The very best hiking, camping, paddling, fishing, climbing, mountain biking, and road cycling within two hours of Denver.
Still Learning Jefferson Lake East of Fairplay Leave roadside Yogi Bear campgrounds behind and take even your youngest explorers or wilderness-shy campers to Jefferson Lake. Less than two hours from Denver south on U.S. 285, look for a paved turnoff with a Jefferson Lake marker. From there, you’re only 2.5 miles from the water’s edge. Reserve a campsite at Jefferson Creek Campground ahead of time for a no-worries arrival with pump water, vault toilets, campfire rings, and picnic tables. When you wake, walk or fish your way around the lake, which is situated in a stunning mountain cirque. 719-836-2031, recreation.gov
Stock Up: Stop at Jefferson Market on U.S. 285 to pick up s’mores fixings and bait for the trout in the lake. Pick up a Colorado fishing license at Hondo Arms across the street. 719-836-2389, jefferson-market.com; 719-836-7235, hondoarms.com
Seeking a Challenge Abyss Lake Pike National Forest Spend the night tucked in the Mount Evans Wilderness backcountry between Denver’s closest fourteeners. Abyss Lake sits in the valley between heavily climbed Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt, but the nearly 18-mile round-trip trek and 3,000 feet of elevation gain on Abyss Lake Trail—yep, pack efficiently—offers a different perspective. The lakeshore itself is a bit rocky for a good night’s sleep, but you can choose your own campsite not far away; just make sure to set it up below tree line before any afternoon storms roll through. 303-275-5610, fs.fed.us
Reward Yourself: You might not have showered in three days, but don’t let that stop you from visiting Al’s Pits at Geneva Creek Park (on Guanella Pass Road near U.S. 285) for a barbecue feast before the drive home. The roadside stand will top off your backcountry experience. 303-912-0523, algross.net
Best-Kept Secret Forest Lakes West of Nederland Full disclosure: We found this spot near the Continental Divide years ago—and wrote about it. We’ve been back several times. The funny part? There’s still nobody there. Which is why, toward the middle of July, you should venture to Forest Lakes where wildflower fields collide with the still-snowcapped peaks. About 50 miles northwest of Denver, you can park at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal Trailhead and hike about four miles in to the lakes—or, with a high-clearance vehicle, drive the 11-mile dirt Rollins Pass Road directly to the Forest Lakes Trailhead. Bypass Lower Forest Lake a quarter mile in, and continue less than a mile to Upper Forest Lake. Stake out a campsite in the wooded areas not too far from the crystal-clear water’s edge. Bring your fishing gear and mountain bike along. 303-541-2500, fs.fed.us
History Fix: Don’t miss the Stage Stop in nearby Rollinsville for a burger and a craft beer. Older than the state of Colorado itself, the legendary barn turned eatery stands by its motto: “…serving hicks, hippies, and bikers since 1868.” Today, it’ll also take “hipsters, artists, musicians, and beautiful people.” 303-258-0649, stagestop1868.com
ASK THE EXPERT Bryan Fons Manager of the Outdoor Recreation Information Center (ORIC) in Denver’s flagship REI store
Q: What is the most important thing to think about when choosing a campsite?
A: Make sure you aren’t near beetle-kill pine trees or other dead trees that could fall on your tent. Also, pick out a campsite in a flat area at least 100 feet from any water.
Q: Any advice for camping with little kids?
A: Incorporate fun activities like fishing, paddling, orienteering, short walks, and storytelling around the campfire. Make the activities appear to be spontaneous rather than on a regimented schedule and allow downtime for relaxing. But, be ready to start an activity to alleviate boredom. Take along child-specific nature guides to help identify plants and wildlife—and pack a Frisbee.