The Best Day Hikes in Colorado and Near Denver

Hikes in Colorado
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The US is home to some of the most incredible hiking destinations. That’s especially true for Colorado where hikers might get spoilt for choice. From spectacular mountain ranges to trails that crisscross the whole stare and ridges, Colorado is well supplied with many great hiking destinations. We selected some of the best day hikes in Colorado and close to Denver for unforgettable weekend trips and excursions.

Why Hike in Colorado?

Known for its stunning mountain views, sunny weather and year-around hiking destinations, Colorado gives hikers a chance to enjoy spring along the Front Range and autumns and summers in the breathtaking mountains. The Front Range is suitable for hiking even in the winters during sunny days when it’s dry enough, while hikers can also experience the snow by grabbing a pair of skis or snowshoes at higher elevations.

There are many easygoing hikes too in the local and state parks, which are within a driving distance of many major cities, including Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins. But the real backcountry gems can only be discovered in national forest and remote wilderness areas.

The trails are so many that it’s not possible to cover all of them here, so we have tried focusing on some of the best day hiking destinations for varying fitness and experience levels. Let’s start with the basics before moving on to the top 10 hiking trails in Colorado and near Denver.

hikers in Colorado

Preparation and Things to Consider

Being prepared is the key to an enjoyable hiking experience, even if it’s an easy day hike. We have already covered the backpacking checklist in a dedicated post, so we won’t be covering these details here again. However, things have changed a lot since the spread of COVID-19 and you need to follow physical distancing procedures for the safety of everyone.

  • Wear a mask in places where it might not be possible to maintain a 6-feet distance
  • Trails are not exempt from maintaining a safe physical distance
  • Avoid taking unnecessary risks and hike only in small groups or alone

Hiking in the mountains comes with its own challenges and risks. Educating yourself and preparation can help mitigate these risks and make your hiking trips memorable and more enjoyable. Here are a few basic, but important things to remember before leaving for any outdoor adventure.

Never Leave without Informing Someone

That’s a simple, yet very important rule to follow. Never leave without informing someone about your plans, be it a family member, friend, neighbor or a colleague. Make sure they know your route and when you are supposed to get back. It’s best to keep them updated on a regular basis wherever you find a network signal.

Let them know that if you don’t call or message at a certain time, they should call someone for help. You also need to stick to your travel plan and get in touch with your loved ones if there is any change. Failing to follow your plan means rescuers might be looking for you in the wrong places if you get lost or are in an emergency situation.

Start Easy

One day hikes might seem like an easy thing, but you still need to consider your physical fitness level and pick a trail that matches it. The hiking destinations covered here are one day hikes, but many of them are demanding and require a certain level of physical fitness. Start with relatively easy trails, familiarize yourself with the terrain and always check the weather forecast before leaving. The official Colorado Trail Explorer page is a great starting point and helps hikers navigate their route and covers all the popular trails.

Colorado is famous for its 14ers, but you shouldn’t go for them without any physical preparation just because you want to bag one. If you see a storm coming, it’s best to avoid taking the risk, turn back and try again some other day. Plan your trips such that by noon you are below the treeline (to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and lightning).

You are the best judge of your experience and fitness level, so keep your expectations realistic and try not to get in over your head. Colorado is home to hundreds of trails ranging from short and easy day hikes to multi-day adventures. Pushing yourself too hard when tired can be fatal in some cases and you might end up falling or tripping.

Keep Yourself Hydrated and Bring Plenty of Snacks

Not all trails are covered by trees and chances are good that you’ll be exposed to sunlight for a good amount of time. Carrying a lot of water might sound like a difficult thing to do, but it’s important to keep yourself hydrated, especially when climbing and at high altitudes. One liter of water every two hours is considered to be adequate, but your mileage may vary depending on the terrain and difficulty level. You’ll need even more when hiking on hot days or if you are planning to hike with your dog.

Cooking your own meals on one-day hikes is not common, so energy-rich snacks that have the right amount of carbs and proteins are a way to keep your energy levels up. These include fruit snacks, peanut butter crackers, trail mix and jerky.

Leave No Trace

We have already covered trail etiquettes in detail in a dedicated post and the importance of sticking to these basic rules. It’s your responsibility to leave no trace and pick all the trash, including dog waste. It’s also worth mentioning that there is a high risk of wildfire in summer and fall, so make sure to understand what the local regulations say about smoking, fire and so on. These rules are in place to ensure the safety of everyone and the trail, so make sure to understand and follow them.

