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50 Urban Adventures You Must Try

You don't have to drive far into the mountains for outdoor thrills. Try these 50 bona fide (and really fun!) escapades without leaving the Front Range.

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British travel writer Alastair Humphreys has cycled around the world, rowed across the Atlantic, and trekked 1,000 miles through the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. But his latest book, Microadventures: Local Discoveries, Great Escapes, celebrates exploration and adventure closer to his London home. “A microadventure has the spirit (and therefore the benefits) of a big adventure,” he writes. “It’s just condensed.”

Why would Coloradans, who live within a few hours’ drive of world-class hiking, skiing, cycling, camping, and white-water paddling, want to abridge their adventures? Well, I-70 traffic, for one. Plus, microadventures are inexpensive, quick, and often family-friendly. They’re good for the environment—many destinations can be reached easily by light rail or bus—and they’re good for you, too. Adventure is “a state of mind, a spirit of trying something new and leaving your comfort zone,” Humphreys writes. In an homage to Humphreys’ philosophy, here are 50 ways to push your boundaries right here at home.


BY THE BOOK

Five do-it-anywhere ideas straight from Alastair Humphreys’ Microadventures.


SWIM WITH THE FISHES

I’ve been a certified scuba diver for about 10 years and have had the great fortune to swim through coral heads off the coast of Belize, spot giant clams and colorful nudibranchs on the Great Barrier Reef, and search for eels and lobsters in the British Virgin Islands. I love the water—and yet I live in landlocked Colorado, about as far from an ocean as I can get. Which is why I couldn’t have been more excited when my better half surprised me with a trip…to the Downtown Aquarium.

Yes, you read that right. It may not be the open sea, but certified divers starving to get wet can dust off their cert cards and test their buoyancy control in the aquarium’s tanks. Without currents to swim against or navigation to worry about, a 45-minute dive with sea turtles, nurse sharks, stingrays, giant groupers, and an array of other fish was one of the more relaxing swims I’ve ever experienced (and a great way to keep up my skills between open-water dives). At $185, it was also considerably less expensive than a plane ticket to the Bahamas. divedowntown.com —Lindsey B. Koehler


HIKE THE BEAVER BROOK TRAIL

Genesee Mountain Park, the oldest (established in 1913) and largest of more than 20 Denver Mountain Parks, is best known for its bison herd, frequently spotted grazing along I-70. But the park also has a premier hiking route: the Beaver Brook Trail, portions of which were built and completed by the Colorado Mountain Club in 1918. Enjoy beautiful aspen-and-fir forests, burbling creeks, and rocky outcrops with views over Clear Creek Canyon and the Continental Divide on these three hikes (all leaving from the same trailhead), which start 25 minutes from downtown Denver. Trailhead: Take I-70 Exit 253 (Chief Hosa) to Stapleton Drive; follow Braille Nature Trail to Beaver Brook Trail.

1. Beaver Brook Trail to the Chavez Trail (loop, two to three hours)

2. Beaver Brook Trail to the Gudy Gaskill Trail (lollipop loop, four to six hours)

3. Full Beaver Brook Trail from Genesee to Windy Saddle on Lookout Mountain (car shuttle required, four to five hours)

—Images courtesy of Steve Simon


PLAN A BIRTHDAY CHALLENGE

On his 70th birthday, California fitness guru Jack LaLanne swam across part of Long Beach Harbor towing 70 boats carrying 70 people. This inspired Steve Edwards, the founder of birthdaychallenge.com, to create a unique set of dares for each milestone. Anything is possible in birthday challenges, though most combine feats of athleticism and eating and/or drinking. Let’s say a Denverite is turning 36. The challenge might be:

» From Washington Park, cycle north on South Marion Parkway to hit the Cherry Creek Trail for a 36-mile out-and-back ride.
» Run 3.6 kilometers (about one lap) around Wash Park.
» Sink 36 free throws at the park’s west-side basketball court.
» Walk from the park to Sushi Den on Old South Pearl Street and share 36 pieces of nigiri with friends.
» Indulge in 36 ounces of Japanese rice  lager–style beer (we like Sapporo).
» Hug 36 friends (or anyone you happen to meet at the bar).


