Feature

Colorado's Top 10 State Parks

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.

May 2009

From the rugged Medicine Bow Mountains of State Forest State Park to the cascading rapids of the Arkansas Headwaters to the sandstone outcroppings of Eldorado Canyon, Colorado has a state parks system that makes other countries jealous. Funny thing is, many Coloradans don't know about these outdoor gems. Whether it's because we're running to our admittedly amazing national parks, or because we're happy to find our own spots to play, many of us drive right past Colorado's 42 state parks. And that's something we'd like to remedy, especially considering that these are our play parks—places in which we can hike, bike, boat, swim, camp, and fish. Here, we introduce you to the best of the best.

  1. Eleven Mile State Park
  2. Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area
  3. Highline Lake State Park
  4. Navajo State Park
  5. State Forest State Park
  6. Mueller State Park
  7. Golden Gate Canyon State Park
  8. Eldorado Canyon State Park
  9. Barr Lake State Park
  10. Lory State Park

Eleven Mile State Park

Just 40 miles west of Colorado Springs, the clear waters of the South Platte River get bottled up at the Eleven Mile Canyon Dam. The resulting 3,400-acre reservoir is stunning, surrounded by wetlands and grasslands amid the rolling hills and plains of Park County. Anglers, boaters, windsurfers, hikers, and campers flock to this oh-so-close park for its variety—and beauty.

The Draw Chockablock fishing. Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir boasts gold medal fishing for brown, cutthroat, and rainbow trout, and northern pike. You'll catch the biggest fish during the ice melt (April), but if you're a fair-weather kind of guy (or gal), June and July won't disappoint.

The Alternative Boating of all kinds is allowed on the reservoir, so while Mom's getting her line wet, Dad and the kids can tool around on the reservoir in kayaks, sailboat, or a motorboat (swimming is prohibited). An even better bet: Reserve one of the 25 backcountry campsites and hike—or boat—in for a quiet night and lazy morning of camping. If you're feeling energetic, hike the park's five miles of trails.

Wildlife Flocks of birds make Eleven Mile home, including rare bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and white pelicans. Coyotes, elk, black bears, and antelope also call the park home.

Only Here Bowfish (yep, like with an arrow) for carp close to the shoreline.

Before You Go Check out the fishing report at www.11milesports.com. Don't forget to bring a jacket—there's not much protection from the wind, especially on the lake's south side.

For the Adventurous Eleven Mile hosts the Colorado Classic Ice Fishing Tournament (dates in January, February, and March), as well as the annual No Name Fishing Tournament on May 16, 2009.

When You Go Unless you're ice fishing, stick with April through September. While popular, the park rarely fills up; weekends, particularly holiday ones, will attract the heaviest crowds.

Get There Take I-25 to Colorado Springs, then follow U.S. Highway 24 west for 38 miles. One mile past the town of Lake George, take a left on County Road 90; go six miles to County Road 92. Drive five miles to park entrance. For more information, call 719-748-3401.

Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area

Beginning as a trickle in the mountains high above Leadville, the Arkansas River cascades southeast through Colorado, plummeting 4,650 feet over 150 miles before flattening out and exiting the state. The recreation area follows all 150 miles from Leadville to Pueblo, affording visitors dozens of entry points to enjoy the river, the most popular being Buena Vista, Salida, and Cañon City.

The Draw Hard-core rafting and kayaking. The Arkansas River is the most popular white-water rafting and kayaking spot in the United States, drawing 300,000 visitors a year to run the river, which boasts Class II to Class V rapids. A plethora of rafting outfitters run trips out of Buena Vista (check out the Arkansas River Outfitters Association), but you can kayak or raft the river yourself.

The Alternative Mountain biking. Hit one of Salida or Buena Vista's numerous trails near the Ark; the Midland Trail (12 miles, views of the Sawatch Range/Collegiate Peaks) and the Rainbow Trail (25 miles, views of the river valley and the Sangre de Cristos) are the best of the bunch.

Pit Stop Benson's Tavern and Beer Garden (128 North F St., 719-539-9391), a laid-back pub and burger joint in Salida, is a locals' favorite.

Only Here Gold panning remains a popular activity on the Arkansas, particularly at the Railroad Bridge Campground north of Buena Vista. Bring your own pan.

For the Adventurous Every June the Arkansas hosts FIBArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas), a 60-year-old white-water festival that culminates in a 26-mile kayak race from Salida to Cotopaxi (June 18 to 21.

