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Fleeing the Mile High City for the mountains in search of alpine lakes and misty waterfalls is a Colorado summertime tradition—but contrary to what your weekend warrior friends on Instagram would have you believe, it doesn’t have to be limited to those who put miles of trail beneath their boots. Under dry conditions, even some dirt paths are accessible to wheelchair users, stroller pushers, and less surefooted folks. Any one of these three lakes and four waterfalls could easily be the coolest trip of your summer.
Sprague Lake and Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
At a cool 8,688 feet and 9,475 feet above sea level (respectively), you’ll find lower temps and gorgeous views of the Continental Divide’s ragged peaks on two easy, 0.7-mile trails around Sprague Lake and Bear Lake in Colorado’s most popular national park. Hardpacked dirt trails and gentle grades make the loops accessible for people of most mobilities. At Sprague Lake, watch for moose and elk grazing along the trail and wading in the placid lake. At the busy Bear Lake trailhead, the access point to numerous crystal lakes, rocky peaks, and waterfalls, enjoy the wheelchair- and stroller-friendly loop around Bear Lake. Hallett Peak lifts its square-cut east face above the water while Longs Peak, the park’s 14,259-foot highpoint to the south, reflects in the still surface.
If You Go: A reservation and a park entry fee are required, so visit the National Park Service’s Timed Entry Permit website to make a reservation for entry with Bear Lake Road access on recreation.gov. In summer, both the Bear Lake lot and Sprague Lake lot fill quickly, so if you’re able to, leave your car at the Park & Ride lot on Bear Lake Road, across from Glacier Basin Campground, and ride a free shuttle to the trailheads. Most of the buses are wheelchair-accessible, but it’s a good idea to locate a park ranger and inform them of your needs so they can guide you to the right bus. (Avoid a potentially crowded trail and shuttle by booking a time midweek or, weather-allowing, during the offseason.) Reminder: Dogs are not allowed on the park’s trails.
You need a reservation to visit Maroon Lake, located at 9,585 feet in the Maroon Bells Scenic Area southwest of Aspen, but the Colorado icon is well worth the forethought and planning. After parking at the lake or riding the wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus (where Fido is welcome!) from Aspen Highlands, reach the trailhead and a one-mile round-trip, out-and-back trail that’s a mix of paved and packed-dirt segments. Sure, you’ve seen pictures, but there’s nothing like drinking in the majesty of the Maroon Bells looming beyond the alpine lake in person. Lush greenery lines your path, while the rust-colored twin domes of fourteeners North Maroon Peak and Maroon Peak dominate the skyline. You’ll see why Maroon Lake is the most photographed site in the state.
If You Go: The road to Maroon Lake is open seasonally, depending on snowfall (call 970-930-6442 or email email@example.com); reserve your spot at Maroon Bells Reservations.
A 3.5-hour drive west on I-70 and a 0.2-mile round-trip out-and-back are all that separate you from the triplet waterfalls at Rifle Falls State Park, where a relatively flat path—at times paved, hard-packed dirt, and gravel—leads to the base of three 70-foot-high falls. At 6,510 feet above sea level, you won’t be much higher than you are in the Mile High City, but thanks to the surrounding mineral-rich travertine rock and lush greenery, you’ll feel like you’re on a tropical island.
If You Go: There’s a fee to enter the state park, so get a day pass at the kiosk or consider a Colorado State Parks Pass.
Fish Creek Falls
Tucked into a rock-walled canyon above Steamboat Springs, 280-foot-tall Fish Creek Falls thunders down from 7,550 feet above sea level. A 0.6-mile round-trip out-and-back traverse on a paved trail leads to an airy overlook with stunning views across the canyon. (If you’re interested in more mileage and elevation gain, check out the trail to the upper falls.) Summertime visitors are treated to a splendid roar and rising mist as the waterfall tumbles down a vertical cliff, crashing and splashing into the creek far below. In winter, look for ice climbers slowly ascending the frozen fall’s sheer leaps.
If You Go: Interpretive signs, restrooms, and picnic tables make Fish Creek Falls a fine destination for lunch or a leisurely snack, so plan to stick around and enjoy the ambience—and make the $5 day-use fee (bring cash or a check) even more worth the spend.
Helen Hunt Falls
A drive through scenic North Cheyenne Cañon Park in Colorado Springs is worth the travel from Denver alone, but it’s not complete without a stop at Helen Hunt Falls. This picture-perfect waterfall, named for a famed 19th-century writer and proponent of Native American rights, is visible from a hairpin turn on the road. Park at the Helen Hunt Falls Visitor Center for information about the area’s history and geology, then follow a short wheelchair- and stroller-friendly paved trail to a viewing platform below the horsetail falls, perched at 7,190 feet above sea level.
If You Go: North Cheyenne Canyon Road is open year-round, weather and conditions permitting, and admission is free.
North Clear Creek Falls
One of Colorado’s most dramatic waterfalls is also completely free and fairly easy to visit. Along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway in southwestern Colorado, between Creede and Lake City, North Clear Creek Falls thunders over a basalt cliff and into a cul-de-sac canyon. The overlook, reached by a short, paved trail from the parking lot, provides marvelous views of the roaring falls, though lowland hikers may feel the 10,058 feet in elevation.
If You Go: The observation area for North Clear Creek Falls, less than a tenth of a mile from the parking lot, is ADA-accessible. The site features restrooms, picnic tables, safety railings, interpretive signs, and a paved trail to a high overlook. The county road that leads to the parking lot may be snowpacked and closed to vehicles from December through April.
Waterfall and Alpine Lake Safety Tips
- The above trails are wheelchair- and stroller-friendly under dry conditions. Rain, snow, and mud can affect the terrain, so check the weather ahead of your visit.
- Bring appropriate clothing, including sun protection such as a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, and use it, especially in high-altitude areas that are exposed to the sun’s potent rays.
- Carry enough water and snacks for the day.
- If you feel dizzy or queasy, the cause could be altitude sickness, dehydration, heatstroke, or something more serious. Don’t wait to become incapacitated. Return to the trailhead and seek medical attention.