Why we love it: Quick access from Denver makes for an easy getaway.
When to go: In the morning; the rocks get hot by midday.
Years ago, Jennie Dorris, a fellow writer, asked me for a suggestion for a hot hike. This may seem like an unusual request; people are normally looking for shade in the summer months. She had a different motive as she'd recently discovered a way to bake cookies on a car's boiling-hot dash, and wanted a sunny trek to pair with the experiment. I immediately thought of Jefferson County's Matthews/Winters Park, which has an unprotected parking lot that would be perfect for toasting cookie dough.
While I still haven't tried this baking experiment, I've been back to hike around this area many times. All of my favorite hikes provide a history lesson, and this one in particular has plenty to share. From the parking lot, cross over a bridge that straddles Mount Vernon Creek. The trail will gently rise and you'll soon have long views of the area and Mount Vernon cemetery (on your right), with tombstones dating back to the 1860s. This area was prime real estate during the Gold Rush days, long before Colorado became a state. There are just a few markers from the era visible in the fenced-in areas. Stop here for a quick water break or to give the kids a lesson on Colorado history.
If you're on a tight schedule, loop back to the parking lot (the trek, plus stopping time, will probably take less than 30 minutes). If you've come for a workout, head out on the Red Rocks Trail and swing back on the Dakota Ridge Loop (the combination is 6.2 miles). This area is riddled with trails, so if you miss a turnoff, you'll still find yourself on a lovely trek. You'll share the path with fast-moving bikers, too, so be ready to jump off the trail quickly. There is plenty of elevation change on this hike—just ask your calves—but the ups and downs are short. If you tire of them, turn back for a choose-your-own-length, in-and-out hike.
Bonus: If you do try the cookie recipe (let me know how it goes), there is a shaded picnic area near the parking lot where you can munch on your freshly baked treats.
Getting there: Travel on U.S. 6 west to County Road 93. Continue about 0.1 mile on Country Road 93 and enter the park at the entrance (on your right).