When to Go The river runs year-round, but unless you're partial to ice-cold water, stick to the warmer months. Peak water flows in mid-June, as the snowpack begins to melt. Look for gentler rapids in July and August.

Get There There are many, many entry points along the 150-mile-long recreation area, but your best bet is to start in the towns of Buena Vista or Salida. For more information, call 719-539-7289.

Highline Lake State Park

Plunked down in the middle of a stark desert landscape, Highline Lake State Park's two lakes form an oasis bordered by scrubland that extends all the way to Utah. Unhindered views of the desolate beauty abound. The park, however, is anything but deserted: There's rowdy motorboating on Highline Lake, peaceful rowing on Mack Mesa Lake, and single-track riding throughout the grounds.

The Draw Killer mountain biking. There are six loops to choose from, ranging from the easy one-mile Blue Heron Ponds Loop to the six-mile, world-famous 18 Hours of Fruita Loop. Trailheads for the Kokopelli Trail (a 142-mile epic ride west to Moab, Utah) and the North Fruita Desert trail system (five interconnecting trails totaling 73 miles that are managed by the Bureau of Land Management) are also nearby.

The Alternative Birding. The National Audubon Society has identified more than 200 types of birds—including blue herons, bald and golden eagles, and sandhill cranes—inhabiting the saltbrush encircling the park's two lakes. Grab a checklist at the park's entrance.

Only Here Visitors can take a dip at Highline Lake, where the water can hit a bathlike 80 degrees during the summer. There's a roped-off swimming beach by the picnic area.

For the Adventurous The 18 Hours of Fruita, a grueling endurance bike race for solo or team riders at Highline, is the keystone event of the annual Fruita Fat Tire Festival (May 1 to 2, 2009).

When to Go The park's open year-round; boating and camping are popular during the warmer months, so make reservations early.

Get There Take I-70 west past Grand Junction, exit onto Highway 139 northbound. Go six miles, make a left on Q Road; after 1.2 miles make a right onto 11.8 Road. Drive one mile to the entrance. For more information, call 970-858-7208.

Navajo State Park

With 15,000 surface acres of water, Navajo State Park is the Colorado parks system's self-proclaimed "Answer to Lake Powell." We're not going to quibble—the 35-mile reservoir is a tad smaller than Powell, but extends way into New Mexico and provides plenty of water to explore. Though only about a quarter of the reservoir resides on our side of the state line, Colorado's end wins the beauty contest, with views of the oft-snowcapped Sandoval Mesa and the surrounding mountains. The lake, which is at the confluence of the San Juan and Piedra rivers, is bounded by shrubland and stands of piñon pine and Utah juniper.

The Draw Laid-back boating. Pick your floating device: Houseboats, motorboats, sailboats, and Jet Skis are all popular on Navajo Lake, as are water skiing and tubing. Drive to the New Mexico side to rent a boat at the Navajo Lake Marina. Or rent an 18-foot pontoon boat and stay overnight ($265 per day, $120 overnight).

The Alternative Camping. Because Navajo Lake attracts the boating set, the park's camping culture skews toward RVs and campers, with most sites offering electrical hookups. But if you want to pitch a tent, check out the lake-view spots in the Rosa Campground. For fancier digs, rent one of the park's two-bedroom cabins ($80 per night).

Stay the Night The lake offers a private cove where you can anchor a houseboat. You'll need to make a reservation at one of the designated campgrounds to sleep on shore.

When to Go The water is the warmest in the summer, but that's also when the reservoir is the most crowded. Go midweek for more solitude.

Get There Take U.S. Highway 285 south to Highway 122; at Del Norte, hop on U.S. Highway 160 for 74 miles. Past Pagosa Springs, turn left on Highway 151. For more information, call 970-883-2208.

State Forest State Park

Covering 71,000 acres, State Forest State Park is nestled between bigger (and better known) areas like Rocky Mountain National Park, the Roosevelt and Routt national forests, and the Rawah Wilderness. Which means State Forest offers a little bit of everything, including views to the north of the jagged peaks of the Medicine Bows and vistas to the south of the striking Never Summer Range. Ninety miles of hiking trails (and 130 miles of mountain biking trails) wind through old lodgepole pine forests and past crystal-blue alpine lakes.

