Length: 5.6 miles round-trip, plus an optional 0.75-mile loop through the meadow
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: This beautiful hike through sun-dappled forest is gentle enough for the entire family
When to go: Late spring through early fall
Pre- or post-hike buzz: Stop by the Stone Cup, aka Lyons’ Front Porch, for fair-trade, hand-roasted coffee, frosty chais, and tasty salads and hand pies
Restrooms: Rustic Port-o-lets at the trailhead
Dogs: Must be on a hand-held leash

Despite its location not far from bustling Estes Park, the Lion Gulch Trail offers a tranquil escape up one of the northern foothills’ few forgotten valleys. The gentle gradient, moderate distance, and history-filled meadow at the end make this outing an excellent choice for the entire family.

The trail begins with a circuitous routing that directs hikers around considerable damage caused by the 2013 floods, which carved a new canyon where the original trail (and road) used to be. As you zig-zag down a couple of switchbacks and then re-ascend the same slope, you can still see sections of the old trail ending at sharp drop-offs.

Once around the flood damage, the trail continues steadily up the valley. Although the route gradually becomes steeper, the overall grade is moderate and the forest is beautiful. The path snakes between groves of many different trees: ponderosa pines, quaking aspen, and Douglas firs—each species inhabiting its own preferred microclimate.

Along the way, the path crosses the creek about half a dozen times, first on bridges and then, higher up, via rocks. About 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the valley begins to open up, and the meadow soon appears on the horizon. After entering the meadow and passing a rusty, half-buried car, you’ll reach a sign indicating that you’re 0.25 mile from the Walker Homestead. From here, turn right to check out the homestead nestled in a grove of ponderosa pines. The crumbling remains of a wooden cabin still host water buckets and other relics, and the remains of a barn and corral are located nearby.

If you want to extend your walk, complete an easy meadow loop by continuing through the meadow on the trail and turning left when you reach a dirt road. Turn left again at a sign marking the Lion’s Lair Trail, which returns you to the beginning of the loop. From here, retrace your steps back down the valley to your car—and the present era.

Lion Gulch
The hike ends at the ruins of several historic homesteads. Photo courtesy of Terri Cook and Logan Abbott

Getting there: From Denver, take I-25 North to its junction with SR 66. Continue on SR 66 to the town of Lyons. At the town’s last traffic light, where U.S. 36 and CO 7 split, turn right to continue following U.S. 36 toward Estes Park for an additional 12.3 miles. Just before mile marker 8, turn left into the large dirt trailhead parking area.

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.