From the rugged Medicine Bow Mountains of State Forest State Park to the frothy rapids of the Arkansas Headwaters, Colorado has a state park system that makes other countries jealous. Funny thing is, many Coloradans don't know about these outdoor gems. Here, we introduce you to the best of the best.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
—Photo by Sarah Boyum
Mueller State Park
The western foothills of Pikes Peak are home to 5,120 acres of hills dotted by aspen groves, alpine meadows, conifer woodlands, and teeming wetlands. The park exemplifies conservation measures at work: Rancher W.E. Mueller ran a working cattle ranch here until 1978, when he decided he wanted to preserve the land in its natural state and sold the ranch to the state under a no-development agreement. Today, nature photographers flock to the park to capture wildlife and the changing seasons as the aspens turn a golden hue in September.
The Draw Unparalleled hiking. More than 50 miles of trails, many of them original ranch roads, make Mueller the ideal place to hike.
The Terrain The vast majority of the park is only accessible by the trails, many of which descend precipitously off Wapiti Road, the park's main thoroughfare. Don't be fooled by the initial downward strike; you'll hit the upward pitch soon enough. Trails sheltered by aspens spill into wide-open grasslands with backcountry ponds, and offer views of Pikes Peak.
Don't Miss The Cheesman Ranch Loop is a moderate 5.4-mile trail that weaves in and out of aspen groves and meadows on the north side of the park and shows off quintessential Mueller. The Outlook Ridge Trail, about 2.5 miles out and back, leads to rocky outcroppings with picturesque valley overlooks, including views of the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Wildlife A 200-head elk herd calls Mueller home, and the aspen meadows serve as important rutting and calving grounds. (Note: You have to hike out on the trails to see the elk and hear the bugling; car-viewing, À la Rocky Mountain National Park, is nearly impossible.) And sorry dog lovers: Fido is not allowed on the trails because of the abundant wildlife.
When to Go The best time for hikers is mid- to late-September when the aspens change.
Get There Take I-25 south to Colorado Springs and exit onto U.S. 24/W. Cimarron Street (Exit 141). Go left at the light and head west for 25 miles to Divide, turn left onto Highway 67, and continue 3.5 miles to the park entrance. For more information, call 719-687-2366.