Length: 12 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Why we love it: The trail provides access to the base of Elk Falls, previously only viewable from a distant lookout point
When to go: Hikeable year-round, but best enjoyed when the fall colors are at their peak
Post-hike buzz: Treat yourself with a refreshing beer from Snowpack Taproom in Conifer.
Dogs: Allowed on leash
Drive time from Denver: 45 minutes, 38.2 miles
In 2015, Staunton State Park quietly unveiled a pleasant addition to its well-maintained 27-mile trail network: a short, steep jaunt to the base of Elk Falls, which visitors could previously only admire from afar. Along the way you’ll pass through wide groves of Aspen trees, take in vast views of the surrounding canyon and forest lands and meander along a gurgling creek leading to a serene pond—ideal for fishing and picnicking. Located just 45 minutes from downtown Denver, the hike to Elk Falls has all the elements for enjoying a perfect late autumn day.
Although a double-digit day hike might sound daunting to some, most of the terrain ranges from easy to moderate, with a variety of routes that can be combined (or avoided) to make the trek more (or less) difficult. Most hikers will have no problem completing the hike in about 4 to 5 hours, including stops for photos and snacks.
Start out on Staunton Ranch Trail, a wide, multi-use path that meanders through healthy pine forests and meadows dotted with clumps of Aspen trees, boulders, and historic structures. From here there are several different routes of varying terrain that lead to Elk Falls Pond, just beyond which lies Elk Falls Trail. The easiest way is via Bugling Elk Trail, which gently rolls beside rusty-hued rock formations, popular with climbers, before turning flat along Elk Creek. For more of a challenge, follow signs to the hikers-only Scout Line Trail, which cuts up and over a hill to Marmot Passage, where visitors are rewarded with stunning views, serene surroundings and a wonderfully remote feel. Both trails lead to Elk Falls Pond, where grassy banks provide a nice break spot.
Elk Falls is less than one mile further, accessed via Chimney Rock trail and, finally, the newly-opened Elk Falls Trail. The path to the falls consists of rocky switchbacks, but chain-link “hand rails” are provided along boulders for assistance. The base area is small, but pleasant, with room to sit or dip your feet in the creek. Even in late fall, the cascade was flush, rushing into a crystal-clear creek that disappears into a canyon of red boulders, which can easily be climbed up to gain sweeping valley views. Consult the trail map provided at the entrance booth for an alternative route back to the parking lots for the chance to explore more of this historic, 3,800-acre park; you won’t be disappointed.
Getting there: From Denver, take highway 285 south towards Conifer. Turn right on Elk Creek Road and follow signs to the park, about 6 miles past Conifer. Entrance is $7 per vehicle, per day.