Length: 7.7-miles out and back
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: Beautiful swirling clouds, sweeping vistas, solid elevation gain, and quiet solitude—without going far from the highway
When to go: Spring through mid-fall; for late season, bring your Yaktrax and waterproof boots!
Fee: None
Post-Hike Buzz: Grab a Smallpatch Pumpkin Harvest Ale and the ever-delicious Chicken & Waffle Sandwich at Tommyknocker Brewery in Idaho Springs.
Restrooms: Yes
Dogs: Allowed on leash
Distance from Denver: About 55 miles

Attention Denver newbies: You can learn one important lesson about hiking in Colorado on the Stanley Mountain Trail near Idaho Springs—it’s best to start early.

If you do, you’ll likely be rewarded with sunshine and beautiful vistas of the snow-capped peaks that skirt Winter Park and Mary Jane ski resorts. You’ll also find a great mix of topography—everything from dense forest to rocky outcroppings to panoramic ridge—all of which Colorado hikers have come to expect along the I-70 and US-40 corridors.

But if you start too late, as I did on my first attempt (yes, I had to try this hike two days in a row in order to complete it), you’ll likely get engulfed in clouds that rumble just enough to prompt you to abandon your journey. With a summit above 12,400 feet, Stanley Mountain is high enough and exposed enough to warrant the planning and preparation needed to hike Colorado’s other notable peaks.

I handled my late start by 1) kicking myself for said late start, 2) steeling my resolve to soldier on through the ever-darkening clouds, 3) realizing the completion of the hike wasn’t worth potential electrocution, and 4) calmly or not-so-calmly turning around and jogging down the upper ridge to treeline, where I became at least partially sheltered from the light hail that had begun falling around me.

The sweet spot, timing wise, for hiking this trail in the fall is to start in the mid-morning. You’ll get the sunshine and views—including, to my delight, a view of the beloved Panoramic Express lift at Mary Jane Resort. But more importantly, you’ll experience the dance of clouds and mists that playfully expose and hide the gorgeous peaks to the north of the trail.

After you park at Berthoud Pass trailhead, which features plenty of parking, you’ll carefully (look both ways!) cross US-40 to the trail that winds its way through the Arapaho National Forest for the first few kilometers. After you emerge from the trees at 1.5 miles, the series of switchbacks crossing up to the ridge comprise the most difficult section of the trail and will certainly make you wish you had done a few more Stairmaster reps at the gym.

The hard work isn’t quite done after that—you’ll continue in a moderate incline along the ridge for the remainder of the trail. Make sure to use AllTrails or another trail-tracking app so you don’t accidentally pass the summit of Stanley Mountain, which looks much more like a pile of rocks with a post than the highest point of a 12,000-foot peak.

For speedy hikers, this 7.7-mile route can take as little as 2.5 hours. More casual adventurers should plan for more than three, especially if there’s snow. No matter your experience, bring at least two liters of water, Yaktrax, winter gloves, hats, long pants and waterproof jackets.

This hike is cold, windy and often snowy in the fall, but very much worth the hour drive from Denver—not only for the workout, but also for a reminder of Colorado’s quiet, serene beauty just a few miles off the highway.

Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west to exit 308 toward Empire/Granby. Stay on U.S. Route 40 for 15 miles (through the highway’s fun hairpin curves) to the top of Berthoud Pass. You’ll pull off to the right to the large paved parking lot and the U.S. Forest Service Warming Hut. Safely cross to the west side of US-40 and the trail begins directly across from the parking lot.