RIDE THE RAILS TO THE TRAILS

Spin farther afield by letting RTD do some of the work.

—Mountain Bike

Take the W Line to Jefferson County Government Center-Golden. Trailheads for three mountain bike favorites are within three miles’ ride of the station: the Heritage Road trailhead for Apex Park; the trailhead by I-70 and CR 93 for Matthews/Winters Park; and the South Rooney Road trailhead for the William Frederick Hayden Park on Green Mountain.

—Road/Mountain Bike

Ride the C or D lines to Littleton-Mineral station. Follow the Mary Carter Greenway and Centennial trails to the bike route around Chatfield Reservoir, then head downtown via the Mary Carter Greenway and South Platte River trails.

—Family Ride

Ride the H Line to Nine Mile station and follow the Cherry Creek Trail back to town. View: Regional bike mapLight rail map

—Illustration by Michael Byers


PITCH A TENT IN THE BACKCOUNTRY

Denver isn’t exactly super-friendly to campers: In fact, the city banned “unauthorized camping” in 2012. In most of the metro area, sleeping outdoors is limited to RV-style campgrounds and a few busy state parks. But sprawling Jefferson County serves up semiwilderness camping less than 45 minutes from Denver’s Central Business District. These backcountry retreats—hike-in campsites and shelters in the nearby foothills—are ideal for families looking to try backpacking with the kids. Bonus: The car is never too far away in case of a major meltdown.


BIKE TO A B&B

Credit-card touring is the way to travel light on overnight bike rides and still enjoy the comforts of good food and a soft bed. Pack your panniers with toiletries and casual clothes for the evening, and slip a credit card into your saddle bag. Most CC tours are done by road bike, but we decided to switch things up with a mountain bike. Try this intermediate route: Park your car in Morrison and ride south along CO 8 to the east entrance of Mt. Falcon Park, then grind uphill for 3.5 miles on the Castle Trail. Spend the afternoon exploring the rolling meadows and ponderosa pine forests around 7,851-foot Mt. Falcon, then exit the park to the west and take Parmalee Gulch Road toward the town of Kittredge. Pass the Bear Creek Trail on your right—this will be your return route in the morning—and continue into town to find the Cabins at Country Road, right alongside Bear Creek. Soothe your sore muscles in the hot tub or sauna, and then refuel your quads with a protein-rich steak dinner at Black Hat Cattle Co., a quarter-mile away. In the morning, linger over French toast or eggs Benedict delivered to your room from the neighboring Country Road Cafe. Then hit the Bear Creek Trail for miles of flowing single-track through O’Fallon, Corwina, and Lair O’ the Bear parks. Once you reach the pavement on Bear Creek Road, cruise down to the Morrison Inn for a celebratory margarita. thecabinsatcountryroad.com

Images courtesy of Michael Byers


LOCALS’ CHOICE

We asked a few of Colorado’s boldest adventurers to tell us about their favorite close-to-home outdoor exploits.

Andrew Skurka

(pictured above)
Ultrahiker and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year
“My standard hike for out-of-town guests is Bear Peak (8,461 feet), one of the three high summits directly above Boulder’s Flatirons. It’s a steep climb that leads to a phenomenal view of the Front Range.”

Sage Canaday

Mountain-ultra-trail runner
“The loops starting from the Marshall Mesa trailhead in South Boulder were the first places I ran when I moved to town. The trails are relatively smooth, and the climbs are moderate enough that you can enjoy the views of the Flatirons and the snowy peaks beyond.”

Megan Hottman

Category 1 road racer
“I love taking visitors for rides up Golden Gate Canyon to CO 119 and then down Coal Creek Canyon—it’s a nice 60-mile-ish loop with plenty of climbing and amazing scenery. Of course, the other must-do is a ride up Lookout Mountain.”

