Feature

Colorado’s Best Trails

We laced up our boots, threw on our packs, and found the very finest hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking trails in the Centennial State.

August 2010

Day Hikes

  1. The Summer White House at Mount Falcon Park
    Indian Hills
    Don't get too excited—you won't spot President Barack Obama and the first fam at Mt. Falcon Park, as businessman John Brisben Walker's early 20th century plan to build a summer retreat for the presidents ran out of money. Today, only a lily-white marble cornerstone and a crumbling foundation remain. But the pull-out-the-camera views of Denver's skyline and Red Rocks' monoliths still make the trip worthwhile. The route up to the ruins is meandering, making it ideal for the dog and the kids; take the Castle Trail up from the west parking lot, and you'll pass ruins of Walker's home near the midway point (the structure burned down in a 1918 fire) en route to Walker's Dream Trail, a quick 0.3-mile side trail that leads to the remnants of the would-be Summer White House. —Natasha Gardner
  2. American Lake Trail
    Aspen
    A little more than 10 miles from Aspen, this classic trail is a primer on Colorado hiking. Alpine meadows? Check. Pine forests? Absolutely. Take-your-breath-away mountain vistas? Of course. A pristine, crystal-clear alpine lake? For sure. The first mile and a half is a calf-busting climb up, up, up, with too many switchbacks to count, but the rest of the trek is a steady, moderate incline. Lather on the sunscreen, though, because at one moment you'll be trotting along, shaded by tree branches, and the next, you'll be scrambling along a boulder field in the blazing hot sun. In true Colorado fashion, make sure to wear layers: The snow-fed, emerald-colored lake is at 11,365 feet, meaning your snack break will get a bit nippy when your heart rate slows down. But then again, the view is so ethereal that your pulse may keep racing. ­—NG
  3. WWII Bomber Crash Site
    Pingree Park
    Around 10:45 p.m. October 18, 1943, a B-17 from Lowry Air Force Base crashed just below the timberline of Stormy Peaks Mountain, starting a forest fire in the northeastern reaches of Rocky Mountain National Park. It took two days to haul the eight bodies out of the isolated location, but whole chunks of the bomber, including the tail, landing gear, and engines were left behind. Getting to the rusted remains today is a little easier. Hike along the Stormy Peaks Trailhead for 0.7 miles to the Twin Lakes Trail; from there, stroll past the west side of the reservoir to a burned forest area and a fork in the path (about 0.8 miles). Take the left junction for 0.4 miles to a Comanche Peak Wilderness Area sign. March uphill for 0.5 miles until you come to a wooden sluice box. Turn left and hike for 0.1 miles, over a creek and into a clearing, to find a southern trail—there should be a stone cairn to mark the way. Walk another 0.3 miles, and you'll come across a large boulder field to explore; pieces of the plane are scattered all over the area. —NG
  4. Mills Lake
    Rocky Mountain National Park
    The 5.6-mile out-and-back hike to Mills Lake is one of the most popular treks in Rocky Mountain National Park, but if you tackle it early on a mid-week day, you won't have a problem with large crowds. And the scenery's worth it: Within steps of the parking lot, you're smack dab in an aspen grove, and before you've walked a mile, you'll find a riverbank with views of Alberta Falls, a gushing fire hydrant of a waterfall. From there, the trail twists away, winds back through the now sparse woods, and gets steeper. Stop frequently and turn around: At your back is a stunning panorama of Rocky Mountain National Park's deep green hills and jagged snow-speckled peaks. The last mile of the trail flattens out briefly before a few short, steep hills end at the northern tip of Mills Lake. Walk around the east side of the lake to find Rocky Mountain National Park at its best: a sun-sparkling alpine lake beneath Longs Peak and a bluebird sky. ­—Chris Outcalt

