Why we like it: A longer but still-mellow hike that traverses beneath the Devil’s Backbone, one of the Front Range’s most distinctive rock formations.

When to go: Fall through spring, when the temperatures are moderate along this exposed, open trail.

Located in the long and narrow southern section of Larimer County’s Devil’s Backbone Open Space, this classic 6.4-mile-long hike begins by paralleling the prominent spine of rock ominously called the Devil’s Backbone. The trailhead provides access to a series of four stacked “lollipop loops,” ranging in length from three to 12 miles round trip. Longer hiking, biking, and equestrian routes are possible if you venture into adjacent open space.

The Laughing Horse Loop begins by following the Wild Loop, which descends from the parking lot to cross a small stream before climbing a short distance into a valley, where the route parallels the spectacular Backbone. The Devil’s vertebrae are composed of Dakota Sandstone, the remnants of a 100 million-year-old beach deposited along the shore of a seaway that had flooded the interior of North America. After the area’s rocks were steeply folded, the softer layers on either side washed away, leaving behind this photogenic fin.

After 0.4 miles, the trail reaches the first lollipop. The western branch intersects the Keyhole Route, which runs closest to the Backbone. The Keyhole Route offers an up-close look at the namesake natural arch as well the chance to spot golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and two prairie falcons who have made the Backbone their home. When the Keyhole Route is closed in spring to protect nesting raptors, you still get great views of it from the Wild Loop.

About 0.6 miles after rejoining the main trail, the western half of the Hunter Loop winds through some compact canyon country. This is followed, after 0.3 miles, by the longer and rockier Laughing Horse Loop, which offers more of a challenge to mountain bikers. As you turn south to head back towards the parking area, you can complete the eastern halves of each loop while searching for the mule deer, bobcats, fox, and coyotes that roam these preserved lands, then snap a few more photos of the Devil’s Backbone before you regretfully return to your car.

Getting there: From Denver head north on I-25 to Exit 257, the junction with US 34 (near Loveland). Head west on US 34 to US 287, then continue west another 4.1 miles to the intersection with Hidden Valley Drive. Turn right (north) on this road for 0.2 miles to the signed parking lot and trailhead on the left.

Logistics: Dogs are allowed but must be on a leash. The Keyhole Trail is closed in the spring to protect nesting ravens. If the parking lot is full, open space managers request that you explore a different parcel such as the adjacent Rimrock Open Space.

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.