Summer in Colorado is synonymous with hiking and here’s why…
The Rocky Mountains stretch an impressive 3,000 miles from western Canada and through the United States into the western states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Here in our beautiful Colorado, the Southern Rockies make up half of the state with 13 national forests, the largest concentration of high altitude peaks rising above 14,000 feet (there are 58 Fourteeners!) and more than 39,000 miles of hiking trails. All of that considered, deciding on where to hike…well the options for scenic and challenging hikes are endless. But with a dizzying array of options in Colorado, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by which are most worth doing first. To help you get started on a Bucket List of Colorado hikes, we’ve created a Top 10 Colorado Hikes list and broke it down by region, spanning the mountainous half of the state from north to south. So regardless of which part of Colorado you are exploring, we’ve got you covered with some outstanding options for every area. And while summer at lower altitudes has been well underway since June…it has been a remarkably rainy season this year making conditions in the high country not as easy to navigate. In 2023, as we are almost to the middle of July, it is just now becoming more manageable to hike in the mountains without excessive snow and mud. There is still plenty of snow in the alpine landscapes above tree line, however trails below 12,000 feet elevation are finally starting to dry out. So we thought the timing was right to present our favorite hiking trails around Colorado.
P.S. We’ve tried to avoid some of the more well-trodden trails…you know the ones where so many people have hiked that there are now required reservations to hike there! That being said, Colorado is still a very popular place to visit and hike so any of these trails could potentially see plenty of other hikers especially during the peak summer months. So remember your hiking etiquette, plan ahead and get out there and explore!
NATIONAL PARK HIKING
Photo Credit: Adventum Colorado
LOCATION: Rocky Mountain National Park
Okay yes there are tons of trails to explore in RMNP, but one of our favorite hikes in the park is to Emerald Lake. Not only does this trail lead you to three pristine alpine lakes but it’s also a relatively easy trail providing a nice starter hike in the park. You’ll start at the Bear Lake Trailhead passing Bear Lake before beginning a nice steady climb up to Nymph Lake—a fitting name for this lovely little lake adorned with pond lilies. From here you’ll trek along through a bounty of wildflowers in the summer until you reach Dream Lake—a beautiful (and chilly) subalpine lake that is fed by an alpine glacier. If you can stop for a bit and take in your surroundings, you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain. Keep trekking until you reach your ultimate destination—the famous Emerald Lake. Gazing across the lake is nothing short of splendid! The 12,713-foot Hallett Peak towers over this glassy subalpine lake which is supplied by melting water from the Tyndall Glacier. Make sure you have your camera ready—you’re sure to capture some incredible photos and absolutely no filter needed.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 3.6 miles; Out & Back
DIFFICULTY: Easy to Moderate
LOCAL TIP: Trail is open year ‘round. But leave Fido at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. This is also a very popular trail during peak season (summer) so we advise you to get an early start.
NOCO (Northern Colorado)
Photo Credit: All Trails, Amanda McDonald
Disappointment Falls via Lady Moon Trail
LOCATION: Cache La Poudre Wilderness near Red Feather Lakes
In our humble opinion, the Cache La Poudre River is quite possibly the most beautiful river in Colorado. And apparently, we aren’t the only ones who think so. The Poudre (pronounced pooh-der) is Colorado’s only nationally designated “Wild & Scenic” River—a part of the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System that was created by the U.S. Congress in 1968 to preserve and protect rivers across the country. The name was given in the early 1800s when a group of French-Canadian trappers hid their supplies and gun powder during a raging blizzard somewhere at the river. The name quite literally translates to “hiding place of the powder.” All that aside, hiking a trail near this river is going to be a beautiful experience. Our pick for a great hike in this region is to Disappointment Falls on the Lady Moon Trail. In the middle of summer, the meadows are bursting with wildflowers and the falls are certainly not disappointing. If you packed a lunch, grab a seat on a boulder—there are plenty around the falls and enjoy!
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 5.4 miles; Out & Back
DIFFICULTY: Easy to Moderate
LOCAL TIP: This is a very popular area for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding so you’ll need to share the trail. Dogs are welcome!
ICONIC COLORADO SCENE
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
Not only are the Maroon Bells the most photographed mountains in all of Colorado…but quite possibly in America! It may seem cliché to list this as one of the most epic hikes, but it truly is an extraordinary sight to see and on many people’s bucket lists already. While most tourists stop after the easy 1.9-mile trek around Maroon Lake to snap photos in front of the dramatic view of the mountains, those looking for more of a challenge should consider the 6.3-mile Maroon Creek Trail which begins at Maroon Lake and stretches north along Maroon Creek through meadows and Aspen forests. Located in a glacial valley, the 14,000-foot bell-shaped peaks known as Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak tower over tranquil Maroon Lake and it is a stunning scene. If you’re looking for even more of challenge, the 3.6-mile Crater Lake Trail takes hikers through a leafy aspen forest and you’ll find the reward of arriving at Crater Lake worth the work.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: Maroon Bells Scenic Loop Trail is a roughly two-mile trek circling the lake. Maroon Creek Trail is 6.3 miles; Out & Back. Crater Lake is 3.5 miles; Out & Back.