Lake in Colorado with Mountains in Background

Pack and Dress Appropriately

Colorado weather is unpredictable and can change rapidly. Afternoon storms are also common so you need to dress and pack accordingly. Start early and make sure to check the weather forecast. Dressing in layers helps you stay prepared for unexpected showers while allowing you to stay cool when it’s hot. Clothing made using synthetic materials works best because it does not hold moisture like cotton does.

Shoes and socks might not be on top of the list of everybody, but they can make a lot of difference when hiking. Hiking boots vs trail shoes is an ongoing debate, but the pros of lightweight trail running shoes outweigh the cons of wearing heavy boots in most situations. Although waterproof hiking shoes are not as breathable as regular trail running shoes, they can be very useful if you get caught in a thunderstorm or flashflood.

Pick a pair of hiking socks (how to choose the perfect hiking socks) that are breathable, odor-repellent and moisture wicking such as the Silverlight hiking socks that have been designed specifically keeping needs of hikers in mind. It’s always better to keep an extra pair of socks even if you only plan on day hikes.

Bringing a lightweight rain jacket for unexpected showers is a good idea, especially when you are planning on conquering the 14ers. A basic and lightweight first aid kit does not weigh much and can be a life saver in case of an emergency. We have a separate post on the basics of wilderness first aid if you are interested in learning more. Blisters might not be such a big concern when it comes to one-day hikes, but you still need to be prepared and understand how to prevent and manage blisters.

The Best Day Hikes in Colorado and Near Denver

Shawnee National Forest (GOTG Inner Loop)

  • Length: 1.3 miles / 2KM
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • Location: Northwest (6-miles, a few minute drive) of downtown Colorado Springs
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: Family excursions

The well-maintained hiking destination is easily accessible from Colorado Springs and is only a few minute drive away from Colorado Springs. What really makes this a family-friendly day hiking destination are its paved paths, which wind through the park. Hikers can pick their own route and are not limited to just one trail, which gives them the chance to escape the crowd and have a peaceful time with the family. Those who want to reach the popular viewpoints can simply follow the well-used routes.

There are no entrance fees, but it can take some time and effort to find a good parking spot. To overcome this issue, it is recommended to take the free shuttle or arrive early on your own vehicle. Timing your hike around sunrise/sunset will guarantee some spectacular pictures and scenic views.

The Inner Loop is a wheelchair/stroller accessible paved lollipop loop that starts on the Perkins Central Garden Trail. The family-friendly short loop passes through some big rock formations. The Kissing Camels is a famous spot on the west side, while White Rock is located to the east. The Sleeping Giant Trail can be found near the loop’s southern end, which is off the main route and a relatively short loop. You can bypass this and stay on the main trail to connect back and return to the trailhead.

There are plenty of trail options to choose from, which vary from 0.3 to 3 miles. These include the Central Garden Trails, the Ridge Trail, the Siamese Twins Trail, the Palmer Trail, the Scotsman and Buckskin Charlie loops and the Balanced Rock Loop. Most of these trails are not so demanding and can easily be completed by almost anyone.

Emerald Lake

  • Length: 3.3 miles / 5.3KM
  • Difficulty level: Easy to intermediate
  • Location: Northwest (50 miles) of Boulder
  • Dogs: Not allowed
  • Suitable for: A scenic and one of the best day-hiking destinations

Rocky Mountains National Park is full of breathtaking landscapes and scenery, and is one of the most popular hikes in Colorado. It is highly recommended for day-hikers and even people new to hiking for an authentic experience and stunning views of the three lakes. The trail starts from Bear Lake before waving up to Dream and Emerald Lake, which are considered to be the jewels of the park.

Since Emerald Lake is a popular hiking destination, make sure to get a pass and arrive early to avoid a crowded trail. You can also choose the trailhead that loops around the Bear Lake for a shorter, easier and family-friendly outing. The Bear Lake trailhead leads to the Dream Lake trail, which goes through aspen and pine forests to the Nymph Lake.