The Draw Epic skiing and snowshoeing. State Forest offers groomed and ungroomed loops of varying difficulties for snowshoers and cross-country skiers, as well as a cache of off-piste options for telemark and alpine-terrain skiing, ranging from easy (North Fork Canadian Area) to extreme (Diamond Peaks/Michigan Ditch area), with bowl and tree skiing in between. Beware of avalanches, and carry a beacon, probe, and shovel.

The Alternative Moose spotting. Since the Colorado Division of Wildlife released a bunch of the big-antlered animals into the park in 1978, the population has grown to more than 600, making State Forest the moose capital of Colorado. Stop by the Moose Visitor Center for the latest sighting information.

When to Go The park is open year-round, but if you want to ski, January and February will give you the best coverage. Moose spotting has no true "season," but be careful driving during fall mating—moose are on the prowl and don't yield for cars.

Stay the Night Never Summer Nordic operates eight secluded backcountry yurts and two huts for warmer winter camping (or cozier summer accommodations) in State Forest (from $60 per night).

Get There From Fort Collins, take Highway 14 for 75 miles over Cameron Pass. The Moose Visitor Center is at 56750 Highway 14 in Walden. For more information, call 970-723-8366.

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.

Golden Gate Canyon State Park

One of the closest mountain parks to the metro area, Golden Gate Canyon lies just northwest of Golden and tops out at an elevation of 10,200 feet. More than 12,000 acres of pine forest, aspen groves, rocky peaks, and subalpine wildflower meadows provide 35 miles of mostly wooded trails to explore, making it the perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all skill levels.

The Draw Any kind of camping you can dream up. Choose from 156 sites, from backcountry clearings to RV hookups in developed campgrounds.

The Options Reverend's Ridge offers both tent ($14 per night) and electrical ($18 per night) sites, plus five camper cabins and two yurts ($60 per night, up to six people) for a more structured wilderness stay. Try Aspen Meadows for basic car-camping and sites that accommodate horses. Twenty backcountry tent sites and four primitive Appalachian-style lean-to shelters require a couple of miles of backpacking. Remember to pick up your backcountry permit at the visitor center. Reservations are recommended May through September, except in the backcountry.

Only Here Just last summer, the park began renting out the historical Harmsen Ranch guesthouse ($220 per night, up to eight people). The ranch house and horse corral were donated by the Harmsen family, founders of the Jolly Rancher Candy Company.

Don't Miss Panorama Point, a scenic overlook a half-mile beyond Reverend's Ridge that offers sweeping 100-mile views of the Divide.

When to Go Reverend's Ridge cabins, yurts, and a select few developed sites, plus all backcountry sites, are open year-round; Aspen Meadows closes for the winter. During the summer, pull on the boots and pack and start trekking toward Frazer Meadow or Forgotten Valley for backcountry options, as the campgrounds fill up quickly on the weekends.

Get There Take I-70 west to Exit 265 (Highway 58) and continue west to Golden. Turn right on Highway 93 and follow it one mile, then turn left at Golden Gate Canyon Road. Follow for 13 miles to the visitor center. For more information, call 303-582-3707.

Eldorado Canyon State Park

Sitting a stone's throw from Boulder on the edge of Eldorado Springs is one of Colorado's most scenic canyons. Layers of sandstone jut skyward from the banks of South Boulder Creek, which rushes with clear snow-melt. When the sun hits the west-facing canyon walls just right, it reflects off the yellow lichen that covers the rock, creating a golden glow that gives credence to the name "Eldorado"—as in the Amazon's fabled El Dorado, or "Lost City of Gold."

The Draw World-class rock climbing. More than 750 technical climbing routes draw chalk-fiends from around the world.

The Terrain It's trad climbing or bust here—sport and top-rope routes are few and far between. Read: Few bolts, few permanent anchors, just you and the walls. The infamous Naked Edge (5.11b) is almost 500 feet of vertical, south-facing, exposed sandstone that's both forbidding and irresistible if you're inclined to test your limits.

The Alternative Not a climber? Not a problem. Bring your mountain bike and head for the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail for a vigorous three-mile workout. Or pack a lunch and settle in at one of the canyon's 33 picnic tables along South Boulder Creek before testing your fly-fishing prowess in the trout-laden stream.

Pit Stop The park closes at sunset, but don't call it a day without sliding by South Boulder's Southern Sun Pub and Brewery for a juicy jalapeño burger and a pint of Colorado Kind Ale.

