If you live in Colorado, it’s easy to overthink the hiking experience.
Hiking in Colorado doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t require hours of driving or reaching heights above 14,000 feet. Great trails can be accessed less than 45 minutes from Denver that meet all ability levels. In fact, some of the best hikes near Denver are a mere 20 minutes away.
The Denver Mountain Parks system is unique in that all of its parks are outside the city limits. From the foothills west to Idaho Springs, and south into Douglas County, there are 22 parks and 24 conservation areas totalling 14,000 acres open to the public. These unique parks, along with the trails that lie within, are spread across four counties and reach elevations of over 13,000 feet. Included in these open spaces are Red Rocks, an area that some consider home to the perfect amphitheater with its soaring sandstone faces, historical sites like the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, and Echo and Summit Lakes, which punctuate the entrance to Mt. Evans, one of Colorado’s signature 14,000 foot peaks. In addition to hiking in these areas, people enjoy fishing, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
Denver’s counterpart to the south is Douglas County. A better name might be “Trail County.” Its website breaks down the list of available trails by local, regional and open space. Hundreds of miles of trails populate this area from C-470 to Palmer Lake. Douglas County is also home to the Devils Head Tower trail, part of the Pike National Forest and Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon State Parks. Douglas County is a quick drive down I-25 and you’ll be surprised at the diversity of the trails. From plains and canyons to sheer rock faces and rolling hills, Douglas County Open Space, Parks and Trails capture the myriad of Colorado’s terrain.
Jefferson County also has an extensive network of trails that start in the foothills and travel east to the Denver County line. The Jeffco Open Space Parks and Trails cover more than 54,000 acres, including 29 regional parks and a 236 mile trail system. Many of these trails are multipurpose for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, but a number of them are hiking only. Make sure you check the maps to prepare yourself for what forms your fellow outdoor enthusiasts will assume. Jeffco Open Space instituted a new policy on Its popular Centennial Cone Park this year to ensure an enjoyable experience for the users of the trails. There is now an alternating use regulation for hikers and horseback riders, and bikers. Each weekend, bikers are allowed to use the trails either Saturday or Sunday; and vice versa for hikers and horseback riders. Check the website calendar to make sure your outing will be a pleasant one.
So, with the plethora of trails for hiking near Denver, below are just a smattering of the incredible opportunities that await you. Keep in mind, there are always fewer people during the week and in the evening or early morning hours.
Photo by Kimberly Malm
This isn’t a county park but is has that kind of feel. Christened in 2013, this is the newest state park operated by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The 3,800 acre Staunton State Park sports beautiful meadows, towering granite cliffs and crisp waterfalls. Located 40 miles southwest of Denver off Hwy. 285, Staunton divides Park and Jefferson counties. The trails are loved by mountain bikers and hikers alike. The Mason Creek Trail crosses a historic mill site and offers amazing views. Watch the water cascade down the granite columns at Elk Falls, one of the best waterfalls near Denver. Staunton is also thrilled to be the first Colorado State Park to offer a track chair program, making the park accessible to all.
Nestled along the I-25 corridor, you’ll never know the interstate is nearby. These two gems in Douglas County Open Space offers completely different experiences. Greenland is wide open terrain with several stands of ponderosa pine forests. The 11-mile trail is part of 3,000 acres of open space and is home to a nice creek and several ponds along the route. There is only 500 feet in elevation gain and the trail is perfect for an easy stroll and bike ride. You can hike all the way to Palmer Lake and enjoy lunch and a cold beverage. Check out Devon’s Dog Park, a 17-acre dog off-leash park located on the east side of the Greenland Open Space trailhead. Spruce Mountain Open Space offers 8.5 miles of trails with dramatic rocky overlooks so you can enjoy the view of PIkes Peak and the open lands below you. In the summer, there are gorgeous wildflower meadows. This area is a favorite among horseback riders and cyclists.
Waterton Canyon is a spectacular canyon west of Denver out of which the South Platte River emerges. Not only does it funnel the South Platte River down to Chatfield Reservoir, it also serves as the start (or end) of the Colorado Trail. The Colorado Trail is Colorado’s premier long distance trail. Stretching almost 500 miles from Denver to Durango, it travels through the Rocky Mountains and offers never-to-be-forgotten views of mountain peaks, lakes, creeks and diverse ecosystems. The Waterton Canyon trailhead, parking and 6-mile canyon are administered by Denver Water and is open to hiking, biking and horseback riding. It is, however, closed to dogs in order to preserve the wildlife habitat. Though you travel along a wide gravel road, it's alongside the South Platte River where wildlife is abundant and often seen. The road is closed to public vehicles, but there are occasionally Denver Water administrative vehicles on the trail. You can also access Waterton Canyon through Roxborough State Park and Indian Creek Trailhead off Hwy. 67 and the Rampart Range Road.
This Jefferson County trail zigzags up the hill from Morrison, offering sweeping panoramas of Red Rocks and the city of Denver. Hikers have exclusive use of the 1.7 mile Turkey Trot Trail before it merges into the multi-use Castle Trail and becomes a steep climb to the top. At the summit, check out the remnants of John Brisben Walker’s “Summer White House” and the impeccable westerly views. The Castle Trail continues on the backside and joins up with Parmalee Trail. Please be aware there are no creeks or water sources on this hike. If you are bringing your dog, make sure you have a container and plenty of water. There is very little tree cover on this trail, and you and your dog will get thirsty.
Photo by Jennifer Black
In addition to the statuesque rock outcropping, this park offers a number of wonderful trails including the Red Rocks Trail which drops into Jeffco Matthews/Winters Open Space. Red Rocks is popular for a reason -- the views and geologic formations are breathtaking. The Red Rocks Trail takes you past these awe-inspiring rock faces and through beautiful meadows. This is a 6 mile loop that will take about 3 hours to complete by foot, and serves as a terrific way to start your day. If the hike doesn’t get your heart pumping, you can always run the stairs in the amphitheater afterwards!
Photo by Jennifer Black
The elevation gain in this beloved area west of Denver is truly impressive. Surrounded by Hildebrand Ranch and South Valley Parks, this Jeffco Open Space provides hikers with 13.4 miles of trails on 1,647 acres. Make sure you have sturdy shoes and a strong constitution when tackling the Plymouth Creek Trail. This heart pounding climb is the ultimate challenge for mountain bikers and hikers/runners alike. A little over 1.5 miles long, the trail turns into the more moderate, but still challenging Plymouth Mountain trail and circles around. If you are looking for a workout, this is the hike for you.
Posted by Pat O'Connor
Pat O’Connor has dual citizenship in both Wisconsin and Colorado, having been born and raised in Wisconsin Dells, but later adopted by the Centennial State. A graduate of the University of Colorado (B.S. Journalism, 1980), O’Connor began her career as a sportswriter at the Boulder Daily Camera under the tutelage of the venerable Dan Creedon. Her experience also includes stints in public relations at Aspen Highlands Ski Area, the Colorado Trial Lawyers and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. When she isn’t piecing together sentences, the self-proclaimed “Cheesehead” enjoys hanging out with her three kids and assortment of family pets, running, playing golf, hiking 14ers, horseback riding and skiing. As a mother to two (at one time three) competitive swimmers, her favorite fragrance is eau de chlorine. During football season, she can be found cheering for the Buffs on Saturdays and screaming when the Packers score on Sundays. She loves talking sports and giving recommendations on cheese curds.Facebook LinkedIn Twitter