The peaceful spot allows you to catch a glimpse of Hallett Peak summit as well as Longs Peak. The reflection of the mountain in the lake on a calm and peaceful day makes a picture-perfect setting and a tranquilizing experience. You might also see snow late into the summer on mountain peaks.

emerald lake rocky mountains

 

Devil’s Head Lookout

  • Length: 2.7-mile, 4.2 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Easy to intermediate
  • Location: South of Denver (45 miles, 72.4 KM)
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: People new to hiking who want a variety of trails to choose from in the same area

This extraordinary hike is about 45-60-minute drive away from Denver and is also a NRHP (National Register of Historic Places) destination. It is named after the fire tower that was built in the 1900s and remains the only one still in service. Mid-May to mid-September is the ideal time to visit this place when it is staffed, which allows hikers to climb the stairs to the tower. The views of the Rocky Mountains and the Front Range are simply jaw dropping from there, so it isn’t something you would want to miss.

Finding a good parking spot can be a challenge and the trail is pretty busy during the summers, so try to arrive early. The road leading to the trail is usually closed from Dec-Apr. The uphill trail gains about 850 feet from the DH Trail #611 to the stair base. The trail is shaded and passes through forest, outcroppings and rock formations. Columbines and other wildflowers are easy to spot during spring, while aspen groves can be seen here and there in autumn.

The red stairway snakes up and although railings are there to keep hikers safe, you should avoid going up if you fear heights or if there is any chance of a thunderstorm (can happen in summer afternoons). The fire tower is up 9,748 feet and provides a stunning 360 view of the surroundings, including Mount Evans and the Pikes Peak.

Royal Arch

  • Length: 3.3-mile, 5.3 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate to difficult
  • Location: 2-miles southwest of downtown Boulder
  • Dogs: Not allowed
  • Suitable for: Hikers with adequate fitness level who can climb steep inclines

Famous as the outdoor enthusiasts’ mecca, Royal Arch is just 2-miles southwest of downtown Boulder and is a relatively more difficult trail than the ones already covered above. No dogs are allowed on this trail so make sure not to bring any animals with you. Boulder is home to many trails and it can take weeks to cover them all.

Chautauqua Park is one of the main areas close to downtown Boulder and a great starting point for both short and long hikes. Royal Arch is a relatively short 3.3-mile trail which makes it a manageable day hike. However, the comparatively difficult climb means you need to have a certain level of physical fitness for an enjoyable experience. Considering the competition for parking space, it’s best to arrive early or use the free shuttle service from downtown.

Take Bluebell Road from the parking area and turn on to the trail, but be prepared for 905 feet elevation gain in under a mile. The terrain gets technical and rocky as you climb and ends at the Royal Arch. The views of the north and south are worth the effort and you get a unique vantage point. The views on your way back are even more stunning, but watch your footing and be extra careful because of the challenging terrain.

Quandary Peak

  • Length: 6.4-mile, 10.3 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate to difficult
  • Location: 88-miles, 142 KM southwest of Denver in the Arapaho National Forest
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: Hikers who can deal with rapid elevation gain and high altitude

The 6.4-mile trail (round trip) is longer than other trails and is suitable for hikers who want a 14er summit experience without having to spend days out in the wild. That’s the main reason the Peak is among Colorado’s most hiked 14ers. It’s also relatively more accessible than other 14ers, and it takes 1.5 hours from Denver to reach the base. However, summiting Quandary Peak is not an easy undertaking and you need to prepare well for it, which includes bringing plenty of water, food and wearing appropriate clothing.

Weather can be unpredictable in the mountains. You need to check the forecast before leaving and plan your trip around avoiding afternoon thunderstorms, which are common at high elevations and can move in pretty quickly. At 14,265 feet, Quandary Peak is Colorado’s 13th highest with a 3,229 feet elevation gain in only 3 miles. The trail becomes rockier as you gain elevation with views of North Star Mountain and Blue Lakes becoming clearer.

Palmer Loop (Section 16)

  • Length: 5.5-miles, ~ 9 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate
  • Location: 5-miles, 8 KM west of Colorado Springs
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: Stunning views, challenges aerobically

Just a few minutes from Colorado Springs (downtown), Bear Creek Canyon Regional Park is easily accessible and home to a number of trails. The parking space situation is a lot better here, thanks to many parking areas along the road. The trail offers pleasant views and also challenges hikers with some climbing. The first mile is easy on your legs, but the second mile is strenuous (1,200-feet elevation gain).

The Palmer Loop is a favorite loop of many in the Springs area because it connects with a lot of other trails. This means you can extend your hike if you want to. The trail sees a lot of people because of its popularity and accessibility. The first mile of the trail is exposed, so make sure to dress appropriately and use sunscreen to protect your skin. Both dogs and horses are allowed on the trail. Follow trail etiquettes and consider reading our hiking with your dog guide.

