The very best hiking, camping, paddling, fishing, climbing, mountain biking, and road cycling within two hours of Denver.
This article was a finalist for the 2013 City and Regional Magazine Award in the leisure/lifestyle interests category.
Get outta the house, go get a little dirty…but don’t go too far, OK? That’s what your mom always said, right? School was out, the weather was hot, and the whole day stretched out in front of you. It was good summertime advice—so we used it as a guide for creating this year’s rundown of 21 amazing, warm-weather adventures. We give you a taste of the hiking, camping, paddling, fishing, climbing, mountain biking, and road cycling within two hours of Denver. Plus, we’ve found the best spots to eat, drink, refuel, and stock up for your journey, whether you’re running the rapids, hitting the trail, or throwing out a line.
Still Learning Clear Creek Canyon West of Golden Sweeping vistas extend for miles as you approach Clear Creek Canyon on U.S. 6 heading west, where you’ll find a solid mix of easy and advanced routes. Using an area-specific guidebook (you can pick up Clear Creek Canyon Rock Climbs  by Darren Mabe at any local mountaineering store) to identify the routes, look for High Wire Crag’s Stone Cold Moderate route or the Canal Zone, both of which are typically shaded from the blistering sun. These popular beginner sport climbs have bolts permanently installed in the rock so you can hook in as you climb without worrying about placing your own safety devices. The sandy gneiss and schist walls are dotted with solid grips, and the ascent offers panoramic views that make your sweating, grunting, and achy triceps worth it. If you need a break, just take a seat and watch the experts do their thing up and down the 400-foot facades. rockclimbing.com
Revive: After a tough day on the rocks, get your energy back at Golden’s D’Deli; order a hearty baguette stuffed with your favorite fixings, including roast beef, Italian meatballs, or honey BBQ chicken. 303-279-8020, ddelisubs.com
Seeking a Challenge Eldorado Canyon State Park Eldorado Springs If you’re any sort of climber—seasoned or aspiring—you’re aware of these walls, but we just can’t ignore a spot with more than 500 routes. Seven miles south of Boulder, these majestic sandstone cliffs shoot 700 feet above South Boulder Creek. To protect the rock, the majority of the action here is multipitch—a pitch is about one length of rope, 50 to 60 meters—traditional climbing (meaning, the routes don’t have preplaced bolts to hook into; it’s the climber’s task to place his or her own protective gear in the rock). This is focused, cerebral climbing at its best. Get loose with the famous Bastille Crack—a five-pitch route that starts beside Eldo’s entrance (look for belayers on the left side of the road)—before moving on to more challenging options such as the Yellow Spur or the Naked Edge. 303-494-3943, parks.state.co.us/parks/eldoradocanyon
Quick tip: Got old climbing rope you were planning on trashing? Keep it out of the landfill by donating it to Boulder’s Green Guru, which will “upcycle” your used gear into bracelets, key chains, dog leashes, rugs, and chalk bags. (The company also repurposes equipment such as bike inner tubes and neoprene wetsuits.) 303-258-1611, greengurugear.com
Best-Kept Secret The Maiden Flatirons, Boulder The Flatirons get mobbed on the weekends—you’ll find yourself with dozens of other folks unless you make the effort to avoid them. To do that, park at the South Mesa Trailhead and hike a couple of miles on a semi-tricky trail (we suggest first-timers go with someone who’s been before) until you see the Maiden, a 350-foot spire with a daunting overhang that you can trad climb (placing your own anchors and devices) via medium to difficult routes and rappel down. (Note: Approach the Maiden from the east.) If you’re up for a longer hike later in the summer, head to Fern Canyon in the southern part of the Flatirons. (Climbing routes are closed through July 31 to protect roosting and nesting raptors.) The hour-long walk leads you to an expansive set of ridges with pitches of varying difficulties and both sport (devices permanently installed in the rock) and trad climbs. mountainproject.com
Before You Go: Forgot a carabiner? Short on rope? Need some snacks? Swing by Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering, the Holy Grail of outdoor gear. Open seven days a week, the shop has everything you could possibly need for a safe—and fun—day of climbing. 303-499-8866, neptunemountaineering.com
ASK THE EXPERT E.J. Nogaski Rock climber and head of sales and marketing, Colorado Mountain School
Q: Can I go multipitch climbing my first time out?