Chris Weidner

Climbing columnist for the Boulder Daily Camera
“The Cynical Pinnacle [south of U.S. 285 in Jefferson County] has a variety of grades, from 5.9 up. The granite spire is intimidating but also will give you a visceral desire to climb it. It’s close to Boulder and Denver, yet it has an out-there, wilderness feel.”


RAPPEL A SKYSCRAPER

You don’t have to climb the Yellow Spur in Eldorado Canyon to rappel hundreds of feet through the air. The Cancer League of Colorado’s annual fund-raiser invites anyone who raises $1,000 in pledges to rappel down the west face of the 29-story Denver Energy Center building (1625 Broadway) downtown. All equipment and instruction are provided. Bring your own courage. September 18 to 19, denverovertheedge.com

Images courtesy of Andrew Skurka; Ron White


DO A PUB RUN

Usually the term is pub crawl, but we’ve found that boozing and running aren’t actually mutually exclusive. In fact, jogging between bars—in a neighborhood like, say, Platt Park—is a good way to burn a few calories so you don’t feel as guilty about the carb intake. On a sunny spring afternoon, try this route: Have your drinking…er…running buddies meet you at Platt Park at the corner of Florida Avenue and South Grant Street. Take a quick lap around the small park and then head south on South Logan Street for five blocks until you reach Evans Avenue. Hang a left (go east) on Evans and jog 15 blocks to reach Atticus (at the corner of South Downing Street), where you can order anything from a Stone IPA to a Bloody Mary.

Thirst slaked, head north on Downing about five blocks until you turn west on East Iowa Avenue. Try a 12-block dash (whoever wins doesn’t pay at the next stop!), and then go right on South Pearl Street. You have your pick of pint purveyors along this stretch of road, but the back patio at Hanson’s Grill & Tavern (on the corner of Pearl and East Louisiana Avenue, three long blocks north) is a casual spot to throw back a cold session beer (Coors Light, anyone?) and maybe grab an order of onion rings. The last leg of the route stretches 12 blocks west on Louisiana and ends at South Broadway with a choice: a margarita at Adelitas Cocina y Cantina or a Countinghouse ale at Former Future Brewing Company (the two spots are located adjacent to each other on the corner).


PEDAL TO THE OFFICE

Bike to Work Day is Wednesday, June 24. If you’ve always thought your office was too far away to cycle to work—or the route too hilly, or the threat of rain too great—today is your day. More than 200 aid stations line metro-area bike routes, serving breakfast, offering water, helping with repairs, and throwing after-work parties. Join a group ride for additional support. Who knows; maybe you’ll find that biking to work every day isn’t such a crazy idea after all. waytogo.org/biketowork 


GET LOST (AND LOVE IT)

Orienteering is the sport of navigating a cross-country course using an ultra-detailed map and a compass. With courses diabolically set near swamps and thickets, the shortest distance is not always the quickest way—a walker with good navigation skills may beat a runner who rushes into bad decisions. The Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club hosts about 20 events annually, including ski-orienteering events in the winter. Colorado boasts a crop of serious competitors, but the club events are accessible to beginners—an instructor is on-hand to get newcomers started, and most events include easier courses (coded white or yellow) for newbies or families. Close-to-home race venues include Cherry Creek State Park, Bear Creek Lake Park, Chatfield State Park, and White Ranch Park. Races are $11 for members, kids, and beginners and $15 for nonmember adults. rmoc.org


CAMP IN

Denver law doesn’t allow camping in City Park, but you can take advantage of a loophole by signing up for a special program at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. During the venue’s summertime overnight for families (July 9 to 10, 2016), kids in kindergarten through eighth grade can explore the museum and engage in hands-on activities with their parents (starting at 6 p.m.) before bedding down among the animals in the diorama wildlife halls. And, no, the dinosaurs and bears don’t come alive at night (as far as we know). $55 to $70 for children, $65 to $80 for adults