DIFFICULTY: Maroon Bells Scenic Loop Trail, Easy; Maroon Creek Trail, Moderate; Crater Lake, Moderate.
LOCAL TIP: If you are simply hoping to hike and snap a photo along the shorter Maroon Bells Scenic Trail, know that because the area is so popular in the summer and fall, reservations are required to visit by car or shuttle.
Photo Credit: All Trails, Christine Myers
Crags Crest Trail
LOCATION: Grand Junction
Located on the Grand Mesa, the Crags Crest Trail was designated a National Recreation Trail by the U.S. Forest Service in 1978. Hikers start at an elevation of roughly 10,000 feet at Eggleston Lake and gain 1,000 feet of elevation to the crest which sits at 11,189 feet. Along this beautiful trail, you’ll hike through forests of spruce trees and aspens and may even have some wildlife spotting opportunities—deer and elk are often found grazing in the open meadows along this trail in the early morning or at dusk. As you climb to higher elevations, you may even spot some pika or yellow-belly marmots that like to perch and chirp atop the boulders. Once you reach the crest—the surrounding views of multicolored cliffs and slopes as well as views of the Elk Wilderness, Uncompahgre Wilderness and the San Juan Range in the distance are simply unlike anything else in Colorado. On the western horizon you can see the beautiful La Sal Mountains of the western slope of Colorado and even into eastern Utah on a clear day.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 10.3 miles; Loop Trail
LOCAL TIP: It’s important to understand that weather can change rapidly in this portion of Colorado so be prepared with rain gear and layered clothing. We recommend an early morning start to avoid commonly occurring afternoon thunderstorms. Additionally along the crest, portions of the trail are very narrow with steep drop offs on both sides so if hiking with kids—keep them close and keep your dog on a leash.
CLOSE TO DENVER
Herman Gulch Trail
LOCATION: Idaho Springs
When you want to escape to the mountains yet not travel too far from Denver, definitely check out the stunning Herman Gulch Trail. Located in the Arapaho National Forest, this hike offers incredible valley views and is perhaps one of the best hikes near Denver for viewing wildflowers during peak season. The trailhead rests at 10,332 feet elevation and the first section of the trail is steep so be prepared to test those lungs right from the get-go. The trail flattens out a bit providing a nice breather before climbing up again and then along some switchbacks before reaching the first lake. Keep going until you reach Herman Lake—a beautiful turquoise alpine lake that makes all the effort worth it!
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 6.4 miles; Out & Back
LOCAL TIP: It is not uncommon to find Moose in this area…we found one jaunting through the parking lot at the trailhead. Remember to always keep a safe distance as moose have been known to charge when feeling threatened. This trail is also a popular one in the summer so try to go on a weekday or very early on a weekend as the parking lot fills up quickly.
VERTICAL IN COLORADO SPRINGS
Photo Credit: Adventum Colorado
LOCATION: Manitou Springs
So this is not your typical hiking trail, yet The Incline, as it is known to locals, is a bit famous. And yes, it IS popular and one of those Colorado hiking experiences where reservations are required, however the Incline is so unique that we just had to include it on our list! Originally built as a track for transporting people and supplies via a cable car up the mountain, the Incline climbs up the eastern side of Pikes Peak and is just less than one mile but at a roughly 40% grade and 2,020 vertical feet of elevation gain. When you start out, you may think it doesn’t look too challenging but trust us, it is a straight, steep climb up 2,744 stairs to the top offering a heart-pounding ascent filled with both pleasure and pain. This is a popular hike that many have on their bucket list but casual hikers need to be mindful that this is a strenuous hike, so it is not recommended for couch potatoes. After you make it to the summit, take the winding Barr Trail back down to the base.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 1 mile up and it is recommended to take the Barr Trail looping back down to the trailhead. It’s about 3 miles along Barr Trail back to the base.
LOCAL TIP: An estimated 70,000 visitors tackle the Manitou Incline each year. Reservations are now required. For more information about reservations, parking reservations and fees, please visit www.manitousprings.org/where-to-play/manitou-incline/
Photo Credit: The World on my Necklace
Crested Butte to Aspen via West Maroon Pass
LOCATION: Crested Butte
For a memorable experience that tops many bucket lists, this 10.3-mile, point-to-point trail links two iconic mountain towns connecting Crested Butte to Aspen. Spectacular mountain views, aspen forests, colorful wildflowers (July is the peak month for wildflowers in this area) and the babbling Crystal River accompanies hikers as they ascend from Crested Butte to the summit of West Maroon Pass. At the summit of the pass take in the glorious mountain views in every direction before descending the trail on the way to Aspen. Everyone who has ever taken this trek has remarked what a fun and memorable experience it was. Since it’s a point-to-point hike, you’ll just need to prepare and have a plan in place for transportation in both towns. It is not unusual to encounter folks who make this more than a day hike, backpacking and camping along this route as well.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 10.3 miles, One-Way Point-to-Point. Or you have the option to do an Out & Back but be prepared for an extremely long hike.