A: Yes you can, but to have a more enjoyable time I would recommend doing some top-roping or single-pitch climbing for a first day out before doing something longer. It gets people dialed in and gets them prepared for what’s to come. Deb Grass Co-owner, Rock’n & Jam’n indoor rock climbing facility
Q: I have a serious fear of heights, but I’ve always wanted to try rock climbing. Can I do it?
A: I will never totally overcome my fear of heights, but when I’m on a rope, I’m in control and can focus all my efforts on climbing and not be overwhelmed by the exposure. It’s amazing what you can overcome when you have a goal in mind. It’s 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. You never truly get over your fears, but you certainly can control them a lot better once you face them—and climbing is a great way to go about doing that.
Still Learning Doudy Draw Eldorado Springs Drive While the Chautauqua trails in Boulder are quintessential Colorado hikes, we’re less than amped about the weekend crowds—college kids, ultramarathoners, stroller-pushing moms—that flock there. For a less-traveled route, hit Doudy Draw, an open space trail just south of Boulder along Eldorado Springs Drive. The 4.4-mile round-trip route is an ambling trek through the foothills, complete with red rocks, wild chokecherry and plum trees, and, you guessed it, killer views. If you’re feeling ambitious, the trail hooks up with several other paths (we like the woodsy Spring Brook Loop Trail) that can turn your stroll into a workout. 303-441-3440, osmp.org
Cool Down: When you’ve worked up a sweat, head to nearby Eldorado Springs Resort for a dip in the historic, artesian spring–fed pool that dates back to 1905. The parent company, Eldorado Artesian Springs Inc., bottles some of the tastiest water in the state. 303-499-9640, eldoradosprings.com
Seeking a Challenge Colorado Trail Begins at Waterton Canyon Someday, we’ll hike all 483 miles of the Colorado Trail, which winds from Waterton Canyon to Durango. Much of the trail skirts along the Continental Divide above tree line and offers views of where you’re going—and where you’ve been. Assuming a 500-mile backpacking trip isn’t on your summer itinerary, take on a manageable piece of the route by tackling the first segment (16.8 miles, one way). The path follows a Denver Water road for about six miles along the South Platte River to Strontia Springs Dam. After that, the wilderness takes over. Plan to do the route over two days—camping spots aplenty crop up along the way (check out the sites near Lenny’s Rest, about 8.5 miles in). thecoloradotrail.com
Team Up: Like any outdoor pursuit in the remote and rugged wilderness, it’s wise not to hike even one segment of the trail by yourself. Sign up for one of Colorado Mountain Expeditions’ treks to tackle it with others. The group’s multiday hike covers several segments (averaging 10 to 15 miles a day)—meals, showers, and posthike foot-care clinics included. 970-759-8737, coloradotrailhiking.com
Best-Kept Secret Devil’s Head National Recreation Trail Pike National Forest Finding a trail to impress out-of-towners is sometimes harder than it seems: You’ll find one with aspen stands but obscured views, or great vistas surrounded by drooping beetle-kill pines, or spectacular scenery with a summit that’s unmanageable for sea-level visitors. We want it all, which is why we return summer after summer to the Devil’s Head National Recreation Trail. Not as well traveled as certain other sights (like Garden of the Gods), this 2.8-mile round-trip hike gently rises about 1,000 feet through aspens, evergreens, and granite boulders before it reaches the base of a small fire tower. The tower offers blown-open views of the plains, the foothills, the city, and the Continental Divide. Climb to the top (143 steps) to chat up the forest rangers for your geography and history fix, and add your John Hancock to the “guest book” which lists the names of everyone who’s made the trek before you. 303-275-5610, fs.fed.us
Stay Hydrated: Retire your outdated Nalgene in favor of Boulder-based Eco Vessel’s filtration water bottle, the Aqua Vessel, which filters water as you drink. Fill up in any stream and sip through the straw for a drink free of giardia, sediment, toxins, pathogens, and metals. The company donates a portion of its proceeds to the nonprofit Water For People, which brings clean drinking water to impoverished areas across the world. 1-800-969-2962, ecovessel.com
ASK THE EXPERT Jan Monnier Membership services, Colorado Mountain Club
Q: Everyone tells me to stay hydrated while I hike, but how much water do I really need to lug around on a four-mile hike?