Images courtesy of Michael Byers, Denver Zoo


PADDLE THE SOUTH PLATTE

There’s more to the South Platte River than the playboating at Confluence Park. Explore the river between Chatfield Reservoir and downtown Denver by canoe, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard. (You can rent SUPs and kayaks at Confluence Kayaks.) Most paddlers run the stretches between C-470 and Union Avenue, putting in at South Platte Park off West Mineral Avenue, or travel from put-ins at Evans or Eighth avenues to Confluence Park. (Small-craft paddlers can even catch the light rail back to put-ins.) The river is mostly flat water. Minor rapids and man-made chutes present the main obstacles—some can be run at the right water levels; others are easily portaged. (Beware the steep drop by Denver Wastewater Management at Third Avenue; portage on river right.) Don’t know your spray skirt from a stern squirt? CityWild offers raft trips on the South Platte starting at $130 per boat.


SEE THE STARS—LIKE, REALLY SEE THEM

The bright lights of the big city make stargazing difficult. Dr. Robert Stencel, a University of Denver astronomy professor and head of the local chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, says, “Metro Denver skies have been ruined for dark-sky observing. The remaining hope is wilderness areas in the West.” Fortunately, there is a place just to our west where you can still see twinklers shining bright: the summit of Mt. Evans, only 56 miles from the Capitol. The road to the 14,265-foot peak is open 24 hours a day during the summer, and although the DU-operated telescope on top is closed to the general public, you can pack your own binoculars or telescope and warm clothes or a sleeping bag and set up a personal observatory. Go on July 16, when a new moon promises the darkest sky, or on August 12 for the spectacular Perseid meteor shower.


FOLLOW NEW TRAILS

Three relatively untracked Front Range footpaths to try this year.

Lion’s Lair Trail

Boulder County
Opening: Summer 2015
Hike this three-mile route up the west side of 6,863-foot Mt. Sanitas, northwest of downtown, for views to the snowy Indian Peaks. Come July you’ll be able to link the Sunshine Canyon, Lion’s Lair, and Sanitas Valley trails for a 6.1-mile loop.

South Platte River Trail

Adams County  
Opening: Fall 2015
A new 1.8-mile segment will complete this multiuse river-corridor route, which runs all the way across metro Denver from Chatfield Reservoir to Adams County Regional Park.

North Fork Trail

Jefferson County  
Opened: October 2014
This 9.3-mile multiuse trail links Reynolds Park (South Foxton Road off U.S. 285) to the north fork of the South Platte River. It also allows easy access to the Colorado Trail and trails in Pike National Forest for nearly endless mountain bike routes.

Images courtesy of iStock; Wayne Armstrong


SKI THE FOOTHILLS

After a really big dump of snow—think of February’s powder poundings—break out the skis or snowboard, but don’t worry about filling up your tank. So long as there’s a foot or more of snow to cover stones and spiny yuccas (rock skis are still advised), you can avoid the I-70 madness by hiking up and skiing down open slopes right here in the metro area. Three good bets for pre- or post-work schussing: the west face of Green Mountain in Lakewood, the northwest face of North Table Mountain in Golden, and Hogback Ridge in north Boulder.


FLY LIKE AN EAGLE

You’ve likely seen those brightly colored gliders soaring over Lookout Mountain in Golden and thought: You’d have to be nuts to paraglide. Well, we support a little crazy every now and again, as does Colorado Paragliding, which offers tandem flights to novices from spring through fall. After a 10-minute hike to the launch site, you’ll buckle into a seatlike harness attached to the canopy with your pilot, run a few steps, and then launch into the air. Soar for five to 12 minutes—more if the pilot finds good thermals—before touching down at a designated landing zone alongside U.S. 6. $159–$169


SKI UPHILL AT A DOWNHILL RESORT

It felt like a normal ski day—the drive up to Loveland Ski Area, the schlep from the parking lot, the crowd at the ticket office—right up to the point when I clicked into my bindings, slipped past the lift lines, and began climbing up Lower Creek Trail. I was here to ski powder without buying a lift ticket and without having to worry too much about avalanche danger. Having attached skins to my releasable-heel alpine-touring skis, I would be able to ascend the slopes under my own power.

