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Length: 3.6 miles round trip, around 2,000 vertical feet gained
Recommended equipment: Shoes with excellent tread (trail runners or sturdy hiking boots) and hiking poles (optional)
Why we love it: Convenience. This local gem is only 30 minutes from Denver, but it makes you feel like you are on a high alpine hike miles away from the city.
Post-hike buzz: Get a giant margarita and the super nachos from Morrison Inn.
When to go: April to December
Restrooms: Porta potty at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: 20 miles from Denver
Dogs: Allowed, but must be on leash
It didn’t take me long to realize how challenging Mt. Morrison South Ridge Trail would be. Within the first two-fifths of a mile, you climb more than 600 feet. But after making my way over a trove of steep, loose rock, I reach my first plateau, where I can see Red Rocks Amphitheatre enshrined in light from the sunny November day.
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I pause for a moment to enjoy the view, before carrying on, climbing, scrambling, and using my hiking poles to make my way across the loose rocks, boulders, and slippery soil ahead. During this initial stretch, I am reminded of what my good friend once said: “I love this hike, but the first mile has you questioning why you are doing this to yourself.” She’s right, but I also expect the payoff to be worth it.
At a little over half a mile, I reach the second plateau and stop to look at Mt. Glennon and the Hogback near Ken Caryl rising out of the southeast. From here I spot the trail, which winds up the ridgeline and then vanishes. The next section of the trek remains mostly flat, and I use this moment to take in the views of the valley, as well as the tree-shrouded mountains to the west that seem to go on forever.
My moment of rest, however, is brief. About a half-mile into my ascent, I have to make my way through the hike’s first true scrambling section. It’s a warm-up for what’s to come, but after clambering over the short field of rocks, I am rewarded with another flat section, which meanders through a tiny, fragrant juniper field. It’s one of my favorite portions of the trail, allowing me to take in views of far-off mountains to the west and south, along with the Green Mountain and Dinosaur Ridge to the east.
At about the 1.4-mile mark, I hit the portion of the trek that begins my true summit attempt. It is steep, full of loose scree, and includes areas where Class 3 scrambling is necessary. I check to make sure there is no one close in front of me (in case a rock gets kicked loose) and begin the climb. About a quarter of a mile later, I reach a low, Class 3 rock face that represents one of my final hurdles before reaching the top. The feature doesn’t require any climbing gear, but I use both my hands and feet to get over the rock face safely and prevent a nasty fall. There are two more small rock features to navigate, but now I can see the rock wall that indicates the peak.
After taking the short, gentle walkway up to the peak, I am greeted with a 360-degree view of expansive mountains to the west, the Flatirons to the north, sunny valleys and mesas to the east, and more steep mountains to the south. The world falls away, and it is just me, the sound of birds, and a light breeze flowing through the trees.
I close my eyes and let the sun warm my face for a long time before starting the steep descent (this is where the hiking poles are really nice). Making my way down the scrambles doesn’t require down climbing, but is still a slow go. I spend a lot of time sitting down to lower my center of gravity.
Once I make it back to the flat juniper grove, I take a moment to look back at what I just hiked. Then, I slowly wind my way back down the rest of the steep terrain, back to reality.
How to get there: From Denver, take U.S. 6 West and exit onto I-70 West toward Grand Junction. Next, take exit 260 for Highway 470 East toward Colorado Springs. Take exit four for CO-8/Morrison Road, and continue right onto Morrison Road through downtown. Turn right onto Titans Road (there will be a sign for a Red Rocks Entrance) and park in the small gravel parking lot. Walk north through a gate, and you’ll see a trail sign to your left.