A: Two liters would be a reasonable amount, but the right amount depends on the weather and the person. Q: I want to avoid crowds on the trail. What’s the best time to hit a trailhead?
A: During the summer, thunderstorms are so common in the afternoon that it’s best to avoid hiking then. But hiking in the morning doesn’t guarantee clear trails. It only avoids lightning.
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.
Still Learning Betasso Preserve West of Boulder If you’ve mastered rolling your fat tires along crushed gravel and are jonesing for that singletrack your seasoned mountain biking buddies rave about, head west of Boulder to the Betasso Preserve. The 3.3-mile Canyon Loop is a locals’ favorite and a consummate introduction to the sport. Build confidence on the smooth, winding sections, and practice your precision and stability while navigating a handful of not-too-technical rock fields. Your lungs will appreciate the trail’s alternating climbs and descents. Ride the loop in the posted direction (which switches month-to-month) at the trailhead and head elsewhere on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the park is closed to cyclists (except for Canyon Link Trail). 303-678-6200, bouldercounty.org
Take a Load Off: Before your ride, hit Snarf’s in Boulder to grab a hefty Italian sandwich to go, and once you’re done with the loop, rest your legs at one of Betasso’s multiple picnic tables at the trailhead. Revel in the peace and quiet—you’re far enough from town that all you’ll hear are the sounds of the wilderness and cyclists raving about their rides. 303-444-7766, eatsnarfs.com
Seeking a Challenge Alderfer/Three Sisters Evergreen The trails at this Jefferson County open space park will have you oohing and aahing like a kid on a ’coaster. Park at the smaller of the two lots off Buffalo Park Road, pedal across the street, and start the steady, 3.2-mile quad-burning ascent up Evergreen Mountain (the tight, rocky switchback near the top of the climb will test any rider). Catch your breath while gazing at the Continental Divide, and then descend the fast, rollercoaster-esque singletrack on the opposite side of the mountain. Cross the road and ride through the bigger lot to pick up the Sisters Trail—the steep, rocky drops on this 1.2-mile stretch will force even advanced riders off their bikes. The connecting 1.5-mile Ponderosa Trail snakes down to the parking lot where you started. 303-271-5925, jeffco.us/openspace
Replenish: A workout like this deserves a reward. Stop at Evergreen’s Tin Star Cafe & Donut Haus for a “Glutton” sandwich—house-rubbed pulled pork and spicy Polish sausage piled on a specialty apple fritter—and don’t you dare feel guilty. 303-679-1155, tinstarcafe.com
Best-Kept Secret Ceran St. Vrain Roosevelt National Forest Ceran St. Vrain is tucked deep into the hills northwest of Boulder, which largely means that last-minute planners looking for a quick fix have yet to discover this trailhead. Translation: Ride. This. Trail. Now. Suitable for confident intermediate riders, the singletrack weaves through a dense forest, mimicking the path of the nearby South St. Vrain Creek. After a couple of miles at a modest grade, the trail bottoms out and transitions into an arduous climb up a loose jeep road, where even your triathlon-fit friends will have to hike-a-bike (though summiting affords dazzling views). The ride down is good for a hefty adrenaline spike: Plunging over gnarly roots, toppled trees, and choicely situated rocks will have you tightening your grip—and planning your return. 303-541-2500, fs.fed.us
Drink It In: You’re already 10 miles north of Boulder, so tack on another half dozen and visit the Oskar Blues flagship in Lyons for a Dale’s Pale Ale—live music starts at 8 p.m. on weekends. 303-823-6685, oskarblues.com
ASK THE EXPERT Fred Nolting Wheat Ridge Cyclery inventory manager and avid mountain biker
Q: What part of my mountain bike am I forgetting to check before I head to the trailhead?