Downhill skiers schussed past at 20 mph as I plodded up the side of the trail. I felt the weird looks but ignored them. After all, unlike those who huddle against the wind as the lift speeds them up the mountain, I had plenty of time to enjoy the sun sparkling off fresh snow, the wind-carved hollows alongside the trail, and a fresh set of fox tracks in the woods. I warmed quickly through the effort and shed my outer layers. In about an hour I reached the top of Chair 4 at 12,260 feet. I stripped the skins off my skis, threw on my parka, and stepped back into my bindings. Seconds later I was sliding through powder toward the North Chutes. I smiled as I made my first arc, knowing I had earned my turns. —DM

Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin allow uphill access on designated trails. Free uphill pass required.

—Images courtesy of Tim Meehan


HOWL AT THE MOON

This year’s closest supermoon—a term for when our planet’s moon is new or full at the same time it gets nearest to Earth—will occur on September 28, and that just happens to be the night of a total lunar eclipse. This means we’ll see one of the brightest moonrises of the year and then watch it darken into a blood red disc for about an hour as the moon moves into our planet’s shadow. The eclipse peaks at 8:47 p.m. We suggest a little…wait for it…lunacy to celebrate this astronomical marvel:

Climb onto the roof of your house to watch the show.

Go for your favorite run after dark.

Climb the Third Flatiron. (Don’t forget a headlamp for the descent route on the dark side of the formation.)

Paddle a canoe or a stand-up paddle-board across Cherry Creek Reservoir (open until 10 p.m.).

Go skinny-dipping.

Hike past otherworldly rock formations on the Red Rocks Trail at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.


CLIMB IN THE PRAIRIE

The deep canyons that split our foothills—Eldorado, Boulder, and Clear Creek, not to mention the glacially carved gorges of Rocky Mountain National Park—are world-famous among rock climbers. But about 45 minutes southeast of downtown Denver, near Franktown, is a more surprising canyon carved out of the shortgrass prairie by Cherry Creek. The sandstone walls of Castlewood Canyon hold more than 300 single-pitch rock climbs and hundreds more boulder problems scattered around the canyon floor. Plus: Castlewood is often bathed in winter sunshine. Castlewood Canyon State Park, $7/day


SKI IN THE MORNING, RUN IN THE AFTERNOON

Given the Front Range’s near-instant access to trails, bodies of water, snow, and rocks, the number of outdoor sports you can do in a day is limited mostly by endurance and imagination. Ski-tour in the morning, hike in the afternoon. Ice climb on the shady side of Clear Creek Canyon and rock climb on the sunny side. Create your own just-for-fun triathlon. Of course, there are those who take the multisport challenge to the extreme. One April day back in 1997, pro climber and paraglider Will Gadd (left) and Paradox Sports co-founder Malcolm Daly set out to do as many athletic activities as they could in 12 hours. Starting on the alpine and Nordic runs at Eldora Mountain Resort, they worked their way down Boulder Canyon, carrying all necessary gear in Daly’s SUV. At day’s end, they had completed 17 sports or sub-sports. Now that’s what we call cross-training.

Images courtesy of Michael Byers; Jao Van de Lagemaat


EXPLORE THE HIGH LINE CANAL

You can’t run or ride far in the south metro area without encountering the High Line Canal. The 66-mile trail—actually a service road along the 132-year-old water ditch—twists and turns through Littleton, Greenwood Village, Denver, and Aurora, from the mouth of Waterton Canyon almost to DIA. For views of distant mountains and the greenest burbs in the area, start at Platte Canyon Reservoir and cruise down the unpaved path for 34 miles ending at East Hampden Avenue. Runners also love the High Line. Feeling motivated? The fastest known time for running the full route is nine hours and 31 minutes. denverwater.org


BAG THE HIGH COUNTY POINTS

Perched along the edge of the Rocky Mountains, the seven counties in the Denver metro area have an eclectic array of “peak-bagging” opportunities, from challenging Longs Peak to a bump on a rural road east of Aurora. Here’s the compulsive hiker’s hit list.