Weekend Trips

  1. Emerald Lake
    Weminuche Wilderness
    There are plenty of reasons why the 10-mile trek to Emerald Lake is beloved: elbow-high wildflowers, gin-clear trout streams, and views of 12,000-foot peaks, to name a few. From the Pine River Trailhead 32 miles northwest of Durango, the trail rolls through pine stands, past horse-dotted meadows, and along the Pine River, which is irresistible to skinny-dippers. At mile 6.3, after crossing roaring Lake Creek, turn left onto Trail 528, where the fun begins. The path climbs 1,500 vertical feet in less than 4 miles, through fields of wildflowers and views of steep mountainsides. After reaching Little Emerald Lake, pick out one of eight designated campsites hidden among the boulders. Then pick your afternoon activity: Hike 10 minutes to see Emerald Lake, cast for trout, take a dip in Little Emerald Lake, or, if the water's low enough, set up a sunbathing spot on a sliver of sand and enjoy the craggy peaks. —Kate Siber
  2. Lost Lakes to Devils Causeway
    Flat Tops Wilderness area
    This 19.5-mile loop is a greatest hits medley for the Flat Tops, Colorado's second-largest wilderness. Hit Stillwater Reservoir on a Friday evening and follow the East Fork Trail for 1.6 miles, climbing through aspens and wildflowers to Causeway Saddle. Here, on this tongue of tundra, you're treated to staggering views of Flat Top Peak and Lost Lakes Peak. It's the perfect spot to savor the sunset, so pitch your tent and enjoy the show. The next day, descend to Causeway Lake, pull out your fly rod, and toss at the trout near the lake's outlet. Then cruise on through lupine meadows and conifer forests to West Lost Lake and camp along its western edge. On Sunday, rise early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms for your final, 13-mile day, and climb 1,300 feet on the Chinese Wall Trail, which traverses a high plateau offering blown-open views of roadless wilderness. Then dash across Devils Causeway, a knife-edge of tilted rocks just three feet wide—and 1,500 feet high. Safely on its far side, rejoin the East Fork Trail and meander back to the start. —Kelly Bastone

Multi-day Trips

  1. Continental Divide Trail
    Copper Mountain to Bakerville
    This 67-mile segment of the CDT is close to Denver, explores the high, lonesome wilds between Copper Mountain and Bakerville, and has an easy car shuttle option: drop a vehicle at the Bakerville exit (221), then continue 26 miles west on I-70 to Copper Mountain for the trailhead. Day one starts with a gradual climb through conifers, then spans the talus fields of the Tenmile Range before dipping below tree line at Miners Creek (a good campsite). The next day, you'll traverse wooded hillsides above the Swan River (look for Keystone off to your left). On the third day, you'll cross CO Route 9 before climbing back up to tree line with vistas across the Tenmile Range. Day four explodes into the mountain-goat-dotted alpine zone. Next, ford Peru Creek (which can be knee-high or deeper) before hopping across the Continental Divide, where you're treated to the best views of Summit County. Finally, scale 14,270-foot Grays Peak for imperial panoramas over two watersheds. If you have extra energy, tackle Torreys; if not, follow Stevens Gulch down to Bakerville and your car. Rest. —KB
  2. Four Pass Loop
    Elk Mountain range
    On a recent summer day, more than half the people on the 26-mile loop through Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness were ultramarathoners, speeding round the mountain in a single day. Which prompts an important question: What is wrong with these people? The Four Pass Loop's tree-lined tarns, stupendous fourteener views, and acres of waving wildflowers—not to mention superb campsites—deserve a slower pace. As the name suggests, the hike crests a quartet of cols over 12,400 feet, which means stiff climbs and wobble-kneed descents. You can walk the loop either way, but it's easier to start clockwise, beginning with the 5-mile grade along West Maroon Trail, northeast of the Maroon Bells fourteeners. Pitch your tent near tree line and wander uphill before sunset to admire the kelly green slopes and white snowfields of the upper basin, like the fairways and traps of God's own links. A quick climb in the morning brings you to West Maroon Pass. Head west along 13,233-foot Belleview Mountain onto pass number two, Frigid Air, which has a striking view of the backside of the Bells. Elk or mountain goats may cross the trail as you descend into Fravert Basin; find a campsite just past King Falls. Start early for the climb over Trail Rider Pass; on the other side is beautiful Snowmass Lake, at the foot of Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Mountain. Trail's end lies beyond one more saddle: Buckskin Pass, high above Lost Remuda Basin, which just might be the greenest cirque in the state. Drop steeply toward Crater Lake to close the loop and celebrate your tortoise-paced marathon. —Dougald MacDonald