A: Suspension pressure is often overlooked. Buy a shock pump and consult your bike manufacturer’s website for the right pressure setting, which varies based on the model of the shock and the weight of the rider. Check the pressure about every three months.
Q: Got any tricks for learning how to ride with clipless pedals?
A: Make sure to lighten the spring tension at first. Right out of the box, the grip on the pedals will be too tight for a novice. Loosen the screw on the side of the pedal until it stops and then turn the screw clockwise one or two rotations—that’s a good place to start.
Still Learning Kingfisher Cove Chatfield Reservoir The reservoir can be a recreational zoo in the summer, but this inlet on the south side, north of the gravel ponds, is a sweet spot to get comfortable tossing a line. Loaded with bluegill, yellow perch, and largemouth bass, the bay has plenty of opportunity to hook a good-size panfish (don’t forget your fishing license). Throw down a camping chair and a bucket on the shore and start casting in peace—this section of the water isn’t disturbed by motorboats or Jet Skis. And when the kids get antsy? The parking is convenient, so head up the shoreline about a mile and a half to the swim beach—a godsend on a hot, sunny day. 303-791-7275, parks.state.co.us/parks/chatfield
Kick Back: If you neglected to pack enough picnic goodies, hop in the car for a stretch and upgrade your dining plans with a sunny deck seat—prime boat-watching real estate—at Seagull’s Restaurant on the marina. 303-791-5555, chatfieldmarina.com/seagullsrestaurant.aspx
Seeking a Challenge Cheesman Canyon South Platte River This gorgeous section of the South Platte near Deckers isn’t tough to fish because it’s unheard of or inaccessible or sparsely populated; it’s tricky because the fish are “smart.” That’s right: Some might say these are “educated” or “selective” trout; the water is clear, they’re used to people, and they’ve seen it all. In other words, fly fishermen here need to have panache. You’ll want to bust out your best nymph (subsurface larvae-stage insects) fishing technique here—go with tiny midge and mayfly varieties for the best shot at reeling in a whopping rainbow or brown. You’ll enter the canyon via the Gill Trail (take U.S. 285 south to Pine Junction and follow CR-126 about 22 miles to the roadside parking), which mirrors the river for several miles. The canyon can be crowded; just forge ahead down the trail past other anglers to find your money spot amidst the granite boulders and honeypot pools. coloradofishing.net
Get Prepped: Visit the Flies & Lies fly shop on the river in Deckers for licenses, rental gear, shop-tied flies, and anything you want to know from the knowledgeable staff about fishing the area. 303-647-2237
Best-Kept Secret Clear Creek East of Empire Humans have had a less-than-desirable impact on Clear Creek since the gold-rush era, so it’s no surprise that wild brown trout had to be brought in from Europe in the late 1800s. Browns are not stocked here anymore, yet they make up a large percentage of the fish population in Clear Creek between Georgetown and Golden. Public access is solid east of U.S. 40, on land owned by Clear Creek and Jefferson County open space, and unlike other rivers, the creek has no special regulations regarding lures, flies, or bait—use whatever you prefer. (Those in the know swear by the Puterbaugh Caddis fly in size 16—with a pheasant tail dropper if you want to go all out.) The rocky landscape of the creek makes for excellent pools brimming with browns ready to bite. 303-567-3000, wildlife.state.co.us; coloradofishing.net
Gear Up: Clear Creek Outdoors, across from Beau Jo’s in Idaho Springs, can hook you up with anything you might have forgotten or want to replace—fly lines, nets, vests, accessories, waders, tools, hooks, you name it—and give you the rundown on Clear Creek’s secrets. 303-567-1500, clearcreekoutdoors.com
ASK THE EXPERT Paul Winkle Aquatic biologist, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Q: Do you have any concerns about this year’s low snowpack and its impact on water levels and fish/fish-population health?
