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Lots of Centennial Staters wake up every weekend ready to climb a fourteener, bike Independence Pass, or run the Colorado Trail. But some days, some of us just want to go for a nice little hike. We’re not asking for much: not too long, not too steep…and, oh yeah, the epic vistas the Rocky Mountains are known for. In an hour or less, no sweat (and we mean that literally: no sweat). Whether you’re entertaining flatlander friends, have young tykes or older parents in tow, or just feel like taking it easy on a Sunday morning, these five Front Range trails within about two hours of Denver are short on difficulty but long on views.
Tundra Communities Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park
Drive Time From Denver: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Distance: 1.2 miles
Trail Type: Paved
Starting Elevation: 12,143 feet
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For some serious elevation minus any real huffing and puffing, head north to Larimer County and the 1.2-mile round-trip, out-and-back Tundra Communities Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll ascend 4,000 feet getting to the trailhead—in your car. From there, take an easy stroll above treeline on a paved trail that weaves through alpine meadows dotted with silver plume granite and gneiss mushroom rocks. (Around the halfway point, look for a side trail that leads to close-up views of the whimsical formations.) At the end of the trail, check out the Toll Memorial, named for Roger Toll, who was the superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park during the 1920s. Grandiose views of towering Front Range peaks will surround you the entire time and give you plentiful excuses to stop for photo ops and thirst-quenching breaks. There’s little shade, so wear a brimmed hat and sunglasses and carry more water than you think you’ll need: At this elevation, you’ll be more susceptible to the sun’s rays, dehydration, and heatstroke, even if you aren’t working super hard.
If You Go: The hike, which gains less than 200 feet, starts at the Tundra Communities trailhead—located about 13 miles west of the U.S. 36/U.S. 34 intersection (Deer Ridge Junction)—on the right side of Trail Ridge Road. Trail Ridge Road is closed seasonally, from mid-October to Memorial Day weekend, and you’ll need a reservation when it’s open. Go to the National Park Service’s Timed Entry Permit website for all the details, then visit recreation.gov to purchase a timed-entry pass. You’ll also need to pay an entrance fee for the day or purchase an annual park pass at the entrance gate. Bring the kids but leave the pups at home—they’re not allowed on Rocky Mountain National Park trails.
Coyote Song Trail, South Valley Park
Drive Time From Denver: 30 minutes
Distance: 2 or 2.8 miles
Trail Type: Dirt
Starting Elevation: 5,744 feet (South South Valley trailhead) or 5,972 feet (North South Valley trailhead)
Jefferson County has some of the best trails in the state, and the Coyote Song Trail in Littleton’s South Valley Park is a great option for out-of-state visitors, at less than 6,000 feet above sea level. This easy, sunny hike follows a gentle dirt trail that runs north to south along the eastern edge of the park, over grasslands and past ruddy sandstone spires and outcrops. Access it directly from the South South Valley Park trailhead and hike north, or park at the North South Valley trailhead and hike east on a connector trail for 0.1 miles, then head south on the Coyote Song Trail. The 2.8-mile round-trip hike can be done end to end, or just go as far as you’d like before turning back. If you have the energy and the desire for a little uphill hiking, look for the cutoff to the Lyons Back Trail (0.6 miles from the north trailhead and 0.8 miles from the south trailhead). The out-and-back path climbs a hogback, adding 0.4 round-trip miles to your hike, but you’ll be rewarded with Front Range views west of South Valley Park and east across the South Hogback Open Space. For a shorter, two-mile loop hike, combine the Coyote Song Trail and the Swallow Trail, which runs parallel to the west of your trail. The 0.2-mile Prairie Falcon Trail connects the two trails near the south end, so look for that junction.
If You Go: Located southwest of Denver just off CO 470, South Valley Park opens an hour before sunrise and closes an hour after sunset, and leashed dogs are allowed. It’s a free, popular destination on summer weekends, so expect to share the Coyote Song Trail with other hikers, bikes, and horses. (Cyclists are not allowed on the Swallow Trail.) Consider a midweek visit for more solitude.
Fountain Valley Trail, Roxborough State Park
Drive Time From Denver: 45 minutes
Distance: 2.5 miles
Trail Type: Dirt (stroller- and wheelchair-friendly when dry)
Starting Elevation: 6,200 feet
Roxborough State Park features several short, gentle trails surrounded by grasslands, towering sandstone formations, and groves of Gambel oak, but among them, the Fountain Valley Trail is a family favorite. The 2.5-mile lollipop loop begins at the south end of the park, just west of the visitor center at the Roxborough State Park trailhead. The uphill hike to the Fountain Valley Trail sign, along a dirt and gravel road, is the steepest part of the route, but it’s short and quickly turns into a wide, easy trail that slopes gently downhill. The first of two viewpoints, the Fountain Valley overlook, appears to the left at about 670 feet. Hike the 150-foot-long side trail to reach unfettered views west across the valley to the tilting Fountain Formations and Lyons Formations; the off-kilter red rocks look as if they’ve sprung up from the earth. (Note: This overlook does not have steps, and an all-terrain stroller can make it to the end if the ground is dry.)
