Length: 5 miles roundtrip
Why we love it: This trail offers great views and makes for a good early-season warm-up for both hikers and mountain bikers.
When to go: As soon as the snow is gone, or even sooner with Yaktrax
Pre-hike buzz: Stop by the namesake Windy Saddle Café in downtown Golden for a pre- or post-hike croissant sandwich, chai, or Rocky Mountain High (a cold mint chocolate espresso drink).
Restrooms: Outhouse available at the Windy Saddle parking area
Dogs: Must be leashed
The transition from flat plains to the Rocky Mountains’ craggy peaks is one of North America’s most abrupt contrasts in topography. Hiking the Chimney Gulch Trail from the plains up to Jefferson County’s Windy Saddle Park, located on the flanks of Lookout Mountain, is a great place to experience this contrast first-hand.
From the signed trailhead adjacent to CO 93, the route climbs steadily upward through open grasslands with very little shade, making it ideal for a spring hike. The trail roughly parallels the gulch for which it is named, occasionally crossing it on a series of small wooden bridges, the first of which had a large hole in its floor the last time I was there, so watch your step.
After emerging briefly onto a dirt neighborhood road, where you need to walk a few yards south to pick up the trail again, the path continues upward until, at one mile, it crosses a switchback curve on Lookout Mountain Road. From the uphill side of the shoulder, the trail continues along the gulch, which here harbors more trees, including cottonwoods, Rocky Mountain junipers, and stately ponderosa pines.
At 2.5 miles from the start, the trail again meets Lookout Mountain Road at a larger parking area tucked into Windy Saddle, the distinctive topographic feature for which this park is named. Here you can relax on a large wooden bench and enjoy great views into Clear Creek Canyon to the west, as well as toward the summits of both Lookout Mountain and Mount Zion.
The distinctive saddle is named for the winds that are almost always present here. After traveling westward across the plains, they are forced upward when they hit the Rockies’ steep mountain front. Many birds harness these winds, using them to travel upward and onward without having to expend much energy. The saddle is thus a great spot for bird watching, including looking for large raptors such as Golden Eagles, turkey vultures, and red-tailed hawks. Paragliders and hang gliders like to use these same updrafts and can also be frequently spotted in the area.
If you’d like to keep exploring, more trails branch off from Windy Saddle, including the Lookout Mountain Trail, which leads toward the Lookout Mountain Nature Center and its trail network. Once you’re ready, return to your car via the same route, enjoying great views of Golden and its twin Table Mountains all the way back down to the plains.
Getting there: From Denver, follow US 6 west to its junction with CO 93 at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon. Drive 0.5 mile south on Hwy 93 to an informal dirt shoulder parking area on the west side of the highway, west of the Colorado School of Mines football field. Walk north along the western edge of CO 93 for a few dozen yards to the trailhead, which is clearly marked.