LOCAL TIP: This hike is located in the White River National Forest. Visit the U.S. Forest Service website for more information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whiteriver/recreation/recarea/?recid=84331&actid=51
HIKING IN SAND
Photo Courtesy of NPS/Patrick Myers
LOCATION: Great Sand Dunes National Park in Southern Colorado
Sand dunes are likely the last thing to come to mind when thinking about hiking in Colorado. But if you haven’t been to the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in southern Colorado, you definitely should plan a visit. Home to the tallest dunes in North America, this national park offers more than sand however—it is a strikingly diverse ecosystem of grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra. While many visitors partake in unique activities like sand sledding and sandboarding or splashing around at Medano Creek, this national designated wilderness also offers plenty of hiking opportunities. There are several dunes to hike but the most majestic is Star Dune. It is currently tied with Hidden Dune for tallest dune on the entire continent. Measuring more than 700 feet from its base to summit, the hike begins along Medano Creek for about two miles until the giant pyramid-shaped dune comes into view. There is no trail (it is sand after all) but you’ll follow a ridge to its summit. At the top, enjoy incredible views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. Many have described this hike as a difficult but rewarding experience. Be sure to pack plenty of water, snacks and electrolytes and definitely wear sunscreen as you’ll be completely exposed to the sun with no shade.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 7.1 miles, Out & Back
LOCAL TIP: We can’t stress enough how important it is to stay hydrated while hiking the sand dunes. During the summer, you should plan to get an early morning start to avoid extreme heat or thunderstorms. Another option for an afternoon hike and escape from the heat of the dunes, is hiking the Mosca Pass Trail which follows along a small creek through aspen and evergreen forests. Historically speaking, this is the same route used by Native Americans and early settlers traveling into the valley. For more info, visit: https://www.nps.gov/grsa/index.htm
SAN JUAN MOUNTAIN RANGE
Photo Credit: All Trails, Jessica Hughes
Ice Lake Basin
Easily considered some of the most stunning and rugged backcountry in the whole state, it’s impossible to pinpoint the best hike in the San Juan Mountains. This region, which is comprised of rocky peaks and sprawling alpine valleys, is a high and rugged subrange of the Rockies and is home to 14 of Colorado’s 58 fourteeners. There is so much striking alpine terrain and gorgeous forested trails to be explored in this region but if we have to list only one that should be on your bucket list, it’s the hike to Ice Lake Basin. This challenging but rewarding hike meanders uphill through a forested trail, alongside creeks, passing waterfalls and up into alpine meadows with amazing views the entire route before arriving at the awe-inspiring electric blue waters of Ice Lake. Keep in mind, if you aren’t used to higher elevation, there is plenty of climbing and elevation gain. If you’re up for another 20-minute trek to Island Lake, go for it and you’ll be rewarded with another spectacular jaw-dropping scene.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 8.3 miles, Out & Back
LOCAL TIP: This is an extremely popular hiking route and therefore the parking lot fills up quickly especially during the summer so plan to arrive early to secure a spot. Also once you arrive at Ice Lake, if you’re on the adventurous side, take a dip in the chilly yet refreshing water. One of the most beautiful lakes in all of Colorado, Ice Lake is crystal clear allowing you to easily spot the fish swimming several feet below the surface.
HIKE PART OF LONGEST TRAIL IN COLORADO
Photo Credit: All Trails, Markie Houston
Colorado Trail – Segment 28
If you’re into completing iconic thru-hikes in the United States, the scenic Colorado Trail should definitely be on your list. The Colorado Trail stretches approximately 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango in the most southwestern part of the state. There are 28 segments to the Colorado Trail traversing over high alpine mountains and valleys, across eight mountain ranges and six wilderness areas. It can be hiked in either direction and either as one long, four- to six-week thru-hike journey or broken up into different section as day hikes. If you find yourself in the Durango area, you can day hike Segment 28 which will take you through the San Juan mountains. You have the option of making this an out-and-back day hike starting from the Junction Creek Trailhead just outside of Durango hiking as far as you want to before turning around and hiking back to the same trailhead. Or if you’re more interested in a point-to-point day hike (and if you have a 4x4 vehicle to access the Kennebec Trailhead), you can start at the Kennebec Trailhead and hike point-to-point for 21.5 miles down to the Junction Creek Trailhead. For that option there is an elevation gain of 1,897 feet, but after climbing over the Kennebec Pass, the trail descends the rest of the way. You’ll pass the old abandoned Muldoon Mine and eventually the trail follows alongside the Flagler Fork Stream. You’ll pass a waterfall and some striking red rock formations before descending the remaining 10 miles until you reach the Junction Creek Trailhead.
DISTANCE & TRAIL TYPE: 21.5 miles, Point-to-Point. Or begin at Junction Creek Trailhead in Durango, hiking as far as you want and make it an out & back hike.
LOCAL TIP: Depending on how you wish to hike Segment 28—either starting in Durango for an out-and-back day hike or a point-to-point thru hike between the Kennebec Trailhead and the Junction Creek Trailhead—you’ll need to work out the logistics with parking and/or drop-off at each trailhead. For more information and maps on this segment of the Colorado Trail visit: https://coloradotrail.org/trail/segments-of-the-ct/
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