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Why we love it: A steady, well-graded climb of intermediate length that leads you past spectacular scenery and peaceful pines, and ends at a small waterfall.
When to go: Any time of year with Yaktrax, or mid-spring through late fall without.
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The 7-mile, out-and-back Eldorado Canyon Trail is one of my favorite Front Range hikes because its 2,400-foot total elevation gain feels like an accomplishment, but it’s still just a half-day commitment. Because parking is limited and often fills up over the weekend, it’s best to start early, when you’ll have the trail to yourself and rich, morning light illuminates the fabulous scenery.
From the trailhead, the path begins to climb immediately along sunny, south-facing slopes, but the well-graded switchbacks and distracting views of the towering rock walls (and dangling rock climbers) make it seem like an easier climb. After a mile the gradient begins to ease, and the trail alternates between open slopes and lush, shaded forest where ice can linger even in the late spring.
After about 2.5 miles, the trail reaches a distinctive high point on the ridge with amazing views of the snow-capped Continental Divide, Eldorado Canyon, the distant plains, and the 3,500-acre Walker Ranch Open Space parcel, which stretches to the west. From here, the trail descends steeply, dropping nearly 600 vertical feet to intersect the Walker Ranch Loop. To see the falls, turn left and follow the loop a short distance to the bridge across South Boulder Creek.
If you’re really feeling ambitious, you can hike the entire 7.8-mile Walker Ranch Loop back to the junction with the Eldorado Canyon Trail, for a total distance of 14 miles. Alternatively, you can save that feat for next time and simply retrace your steps, leaving time to spread a hearty picnic out on the ridge and soak up the views before descending back into Eldorado Canyon.
Getting there: From Denver, take I-25 North to US 36 West and exit at 217A/McCaslin Boulevard. Turn left onto McCaslin, then right onto CO-170/Marshall Road. Follow CO-170 for 7.4 miles to the state park entrance. To reach the trailhead, continue west another mile along the park’s dirt road. After crossing a small bridge, turn right. The trailhead is located across from the visitor center on the right side of the road, just after a small dirt parking lot.
Logistics: An $8-per-vehicle entrance fee is required. Biking is not permitted on this trail, but leashed pets are.