled pork (cow, pig and pig!) topped with hot sauce. Yummers!

 

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