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Length: 6.3 miles roundtrip
Why We Love It: A great workout and an alpine lake reward, just off I-70
When to Go: Summer
Pre-Hike Buzz: Stop by the Frothy Cup in nearby Idaho Springs for something caffeinated, plus a selection of muffins and cookies (you’ll want the fuel)
Restrooms: Vaulted restroom at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: 54 miles
It’s summer in the city and, boy, is this one a roaster. Luckily, treks like Herman Gulch Trail in Arapaho National Forest draw us out of Denver and into the hills for a refreshing dose of mountain air. You’ll never quite know where to look during this out-and-back trail near Idaho Springs: the rocky crown of Pettingell Peak lingers above while Evergreen trees, wide-open meadows, and—if it’s the right time of year—clusters of wildflowers abound at every turn. No vista will disappoint during this glute-buster. And to get there, simply take exit 218 from I-70 and make a sharp right onto Herman Gulch Road. You’ll find a dirt parking lot at the base of the trail.
The climb starts up an old sawmill road through a lightly forested, sun-beaten hillside before flanking a roaring tributary of Clear Creek River and then winding into a shaded evergreen forest. If it’s wildflower season, tune in. Your ankles are likely surrounded by columbines, bluebells, Indian paintbrush, and more. A friendly reminder from one pal to another: It’s illegal—and kind of a jerk move—to pick these beauties.
As you jaunt through the forest, keep an eye out for knotted roots and streams crossing the trail. Note the hues of the trickles as you ascend: the clear running water will reveal dirt beneath it that is at times grey, deep brown, or even pinkish, indicating changes in soil and stone as you climb.
Before long you’ll find yourself in an open meadow, with dwarfing views of what lies ahead. That’s your cue to fire up your calves, press on, and bear left at the one fork you encounter. Once you best this final push, picturesque Herman Lake awaits, surrounded by boulders perfect for picnicking, and fields of high alpine bush, moss, and flowers. Sit very still, and you might just spot a marmot or pica, the big-eared darlings of Colorado’s mountaintops. Be sure to pack out anything you pack in (no leaving trash or food behind). Do take plenty of photos and enjoy the jaw-dropping, neck-craning vista rising in the immediate northwest.
At an elevation of about 12,000 feet, you’ll escape the heat of the city in the thin air, but be aware during thunderstorm season that you will find yourself above treeline. Always keep an eye on the weather and generally plan to finish your jaunt by 1 p.m.