GO CAVING

Fault Cave in Clear Creek Canyon isn’t considered a “real” cave by veteran spelunkers, but then I’m not a real caver. In fact, I’m quite claustrophobic. So it was with trepidation that I hiked up to a slot between two walls of gneiss, strapped on my climbing helmet and headlamp, and clambered down to the floor below the crevasselike opening. The cave was an obvious party zone: PBR cans and empty water bottles littered the floor, and graffiti sullied the walls. In that moment I realized why spelunkers’ favorite caves, those with stalactites and other delicate formations, are protected by secrecy and locked gates.

But the beauty of Fault Cave is its accessibility for nontechnical amateurs like me. Once I moved deeper inside, this micro cave delivered all the adventure I needed. I clambered over boulders and squirmed through a panic-inducing hole to discover four or five small chambers. One of these was decorated with a huge painted monster. I followed a tunnel in a circle that dropped me into the same chamber I’d just left. On the way out, I poked my head into a slot with just enough room to crawl where the ceiling squeezed toward the floor. It looked intriguing, but with my heart rate spiking, I retraced my steps toward the exit and scrambled into the sunshine, grateful to be out but already anticipating a return. —DM 

The cave is accessible to those with rock-scrambling skills, a helmet, and a headlamp. Park 1.6 miles up Clear Creek Canyon Road from the junction with CO 93. Walk downcanyon 100 yards and look up the north side for a large rock with a porchlike roof. Hike up a gully, passing the porch-roof rock on the left. Find two openings to the cave near some rocky slabs. Remember: Never go caving alone.

—Images courtesy of iStock


HUNT WITH A FALCONER

To practice the ancient sport of falconry—hunting wild game with a trained raptor—you need a two-year apprenticeship and a state license. But aspiring falconers (and anyone else) can watch birds of prey in action with the High Plains Falconers. Don McKnight, the club’s hunt master, matches guests with club members for hunts lasting from a few hours to a full day. Falconers fly goshawks, redtail hawks, and falcons in pursuit of rabbits, ducks, and upland game birds, often with trained dogs pointing the way. During the winter hunting season, the club also hosts competitive field trials. Both the hunts and trials are free for guests who sign up on the club’s website. “We want the public to see falconry as it really is,” McKnight says. “This is a hunting group.” highplainsfalconers.com


CAPTURE THE FLAG

Why should kids have all the fun? To play this summer-camp classic, all you need are two teams (it’s best for a gang of 10 or more), a park or other open space, and a couple of flags. An aerobic workout is guaranteed; liquid refreshments are optional (OK, not really). Try the southwest corner of City Park, where good tree density allows for sneak attacks. For a greater challenge, play at night, using glow sticks as the flags. The game has many variations, so Google the rules—or ask your kid.


SKI IN THE PARK

Metro-area cross-country skiers only need a few inches of snow to enjoy groomed trails in their backyards. The Boulder Nordic Club sets skate and classic tracks at North Boulder Park (Ninth Street and Balsam Avenue) and the University of Colorado Boulder South Campus open space (Table Mesa Drive and U.S. 36) whenever conditions allow. bouldernordic.org


RIDE TO THE MERC

The classic road ride from north Boulder to Jamestown was closed to cycling after the September 2013 floods. The mountain town lost 13 percent of its homes, and the former owner of the Jamestown Mercantile Co. Cafe, who was known for putting out coolers of water for cyclists to refill their bottles, died in the flood. Cyclists have helped rebuild Jamestown, collecting more than $150,000. The Merc is open again, and cyclists are allowed to ride up James Canyon on Sundays (for the time being), so they can once again enjoy the cafe’s snacks after climbing about 1,500 vertical feet from Boulder. Follow U.S. 36 north to Lefthand Canyon Drive and then climb steadily for eight miles of twisting mountain roads that are still under reconstruction following the deluge. After recharging at the Merc, roll down to Olde Stage Road to close the 24-mile circuit.

—Images courtesy of Steve Lowtwait 

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