Why we love it: Let us count the ways: Bighorn sheep. Mountain lions. Bears. Birds. Fish. And, most importantly, the Platte River, which supports this level of biodiversity and makes for a gorgeous hike.
When to go: The park is open all year.
When I first visited Waterton Canyon, I thought: “How good can this be?” The parking lot is off a busy road, there are power lines everywhere, and maintenance vehicles were driving on the trail (which is actually a wide gravel road). But my worries faded as the canyon walls enveloped me. By the time you’re a half mile in, city noises are a distant memory.
To get started, park your car, cross the street into the canyon, and grab a map by the first restroom. Waterton Canyon serves as the trailhead for the Colorado Trail, which covers more than 400 miles and goes all the way to Durango. The great thing about this trail is that you can pick and choose your distance—six rest areas make convenient turnaround points. The rest areas are all named after a different animal that lives in the canyon: Mule Deer, Blue Heron, Black Bear, Mountain Lion, Rattlesnake, and Bighorn sheep. Signage at each outpost educates visitors about each creature.
The wide gravel road ensures that everyone from mountain bikers to equestrians have plenty of room here. Follow the Platte River as it winds through the canyon and keep your eyes peeled for herds of bighorn sheep and other big mammals. You’ll pass the Strontia Springs Dam about a mile and a half in. Later, you’ll see part of the tunnel that carries water to the Foothills Water Treatment Plant. If you’re planning to hike the entire canyon, give yourself about five hours, and bring plenty of food and snacks. The trail is also popular with mountain bikers and runners—it’s not often you can find a 13-mile run on flat gravel around here (the entire trail gains only 100 feet of elevation).
Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west to C-470. Take C-470 east to Wadsworth Boulevard. Take a right at the bottom of the exit ramp and drive 4.2 miles. Turn left on Waterton Road. The parking lot will be about a quarter of a mile down and on your left.