It’s the time of year when hikers head west to view the staggering beauty of the Rocky Mountains. But Colorado’s unassuming Eastern Plains, which make up a third of the state, also offer captivating vistas and enticing terrain. The beauty of the short-grass prairie also comes with fewer crowds than the soaring peaks in the western part of the state, as well as an abundance of wildlife, vivid wildflower displays, and geological wonders.
The plains have “a subtle beauty,” says Fendi Despres, a natural resource specialist with the city of Aurora’s Plains Conservation Center. “It’s something you have to look for with a little more intention because most of the life is at your feet.” That includes rattlesnakes, so avoid off-trail hiking, which also stresses these fragile ecosystems.
Here are six easy hikes, both near the Front Range and farther afield, that capture the beauty of the plains and feature some unexpected finds.
(Read more: 28 of the Best Waterfall Hikes in Colorado)
Length: 1.8 miles round trip
A melange of unusual boulders, cliffs teeming with wildlife, and enchanting side trails all vie for your attention on this short loop in Castlewood Canyon State Park. Traverse a blufftop on the Lake Gulch Trail (complete with a view of Pikes Pikes) before dropping into the canyon, where Cherry Creek cuts through the bedrock. Along the Gambel oak–lined inner canyon, side trails coax hikers to sandy beaches and mammoth boulders, which are perfect spots to splash in the water or watch raptors soar above the cliffs. The canyon walls contain 34-million-year-old flood rubble and resemble “cookie dough with bits of chocolate chips sticking out,” according to park literature. The exit is a bridge crossing and quick ascent to the top of the canyon.
Length: 4.1 miles round trip
This trail should be on every serious Colorado hiker’s list, if only just to behold the iconic twin monoliths rising dramatically from the prairie, which were eroded by an ancient sea. From the area’s slightly less-ancient sediments, archeologists have unearthed fossilized skeletons of prehistoric creatures, including three-toed horses, rhino-like animals, and cow-sized swine. The trail travels through Pawnee National Grassland, a top bird-watching destination that’s also known for its kaleidoscopic wildflower array. It drops into a sandy arroyo dotted with yucca and juniper before traversing the wide-open grassland to the base of West Pawnee Butte. Continue between the monoliths before reaching a sign marking the official trail’s end; the East Butte is on private property. With a wind farm and oil and gas wells visible, hikers can’t ignore the impacts of energy development on the grassland. But amid the unforgettable geology, it’s not difficult to appreciate this astonishing landscape lost in time.
Length: 4.5 miles round trip
Virtually kissing Oklahoma’s panhandle in far southeastern Colorado, Picture Canyon is a grassland gem. Tucked amid rolling hills in Comanche National Grassland, the canyon’s sculpted sandstone displays petroglyphs and pictographs left by a succession of cultures over the last 2,000 years, including hunter-gatherers from the plains archaic period. Hikers can view rock art along the east wall on an old road heading into the canyon. Before picking up the singletrack Arch Rock Trail on the right, take a 0.3-mile out-and-back spur to Crack Cave, which features markings illuminated by the sun during the spring and fall equinoxes, along with ancient sketchings of large bison and the unfortunate scribble of modern vandals. Look for wooden posts and consider bringing a good map, because the trails can be difficult to follow. About 1.9 miles from the parking lot, take the right fork to stay on Arch Rock Trial and see the unusual formation on a quarter-mile out-and-back hike, the turnaround point. Competent navigators may opt to continue on the Homestead Trail to catch pioneer-era ruins and other interesting rock formations and pictographs, an 8.5-mile loop total.
2.7 miles round trip
Just minutes from downtown Denver, hikers can visualize the high plains as they once were: teeming with roaming herds of bison. A herd 200 strong still roams Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, and in the spring, visitors should look out for bison calves, bald eagles nesting (bring binoculars), and a variety of songbirds. The 15,000-acre site was once a U.S. Army production site for chemical weapons during World War II. Shell later leased the property and used it to manufacture agricultural chemicals, including pesticides, until 1982. Following a costly environmental cleanup and the discovery of a roost of bald eagles, Congress designated it a national wildlife refuge in 1992. To fully experience the area, take the 11-mile, self-guided auto tour while listening to the accompanying podcast, which adds rich context. Near the end of the drive, stop at the Lake Mary trailhead and stroll the roughly half-mile loop that includes a floating boardwalk amid prime bird habitat. Connect to the Prairie Trail or cross the road and follow along the shore of Lake Ladora, where a series of small, sandy beaches with picnic tables make a great lunch spot before completing the 1.8-mile loop.
Length: 2.8 miles round trip
Winds can be fierce in this remote landscape near the Wyoming border, so pick a calm day to explore Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. Owned by the City of Fort Collins, this rolling grassland is home to the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, descendents of Yellowstone National Park’s herd. The giant grazers roam a 1,000-acre enclosure amid Soapstone’s bluffs and hills, which are carpeted in blue grama and buffalo grass and studded with mountain mahogany. The steady climb to a ridge on the Towhee Loop offers the chance to spot the herd, as well as pronghorn, jackrabbits, and coyotes. Brace your imagination and don’t skip a separate, quarter-mile paved trail from the parking lot that leads to the Lindenmeier Overlook. The site, a National Historic Landmark excavated in the 1930s, bears evidence of the earliest inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere: a campsite used by Ice Age hunters, who left behind stone tools and spearheads.
Length: 6.9 miles round trip
In Boulder, where the mountains meet the plains, plenty of hikers head for the hills. But “there’s lots of beauty in the grasslands,” says Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) senior ecologist Will Keeley, including this easy hike alongside Teller Farm’s lush pastures that features panoramic views of the mountains. From the Teller Farm South trailhead, follow the six-foot wide gravel trail north through a working farm past grazing cattle and majestic cottonwoods. At nearly two miles, it connects to the East Boulder-White Rocks Trail, continuing alongside a pond that draws great-blue herons and a bounty of waterfowl, as well as serious birdwatchers. Cross a bridge to the turnaround point in view of the chalk-hued bluffs of White Rocks, a sandstone formation that supports a complex ecosystem with rare species of lichens, ferns, miner bees, and other wildlife. If you want to explore the area more, you can also snag a coveted spot on one of Boulder OSMP’s late summer or fall guided hikes of the White Rocks State Natural Area, which is otherwise off-limits to the public.
(Read more: 16 Amazing Front Range Hikes)