Mountain Biking

  1. Monarch Crest Trail
    Salida
    Boasting more than 30 miles of good, hard riding, the Monarch Crest Trail is a life-list must-do for any self-respecting mountain biking Coloradan. The oxygen-starved ascent will take you above tree line within the first 2 miles, but after teetering along the Continental Divide, the trail begins descending around mile 8, with lots of switchbacks and traffic going both ways. It ducks back into aspen and evergreen forests, with whoop-de-dos and a wide road, then officially ends around mile 12 at the Marshall Pass Trailhead. Ready to bail? Take Marshall Pass Road out to U.S. 285, a thrilling, 15-mile ride down. For the full monty, keep right on the Colorado Trail for about 4 miles, then take the Silver Creek trail. The ride through and beside the creek ends along a streambed in beautifully lush, dense forest, but keep an eye on the technical singletrack below you until it gives way near mile 19 to a washboard dirt road (County Road 201 to County Road 200). When you hit U.S. 285, turn left and cruise the highway shoulder for the last 5 miles. —Katherine Doan
  2. Centennial Cone Park
    Golden
    Home to the kind of slithering up-down-up-down singletrack you expect in the Front Range, Centennial Cone Park is one of the finest outdoor areas in Jefferson County. From the west trailhead parking lot (located off U.S. 119 west of Golden), you can ride the loop in either direction, but head counterclockwise for singletrack that'll make you scream. The tight, roller-coaster descent through switchbacks and over rocky steps ends at a plateau; then it's back up through the forest, where you can scope views of the rich green hillside surrounding Clear Creek Canyon. And like all good trails, this one saves the best for last: After conquering a rock stairway that leads to the park's high point, you're rewarded with the chance to bomb the park's unruffled backside. —CO
  3. Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Ski Area
    Steamboat
    This locals' secret has all the elements of an epic ride—except celebrity. Starting on Rabbit Ears Pass at 9,500 feet, the trail rolls along the Continental Divide, winding among kaleidoscopic meadows and passing azure mountain lakes before arriving at the top of Mt. Werner in the Steamboat ski area. It's all downhill from there: The 3,500-foot drop dumps you, giddy and breathless, at the resort's base area. From Dumont Lake, follow the Continental Divide Trail northeast, passing the campground and climbing through lodgepole pine before hitting a dirt road. Hang a left, and follow the road 0.5 miles to the Base Camp Trailhead. Take trail 1101, which follows a rocky, rolling course to Fishhook Lake, then unfurls as it continues through open meadows and lush forests to the trail junction for Lost Lake (continue straight on 1101). Crank along to Lake Elmo, skirting its shores and continuing to a four-way trail junction. Turn left, climbing gradually to reach Long Lake, where you head left again to join Mountain View Trail. This stretch includes more climbs than descents, but most reward you with jaw-dropping views over North Park and the Never Summer Range. Emerge (at last!) atop the ski area—and take your pick of mapped runs to the bottom, where you can roll into the Slopeside Grill and toast the ride's end with a frosty mug. —KB
  4. Colorado Trail
    Kenosha Pass to Breckenridge
    It's not exactly a picnic of a ride, but this trail is worth the grunt work. (You'll want to arrange a shuttle from Breckenridge back to the Kenosha Pass Trailhead, or book a hotel in Breck.) The trail stretches about 12 miles from Kenosha to Georgia Pass and boasts a nice balance of moderate climbs and quick dips. You'll grind steadily through open meadows, forested sections, and a bridged water crossing before you emerge above tree line to views of South Park Valley. Then you'll summit atop the Continental Divide at Georgia Pass, which peaks at 11,585 feet. On the flip side of Georgia Pass is an epic descent of slightly more technical singletrack; watch for a couple of particularly rocky, boulder-strewn sections in the last 10 miles. The trail spits you out on U.S. 9 a few miles outside of Breck. Pedal into town and reward yourself with a cold beer and the baked hot wings at Downstairs at Eric's. —Julie Dugdale