A: Yes. The less-than-average snowpack will translate to lower-than-average flows in the rivers and streams of Colorado. The lower flows result in less habitat available for fish, for activities such as feeding and hiding from predators, and might affect the survival of eggs and the success of young fish. Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologists regularly monitor fish populations to determine the poten- tial impacts of low stream flows.
Q: We always hear about “native” and “non-native” trout species in Colorado. Which species are indigenous?
A: Cutthroat trout is the only trout species native to Colorado, with three subspecies inhabiting different regions: Greenback cutthroat trout east of the Continental Divide in the South Platte and Arkansas river drainages; Colorado River cutthroats in the Colorado River drainage; and Rio Grande cutthroats in the Rio Grande drainage. Most other species were imported during the late 1800s and early 1900s as sport fish and as a food source.
Four adrenaline-pumping activities to try in Colorado this summer.
Why We Love It: The exhilarating, bird’s-eye view of Colorado’s sweeping landscape catches your breath while you’re suspended from cables. Colorado’s newly opened Soaring Eagle Zip Line is the highest in the world: The 700-foot-long line (you’ll double back for about 1,400 total feet) over the Royal Gorge lets you soar close to 1,000 feet above the Arkansas River. Unlike its traditional counterparts, two riders sit in a chair for the entire three- minute ride. Find It: Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, Cañon City, royalgorgebridge.com
Why We Love It: It makes you feel like a kid again. Grab a group of friends, slather on the sunscreen, and hop onto your inner tube. Depending on the snowmelt, it might be a relaxing jaunt down the river or a rapid-filled, spill-fraught rush. Find It: Boulder Creek; Yampa River in Steamboat; Cache la Poudre in Fort Collins
What: Spelunking tours
Why We Love It: We head up, over, down, and around the mountains all year, but we rarely get to go physically inside the Rockies. Explore some of Colorado’s eeriest caverns—think dark tunnels, narrow gaps, and otherworldly cave formations—on a guided tour that goes hundreds of feet beneath the ground. Find It: Wild Cave Tour at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Glenwood Springs, glenwoodcaverns.com; Lantern Tour at Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs, caveofthewinds.com
Why We Love It: It’s the closest we’ll ever come to flying. Hook into your harness and let the winds carry you thousands of feet above the ground. Yes, you’ll fly tandem with an instructor so you don’t end up in a tree. Find It: Colorado Paragliding, Golden, coloradoparagliding.com; Aspen Paragliding, Aspen, aspenparagliding.com
Still Learning Golden/Red Rocks/Morrison loop Start: Golden At roughly 18 miles, this meandering route is long enough to make for a workout if you’re just getting your bike legs, and leisurely enough to enjoy if you’re looking for some scenery and a place to stop and snack. From Golden, head west on 19th Street to the bike path that parallels Sixth Avenue. Follow it south—expect some climbing—until it intersects with Heritage Road/Jefferson County Parkway, and continue south on Heritage (you’ll cross under I-70) until you reach West Alameda Parkway; take a hard right and pedal through Red Rocks Park down to CO 74. Follow this east into Morrison, and exit town going east on Morrison Road. Before you hit C-470, turn left at South Rooney Road, branch off onto the bike path—get your climbing legs ready again—that parallels C-470, and take it all the way back to your starting point (you’ll cross Sixth Avenue and stick with it as you bear northwest onto 19th Street).