When to Go Be forewarned: Eldorado Canyon is only a short drive from Denver and Boulder, and it's a true crowd-pleaser, which means it almost always reaches capacity during weekends in the summer. Go before Memorial Day or after Labor Day for smaller crowds and cooler weather—most of the walls face south or southwest, which makes for oppressively hot climbs on sunny days. Try the north-facing Peanuts Wall for shady climbing, and always roll up early.

Get There Take I-25 to U.S. 36 west. Exit at Louisville/Superior, turn left at the light, then right onto Marshall Road/Highway 170. Continue 7.4 miles until 170 becomes a dirt road at the town of Eldorado Springs. The park is at the end of the dirt road. For more information, call 303-494-3943.

Barr Lake State Park

About 30 minutes from Denver rests a tranquil watering hole known as the "oasis on the prairie." The 2,000-acre lake lies between rolling plains to the east and looming peaks to the west, and is surrounded by cottonwoods, willowy grasses, and marshland. The watering ground is an expanded depression that was once a dust wallow for buffalo before settlers arrived. The reservoir now serves as a recreation area perfect for city-dwellers seeking quick access to nature.

The Draw The best bird-watching in Colorado. Barr Lake serves as headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and is an Audubon Society Important Bird Area. With half its acreage a designated wildlife refuge and about 350 avian species, Barr Lake harbors everything from nesting bald eagles, which have returned each year since 1986, to great blue herons in the rookery.

For the Family Book a trip on the Eagle Express, a motorized 13-person cart that trolleys from the Nature Center to the rookery on a naturalist-guided wildlife/birding tour. Tours run two to three hours on weekend mornings, starting in May; call 303-659-6005 for reservations.

The Alternative Boating (10 horsepower or less) and fishing are allowed in the northern half of the lake. The Colorado Division of Wildlife stocks the lake with trout, walleye, and wiper; bass and muskie feed in from the South Platte River. While there is no camping in the park, active fishermen can fish through the night.

Quick Tip Hike for nearly a mile across the top of the century-old working dam (the Crest Trail, on the north side of the lake) for the best mountain views and superb sunsets.

When to Go Fall and winter for birding. It'll be brisk, but you'll be able to scout the most birds and wildlife when the trees are bare.

Get There Follow I-76 northeast from I-25, take Exit 22 (Bromley Lane). Turn right onto Picadilly Road; follow it for almost a mile, until you reach the park entrance. For more information, call 303-659-6005.

Lory State Park

Just west of Fort Collins in a swath of rolling hills and valleys is a 2,500-acre park that serves as a secluded yet accessible getaway from the hubbub of Northern Colorado city life. Flanked on the east by Horsetooth Reservoir and on the south by Horsetooth Mountain Open Space, Lory State Park goes from wildflower meadows to ponderosa pine forests to jutting rock outcroppings in one panoramic glance.

The Draw Excellent horseback riding over varied terrain. The 22 miles of trails that trace hills and valleys and meander along reservoir coves are even more enticing because they link to 29 miles of open-space trails.

The Terrian Geology buffs are in luck. Because of its location at the crease line between the Great Plains and the Front Range, Lory is a sculpted landmass containing striking rock silhouettes, such as protruding sandstone hogbacks that are the result of ancient erosion. Look for Arthur's Rock, a prominent formation and landmark overlooking Fort Collins.

For the Adventurous Look for the equestrian jump course in the southern part of the park, or try the Timber and Howard trails for expert-only mountain loops.

The Alternatives If you prefer two wheels over four legs, check out the new Corral Center Mountain Bike Park for 69,600 square feet of dirt-jumping, off-roading territory to hone your skills. Or launch your canoe, kayak, or raft a couple of miles away at Horsetooth Dam and take a spin on the reservoir.

Pit Stop Before you hit the trail, stock up on picnic goodies at specialty sandwich shop Backcountry Provisions in Old Town Fort Collins (140 North College Ave.). Choose from two dozen sandwich varieties with imported meats and cheeses.

Get There From Fort Collins, take U.S. Highway 287 (College Avenue) north to Laporte; continue for a mile and turn left on Rist Canyon Road (CR 52E). After a mile, turn left on Front Street (CR 23), follow for 1.2 miles, and turn right on Lodgepole Drive (CR 25G). Drive for 1.5 miles to the park entrance. For more information, call 970-493-1623.