Monarch Lake to Crater Lake

  • Length: 14.9-miles, ~ 23 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate
  • Location: 103-miles, 166 KM northwest of Denver
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: Hikers who are planning on a longer day hike

The trail is more than double in length compared to other trails covered before, which makes it suitable for hikers who have the stamina of covering the distance in one day. Indian Peaks Wilderness is home to some incredible and pristine trails and offers a unique blend of terrain and scenery. You’ll need to get a permit if you are planning on an overnight backpacking trip. The hike starts easy from Monarch Lake with abundant wildflowers in summers.

You might also encounter moose and some other wildlife as well as many large waterfalls, including Cascade falls. The climb is pretty steep at times, but steady for the most part.  The single track is not too rocky and well-used, so you should not have much issue covering most of the trail. Backcountry campsites is also an option if you have a permit and want to enjoy the views in a different setting.

Matthews Winters Lollipop

  • Length: 5.1-miles, 8.2 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Easy to intermediate
  • Location: 15-miles, 24 KM west of Denver
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: Easily accessible, be aware of rattlesnakes

Located between the Colorado State Highway 470 and Interstate 70, the trail is accessible from Denver and leads to some incredible Front Range trails. It provides a unique vantage point when looking towards Red Rocks in the south. You’ll also find there the Dinosaur Ridge to the east, which preserves dinosaur tracks and is a National Natural Landmark.

The large and roomy parking spots are nice, but they cannot guarantee a full escape from the noise coming from the nearby highway traffic. The hike starts fairly easy from the trailhead, but the Morrison Slide Trail can be challenging to people new to hiking (have to navigate rocky stairs and loose switchbacks). But the efforts and time is worth it in the end because of the scenic views, especially in the spring when green hillsides create a stark contrast with red rocks, while in the east you can see downtown Denver. You might also spot coyotes and deer, but also be aware of rattlesnakes on the trail!

Grays and Torreys Peaks

  • Length: 8.3-miles, 13.3 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate to difficult
  • Location: 55-miles, 88.5 KM west of Denver in Roosevelt National Forest
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: For 14er excursionists

While Coloradans might not be new to summiting 14ers, hikers from other states want to bag some 14er peaks. Grays and Torreys provides them with a chance for a 2-for-1 14er excursion. Both are usually hiked together in one go and you might encounter a line of hikers on clear summer days. To make it back in time, try to leave early in the morning and keep an eye on afternoon thunderstorms. Also, make sure to pack some extra layers, plenty of water and food and sunscreen.

The road leading to the upper trailhead is very rugged, which does not play well with vehicles with low clearance or 2-wheel drives. One easy way of getting around this issue is to park your vehicle at the lower trailhead, but that’ll also add some extra miles to the hike.

The hike can be challenging for new hikers who are not used to gaining around 3,500 feet elevation in around four miles. The tree coverage is quite sparse from the start, so you’ll be exposed to the sun for the most part. Although the 14ers are just a mile apart, it takes quite some time to cover this distance.

The Blue Lakes Trail

  • Length: 8.6-miles, 14 KM round trip
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate to difficult
  • Location: Off Colorado Highway-62 (between Ridgway-Telluride)
  • Dogs: Only leashed
  • Suitable for: A relatively challenging but rewarding hiking experience

The 8.6-mile trail is stunning and although fairly strenuous towards the end, it’s simply worth it. If you are looking for incredible views, this trail outside of Ridgway is worth considering. The glacial basin is home to three lakes, with the uppermost lake offering some incredible views. However, the trail is recommended for hikers who already have some hiking experience and are not looking for a quick stroll.

The trail begins climbing right from the start with some steep switchbacks, while some parts are along the edge and narrow. It breaks out into an open area after the steep areas, which gives you an unobstructed view of the valley. The trail is full of breathtaking views and beautiful turquoise water lakes, but it is also quite busy, so you’d want to start your hike early before the crowd starts showing up.

flatirons Colorado

The Wrap Up

Colorado is considered to be hiker’s paradise with incredible hiking destinations spread all across the state. Colorado trails are also among the most visited, so leaving early is the best strategy and allows you to make the most out of your day hikes.

Picking the right trail according to your experience and fitness level is important in making the experience enjoyable and memorable. Plan ahead and don’t make the situation worse if you find yourself in trouble. Stopping and heading back is the best thing you can do if something goes wrong, instead of pushing yourself into more trouble.

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The Best Day Hikes in Colorado and Near Denver

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