Pit Stop: Bring a few greenbacks for your spin through Morrison and snag an ice cream cone at Ozzi’s (303-697-8775) or hit the outdoor soft-serve window at the Blue Cow (303-697-5721, bluecoweatery.com). If you’re a burgeoning bike geek—or if you’ve managed a flat or broken a chain—pop into Morrison’s Red Rocks Cyclery for a fix and get your caffeine jolt at the in-house espresso bar. 303-697-8833, redrockscyclery.com
Seeking a Challenge Golden Gate Canyon loop Start: Golden With about 4,000 feet of climbing, this loop is no joke, but the payoff is one of the most scenic and classic rides along the Front Range. We’re talking a 19 percent gradient at some points, so don’t skimp on water, snacks, and energy supplements. Leave from downtown Golden and head north on the wide shoulder of CO 93, doing your best to find a comfortable rhythm alongside the voluminous traffic. Turn left onto Golden Gate Canyon Road; after about 14 miles, take a right onto Mountain Base Road and follow it into Golden Gate Canyon State Park (the $7 fee is waived for cyclists). When you reach the Gap Road T-intersection, a right turn will point you toward CO 72, where you can turn right again and descend through Coal Creek Canyon back to CO 93 and Golden (about 42 total miles). For a longer, more rigorous option (around 54 miles), turn left at the Gap Road T-intersection instead and continue to the Peak to Peak Highway (CO 119), where a right turn will send you through Rollinsville before you hit CO 72 to shoot back to Golden—beware of an intense climb between Pinecliffe and Wondervu.
Incentive: The homestretch down CO 93 is brutal; power through it with the thought of a cold, malty, hoppy Legendary Red Ale from Golden City Brewery—“Golden’s second largest brewery”—on 12th Street. Stash the wheels and claim a table in the beer garden to wind down. 303-279-8092, gcbrewery.com
Best-Kept Secret Higby/Roller Coaster/ Air Force Academy loop Start: Monument With no shortage of excellent foothills rides west of Denver, you may not think to look south toward the Springs, but this 30-plus-mile route is worth the drive—and the 3,000 feet of climbing make the relatively manageable length a brag-able accomplishment. Park at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument and pedal east for about four miles on Higby Road—and we do mean pedal, through three sections with gradients above 10 percent—toward the Black Forest. Turn right on Roller Coaster Road and follow a long, undulating stretch for another four miles until you hit North Gate Boulevard. Take a right and cruise downhill, under I-25, into the Air Force Academy grounds—don’t forget a photo ID for entry at the gate. North Gate becomes Academy Drive, which circles the campus in gentle hills, offering views of the chapel, athletic fields, and Colorado Springs’ skyline. Turn left at Stadium Boulevard, and when you reach the B-52 monument, turn back onto North Gate and retrace your path back to the high school. Note: This route has little to no services, so stock up beforehand.
Make Friends: For intermediate to advanced cyclists who’d rather ride with a group, the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club (rmccrides.com), which hosts several rides per week, leads this tour in spring and early fall; check the site for a full schedule of additional routes or information on the club’s timed challenge and brevet series events (for serious training purposes only). Riders of any level: Try Denver Bicycle Touring Club (dbtc.org) for group ride schedules and social events.
ASK THE EXPERT
Charlie Henderson President, Rocky Mountain Cycling Club
Q: What’s your take on how the USA Pro Cycling Challenge coming to Colorado has affected Colorado cycling as a sport?
A: It is tremendous, unbelievable, and long overdue to have this kind of a top pro race in Colorado. It’s definitely raised interest. Last year, certain days approached Tour de France crowds.
