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Colorado’s most iconic hikes are iconic for several reasons. They’re relatively approachable for a range of fitness levels; they’re generally closer to the more densely populated Front Range; and they’re easily recognizable, allowing all your pals on Instagram to easily tell just how hardcore you are. Of course, they are also jaw-droppingly, eye-poppingly, can’t-find-the-words-to-describe-it beautiful.
Unfortunately, most of these trails also tend to be quite busy, which is why many now require reservations. If you can’t get a spot for one of the most prestigious pathways–or simply don’t feel like circling a trailhead parking lot for an hour in search of a place to store your Subaru–we suggest trying one of these impressive alternative treks.
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An alternative to: Getting a reservation for the bus ride up to the Maroon Bells
Distance: 1 mile round trip
The Maroon Bells claim to be the most photographed place in Colorado. To avoid crowds, we recommend getting yourself a postcard of the picturesque twin fourteeners and heading to the Aspen Mountain Nature Trail instead. Starting in the heart of Aspen (compared to the trailhead for the Bells, which is 10 miles away from John Denver’s favorite mountain getaway), the alternative trek passes through meadows (wildflowers like lupine, larkspur, and bush sunflowers abound if you go in late June or early July) and pine forests. The casual jaunt begins with a ride up the Silver Queen Gondola ($35, but free for kids six and under), making this a great way for all ability levels to take in stunning vistas of Mount Hayden toward the south and Independence Pass to the east.
Post-hike refuel: Slurp up the buttery, briny, namesake delicacy from Clark’s Oyster Bar near Main Street in Aspen.
An alternative to: Finding a parking spot for the First/Second Flatiron
Distance: Roughly 2.6 miles round trip
Thanks to spectacular views, the hike up the First/Second Flatiron is understandably a popular adventure destination. But it doesn’t feature a bat cave (even though the parking situation at Chautauqua Park is reminiscent of a zoo). Nearby Mallory Cave, on the other hand, leads trailblazers to the front door of Boulder’s threatened locals, the Townsend’s big-eared bats. Leave your car in the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s parking lot (more often than not, you’ll find plenty of empty spaces), and as you begin the ascent, take in views along the foothills, with Longs Peak towering in the north and the Denver skyline sparkling off to the southeast. You’ll climb more than 600 feet over the course of 0.8 miles to the trail’s end at the cave entrance, where there’s an iron gate protecting the bat habitat. Note: An additional buffer is added around the cave from April 1 through October 1, which keeps the last scramble off-limits. But the photo-worthy views and bragging rights you’ll gain from getting near a bat cave make this hike worthwhile, even when the short, final approach is closed.
Post-hike refuel: Southern Sun Pub & Brewery is a longtime favorite watering hole among Boulderites; don’t miss the eatery’s mild, malty Annapurna Amber Ale.
Compared to the ever-present crowds at the popular Hanging Lake trailhead, the starting point for the Mitchell Creek Trail at the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery will feel blissfully empty. Plus, you can begin the day ogling the raceways (long water troughs) adjacent to the parking lot that contain young trout and salmon. Once you’ve gotten your fill of the fishies, you’ll begin a heart-hammering ascent up steep and rugged terrain. The namesake creek babbling beside the trail and ponderosa pine towering above, however, provide plenty of excuses to pause and catch your breath under the auspices of enjoying the scenery.
Post-hike refuel: Hit the Hotel Colorado Restaurant and Bar, where a beautifully landscaped veranda and a plate of fried deviled eggs await.
Location: Near Lyons
An alternative to: Getting a reservation for Flattop Mountain
Distance: 8.8 miles round trip
The Bear Lake parking area (where the trail up to Flattop Mountain begins) tends to be a bit of a hassle. Plus, you’ll need a reservation to get into Rocky Mountain National Park, and if you don’t have an annual National Parks pass, you’ll have to pay the $25 entry fee. Instead, head to the top of Button Rock Mountain, where you’ll look down on a sparkling Ralph Prince Reservoir and catch views of mighty Longs Peak to the west. One caveat with this alternative: Make sure you download the map, have your phone fully charged, and take your time. Plenty of hikers note they added significant mileage to the already lengthy trek when they lost the trail.
Post-hike refuel: Banana split? Tin roof sundae? Both are can’t-go-wrong options from The Lyons Dairy Bar.