Rejoin the main trail and continue north to a fork about 0.2 miles from the trailhead. Numbered posts along the trail correspond with interpretive information that’s available in a free brochure, which you can pick up at the visitor center. Bear right at the fork to follow the numbers in the correct order. (This also means you’ll be hiking downhill on the sunniest part of the trail and will catch a bit of shade on the uphill part of the loop.) The Lyons overlook appears to the left of the trail at about 0.5 miles, accessed by a longer, narrower trail than the previous viewpoint. There are a few rocky steps to navigate, but the viewing platform overlooking more rosy red slabs makes the scenic detour worth the effort. Return to the main trail the way you came or take another side trail that rejoins the main trail farther north.
At the loop’s north end, pause to check out three historical structures: Left of the trail stand two utility sheds, once owned by Henry Persse, an early developer who wanted to create a “splendid resort” here in the early 1900s. His 1903 stone house, Persse Place, appears ahead. The trail then swings south and climbs gently uphill with intermittent shade, courtesy of oak trees, back to the trailhead.
If You Go: Roxborough State Park, directly south of Chatfield State Park, is open from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., with no admittance after 8:30 p.m. There is a $10 per vehicle entry fee, and you can purchase a day pass at the entrance station. If you plan to visit Colorado’s state parks regularly, consider investing in a Colorado State Parks Pass ($80 per year) at the visitor center. This is a hikers-only trail, so you won’t contend for space with bikes and horses. To protect wildlife, dogs are not allowed in the park.
Canyon View Nature Trail, Castlewood Canyon State Park
Drive Time From Denver: 1 hour
Distance: 1.4 miles
Trail Type: Paved
Starting Elevation: 6,600 feet
Castlewood Canyon State Park is a unique parkland on the high plains with a superb paved trail suitable for people of most mobilities. The Canyon View Nature Trail, a 1.4-mile round-trip out-and-back hike, borders the western edge of the upper canyon and has scenic views across the cliff-lined abyss and, far below, to Cherry Creek. From the park’s East Entrance on CO 83, the path begins at the first parking lot on the right, descending slightly, winding through caprock, and following the canyon rim north and west, with plenty of overlooks, picnic tables, and benches but little shade. There are several interpretive signs but no trail junction markers until the end, where you hit the Inner Canyon trailhead, your turnaround point. (The many paved side trails lead to parking lots.)
If You Go: A hidden gem east of Castle Rock, Castlewood Canyon State Park is open from sunrise to sunset. Purchase a day pass ($10) at the entrance station, or step inside the visitor center and buy an annual Colorado State Parks Pass for $80. Leashed dogs are welcome.
Wildlife Overlook and Gambel Oak Loop, Sandstone Ranch Open Space
Drive Time From Denver: 1 hour
Distance: 1.7 miles
Trail Type: Dirt
Starting Elevation: 6,600 feet
Douglas County’s Sandstone Ranch Open Space has a subtle beauty not found in many public places. Tucked against the Rampart Range, the rolling hills and occasional sandstone outcrops form a backdrop for pleasant trails, like the Wildlife Overlook and Gambel Oak Loop, a route that combines three trails into a lollipop loop. From the Sandstone Ranch trailhead on CO 105, hike west toward the mountains for 0.2 miles and turn right. Continue another 0.6 miles to an overlook where an interpretive sign explains the agricultural pond below. You may or may not see wildlife and cattle, but bring binoculars just in case. Sandstone boulders surround the overlook, so it’s also a great place for photos, with nearby red rocks and 7,746-foot Raspberry Butte on the eastern horizon. Past the viewpoint, the trail turns south, rolling through a copse of ponderosa pine and trailside Gambel oak. Pause here for a drink of water; it’s the only shady section on the trail. After another 0.1 miles, bend left onto the Crooked Stick Connector, which leads to Gambel Oak Loop at 1.3 miles. Follow the loop to the left or the right and join another trail on the far side. At 1.5 miles, you’ll rejoin the original trail and follow it northeast to the trailhead. (Yes, it sounds complicated, but don’t worry—Sandstone Ranch is well signed.)
If You Go: Bring the kids, the dogs on leash, and even your bike or your horse to this gorgeous open space west of Larkspur. It’s open from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset, there’s plenty of parking, and admission is free.
Hiking Safety Tips
- Bring appropriate clothing, including sun protection such as a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
- Carry enough water for your hike—and remember to drink it.
- If you feel dizzy or sick, the cause could be altitude sickness, dehydration, heatstroke, or something else. Don’t wait to become incapacitated. Return to the trailhead.
- Stay on the trails, which have been created with respect to sustainability, safety, and access. Going off-trail impacts sensitive ecosystems that plants and animals rely on for survival. Off-trail hiking also causes erosion, which can have devastating effects, and you’re more likely to run into poison ivy, poison hemlock, cactus, and other plants that can cause allergic reactions or injury.
- Watch for rattlesnakes and other animals and stay away from them. In parks where dogs are allowed, keep them leashed and out of dangerous situations.
- Keep an eye on the weather to avoid high winds, rain, lightning, and snow.
- Watch the clock: Parks have closing times, and you don’t want to get stuck with your car locked behind a gate at night or cause park rangers to come looking for you.