WHITE WATER PADDLING
Still Learning The Chutes South Fork of the South Platte River About an hour’s drive from the Mile High City (take U.S. 285 south to the South Foxton Road exit) is a stretch of river known as The Chutes, located near Deckers. (Note: While it’s generally considered a beginner run, do not attempt if you are a novice.) You can put in about three miles past the bridge on SW Platte River Road off South Foxton. You’ll mainly encounter Class II water, and one slightly hairier Class III rapid that jostles you through a rock-wall chute into a mild flat-water pool below. If you take a spill and can’t right yourself in the froth, the slow-moving calm at the end is a manageable recovery or practice zone. Navigate one more chute before paddling to the confluence of the North and South forks for takeout. The dirt road that parallels the river makes for easy scouting and shuttling, which can even be done with a mountain bike. allaboutrivers.com
Screaming Deal: After a day working the waves, you’ll deserve a hearty meal. About halfway between your South Platte adventure and Denver is the historic Sedalia Grill, where you can fill up on the Friday and Saturday special: prime rib, twice-baked potato, and salad for $9.95. 303-688-1249, sedaliagrill.com
Seeking a Challenge Bailey Canyon North Fork of the South Platte River With mostly Class IV rapids and three Class V drops—plus portage eddies that may be difficult to recognize for inexperienced paddlers—this 10.5-mile run is a standard for advanced boaters. Although you can scout from the old railroad grade that follows the river, first-timers should go with a guide to make sure they don’t miss key danger zones or hit a Class IV or V drop unprepared. Use extreme caution when water levels are high, especially above 600 cfs (cubic feet per second), as this run can become an unforgiving series of rapids. Put in at Bailey and take out at the Pine Valley open space park (take CR-126 off U.S. 285 to Pine). Flows are often good through late summer in this stretch of river, so check out the third annual Bailey Fest (August 10 to 12) for a celebration of all things white-water on the North Fork. coloradokayaking.com, allaboutrivers.com
Chow Down: Just upriver from Bailey, you can’t miss the delightfully out-of-its-element Coney Island roadside hot dog stand that’s housed inside a building shaped like, yes, an enormous hot dog in a bun. Order a dog with all the fixings and scarf it down on the “boardwalk” outside. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 303-838-4210
Best-Kept Secret Coors Falls, West Fork of Clear Creek Near Berthoud Pass Looking for a good set of vertical drops to hone your skills and test your limits? This tucked-away waterfall is a great spot to give it a go on a short, fast run; although the river largely parallels U.S. 40, it’s set away enough from the road that most people drive right by without ever knowing the falls are there. Look for a pulloff a few miles past Empire (if you pass Mizpah Campground you’ve gone too far) where you can park and walk your kayak in. Enjoy the meandering float around the first couple of bends before approaching Coors Falls; while its 15-foot plunge is the largest on the run, it’s the easiest of the drops. Beyond that, the river dumps you into a series of fairly harrowing Class V gorges and steep rapids—portaging, scouting, and advanced skills required. Take out can be tricky; watch for private property. coloradokayaking.com
Small-Town Charm: Slide through Empire’s eclectic Lewis Sweet Shop (303-569-2379, lewissweetshop.com) for a house-made sliced brisket sandwich or tacos carnitas, or hit the Dairy King (303-569-3103) for an old-fashioned burger and root-beer float.
ASK THE EXPERT Jonathan Kahn Owner, Confluence Kayaks
Q: How can I get started, and how can I meet people to go with?
A: Take a lesson from a certified instructor to learn the basics and master the roll. Try Confluence Kayaks (confluencekayaks.com) or Renaissance Adventure Guides (raguides.com). And join Colorado Whitewater (coloradowhitewater.org), one of the oldest paddling clubs in the country.
Q: How cold is the water?
A: In Colorado the runoff is cold, usually between 40 and 50 degrees. Make sure to dress for a swim—meaning a wetsuit might be a good idea. Going later in the summer is best if you get cold easily.
Q: How much does it cost to gear up?
A: A complete package of new gear usually runs between $1,500 and $2,000. But there are lots of deals on used gear out there, and often you can get completely outfitted for well under $1,000. Make sure to do your research on used gear and inspect it carefully.