A family walks along the Bear Creek trail at the Lair o' the Bear park in Jefferson county Wednesday June 24, 2009.By COLLEEN O'CONNOR | [email protected] | The Denver Post PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:
Colorado is all about majestic beauty, and there are truly memorable hikes in places like Maroon Bells near Aspen, but there are also lots of great day hikes near Denver, featuring everything from alpine lakes and wildflower meadows to red-rock formations and panoramic vistas.
1. Mills Lake
The hike to Mills Lake is one of the most scenic in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a moderate 5.3 mile round-trip trek that winds past Alberta Falls, a mesmerizing 30-foot waterfall that’s one of the park’s most popular features, with people gathering to snack on backpack picnics while sitting on rocks near the tumbling waters.
The trail crosses the footbridge over Glacier Creek, and when you reach Mills Lake, it’s a good place to picnic and savor the view.
The alpine lake is fringed by such peaks as the 13,497-foot Pagoda Mountain, the 12,668-foot Thatchtop Mountain and the 13,579-foot Chiefs Head Peak.
2. Ouzel Falls
The rare and delicate calypso orchid can be spotted on a wildflower hike to Calypso Cascades and Ouzel Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park. Also called the fairy slipper orchid, this wildflower isn’t always easy to find — it often hides beneath trees, tucked into shady spots.
Fellow hikers who find them are eager to show them off. Late June and early July is the best time to see the calypso orchid.
But there are dozens of other wildflowers to see on this round-trip hike, which is about 3.6 miles to Calypso Cascades and 5.4 miles to Ouzel Falls.
This moderate hike starts on a relatively flat path, passing meadows with wildflowers, then winding up a gentle incline. Eventually the trail gets steeper, with steps and risers to help hikers ascend to Ouzel Falls, a 40-foot waterfall that sits at an elevation of 9,370 feet.
3. Bear Creek Trail
Bear Creek Trail at Lair o’ the Bear Park near Morrison is an easy, shady trail that’s popular with families because it’s got so much to offer.
There’s lots of shade, easy flat trails, woodlands and the cool burbling waters of Bear Creek, which attracts anglers.
There are also lots of wildflowers growing near the creek alongside cottonwood and box elders.
It’s also got picnic tables and permanent charcoal grills.
4. Royal Arch Trail
For many hikers, the destination of this trail is The Royal Arch, a 20-foot span of sandstone that soars overhead. The view from this spot gives a birds-eye view of Boulder, along with the plains and foothills of the Front Range.
Located in Boulder’s ChautauquaPark, the Royal Arch Trail is a 3.4 mile out-and-back hike that’s rated moderate to difficult. It’s often crowded in summer, so hiking on a weekday or early mornings on weekends is a smart way to avoid human traffic jams.
But if the Royal Arch Trail seems too ambitious, there are easier trails in Chautauqua Park, located at Grant and Baseline streets.
The Ranger Cottage has maps, brochures and information about the various trails, which include the Chautauqua Trail that cuts through a meadow and heads toward the Flatirons and the Mesa Trail that has many different terrains, from meadows to forests.
5. Roxborough State Park
A quick drive southwest of Denver, this state park was designated a National Natural Landmark by the U. S. Department of the Interior because of its geological wonders, which include significant fossil remains, hogback ridges and awe-inspiring red-rock formations.
The park, with almost 4,000 acres, has trails for hikers of all levels. One of the easiest is the Fountain Valley Trail, a 2.2 mile loop that goes through spectacular red-rock formations.
There’s also Willow Creek Trail, a 1.4 mile loop that leads through oak forest and willow bush, with a creek where you can cool your feet before hiking onward.
You can also check out special hikes led by naturalists who guide you on treks exploring the area’s geology that represents 1.2 billion years of history. Some of these naturalist hikes focus on single topics, like keeping a naturalist journal. (For more information, check the listings at cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/Roxborough.)
6. Golden Gate Canyon
This state park, just a 30-minute drive from Denver, stretches over nearly 12,000 acres with 36 miles of hiking trails for all different levels. It’s a favorite of many hikers because of its natural treasures: scenic views of the snow-topped Front Range, thick forests, meadows fringed with aspen trees and peaceful creeks.
Raccoon Trail, a 2.5 mile loop of moderate intensity, is one of the most popular trails, winding through groves of white fir, aspen, blue spruce and lodgepole pine.
Perhaps the best part is that the trail starts and ends at Panorama Point, a scenic overlook with a breathtaking mountain view of a 100-mile span of the Continental Divide, and a map that identifies each peak.
To customize your hike, check in first at the friendly visitor’s center (92 Crawford Gulch Rd., Golden, 303-582-3707) to talk with the helpful state park employees about the type of hike you’d like.
7. Mount Goliath Research Natural Area
Ancient bristlecone pines are among Colorado’s rare treasures — gnarled trees with twisted trunks, some about 1,600 years old, among the oldest tree species in the world.
You can hike among these trees in the Mount Goliath Research Natural Area, which is devoted to the study of the Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine tree. It’s located on the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, and the Pesman Trail leads 1.4 miles into the center of the ancient forest.
There are also shorter loops, like the Bristlecone Loop and the Alpine Loop, a moderate hike that is a lovely wildflower hike through the ancient pine trees, from July through mid-August.
Also, the Denver Botanic Gardens offers free, guided wildflower hikes on Mount Goliath on certain dates in July and August, a wonderland of alpine forget-me-nots and fairy primrose. For more information, contact [email protected].
8. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park
It’s just a few miles outside the charming town of Evergreen, but it gives a sense of being away from all the urban bustle and has nearly 15 miles of trails on 770 acres.
You can walk through meadows rich with wildflowers in early summer, and spot a variety of birds, including red-shafted flickers, mountain bluebirds and Cooper’s hawks.
Alder Three Sisters Trail is a 6.9 mile loop with great views of Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt. There’s also a short scenic trail spur before you make the top that’s well worth checking it out.
There are lots of different trails to choose from, including the Hidden Fawn Trail, which is flat and features lots of wildflowers and mature pine stands. And the Summit Trail has lovely views of the Continental Divide.
9. St. Mary’s Glacier Loop
St. Mary’s Glacier Loop near Idaho Springs, located in the Arapaho National Forest, is a 1.6 mile hike with beautiful views of the sparkling, glacier-fed lake that’s fringed with willow trees and wildflowers.
The trail is often rocky, which makes it an easy-to-moderate hike, and hiking boots are recommended.
Once you reach the lake, you can hike the trail up to the glacier, which is basically a snow field, with bighorn sheep, mountain goats and elk often spotted in the area.
There are so many picturesque views on this day hike that’s relatively short and easy, which makes it a favorite.
10. Elk Meadow Park
One of the things people love most about hiking in Elk Meadow Park in Evergreen is the chance to spot herds of elk grazing at the edge of the forests, just as they have in that area for centuries.
Wildlife includes mountain bluebirds flitting through forests and red-tailed hawks soaring overhead.
There are a mix of trails, from easy to strenuous. They include flat terrain, rolling hills, meadows with July wildflowers, and tougher hikes — like the Bergen Peak Trail, which has more than 1,700 feet of elevation gain and views of Pikes Peak, Mount Evans and the Continental Divide.