• Length: 4.6 miles roundtrip
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Why we love it: Although close to civilization, this loop hike feels like it’s a world apart
  • When to go: Early in the morning, before the heat and crowds arrive
  • Pre-hike buzz: Visit Atlas Coffees for drinks made from beans roasted in small batches here in Colorado as well as fresh salads and sandwiches
  • Restrooms: Outhouse at the trailhead
  • Dogs: Allowed on leash

This lovely loop explores the southern portion of JeffCo’s South Valley Park, a 1000-acre open space parcel located west of Ken-Caryl Ranch. The site has a remarkably long human history; flecks of charcoal and a Folsom-style spear point found in the park indicate that its colorful red rocks sheltered hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago—more than 7 millennia before Egypt’s pyramids were built. After Caucasians arrived in the area, South Valley changed hands a number of times but was still used for ranching until 1980. Lockheed Martin purchased the property, including its striking headquarters building, in 1987 and sold it to JeffCo a decade later.

From towering red rocks and tall grasses to a shady oak thicket, the Grazing Elk Trail offers a great overview of this property via a short, nearly flat loop that begins at the park’s southeastern trailhead. Start by following the Coyote Song Trail, which wanders up South Valley beneath the park’s distinctive red rocks, some of which are composed of the same 300 million-year-old formation that forms Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Boulder’s Flatirons.

After 0.4 miles, veer left onto the signed Swallow Trail, and then the Prairie Falcon Trail, which bends around to parallel, and eventually cross, Valley Road, where the Grazing Elk Trail officially starts. The easy-to-follow path climbs briefly and then crosses a small oak thicket to arrive atop a grass-covered mesa with sweeping views of the red rocks, the surrounding neighborhood, and Lockheed Martin’s distinctive gray headquarters building.

About 1.2 miles from the trailhead, you arrive at a 2.2-mile-long loop, which circles around the mesa before returning to the same trail junction. Once you’ve completed the loop, retrace your steps the final 1.2 miles back to your car, enjoying the tantalizing glimpses of history all along the way.

The view of South Valley Park’s red rocks from the Grazing Elk Trail. Photography by Terri Cook and Lon Abbott.

Getting There: From Denver, take C470 east to Ken Caryl Avenue. Exit here and head west (right) on this avenue for 0.4 miles. At the first traffic light, turn left onto South Valley Road, which passes the park’s northern trailhead in 1.0 mile. To reach the southern trailhead, where this hike starts, continue one more mile on South Valley Road to a stop sign. Turn left here to remain on South Valley Road and follow it another 0.3 mile to another stop sign. Turn left again onto Deer Creek Canyon Road; the southern trailhead is just a few yards away on the left-hand side.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.