Colorado Hiking Destinations for Every Type of Hiker
By Emily Krempholtz
We don’t know if you’ve heard, but Colorado is home to at least 5,683 miles of mapped hiking trails, as well as 41 state parks, 4 national parks, 8 national monuments, 13 national forests, and 8.3 million acres of public land. Throw in some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world (OK, we’re a little biased), and you’ve got a dream scenario for hiking.
One of the greatest parts about hiking in Colorado is there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re packing your ultralight gear and hitting the 500-mile Colorado Trail or just trying to get some energy out of the kids so they fall asleep at bedtime, Colorado has beautiful trails for everyone, and we can pretty much guarantee there are hiking destinations close to you.
If You’re Doing It For the ‘Gram…
Of all the natural beauty in Colorado, there are two places that might just be the most-photographed. The first is Hanging Lake, near Glenwood Springs. This incredibly beautiful lake is a stunning emerald green and was formed by a geographic fault that gives the lake its unique, breathtaking appearance. The hike is only about a mile long each way, but that mile includes about a thousand feet of elevation gain, so be prepared to sweat.
The second classic spot for Colorado photography is Maroon Lake. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a reflective alpine lake with two mountains rising up on either side of it, you’re probably picturing Maroon Lake, and the gorgeous Maroon Bells that frame it. Both these destinations require a reservation, so you’ll have to plan in advance to obtain a permit, but believe us, you won’t regret it.
And hey—if the tourist hotspots aren’t your thing, you’re in luck, because Colorado is practically bursting with scenic views and jaw-dropping natural beauty for you to capture with your camera. You’ll get that perfect selfie. We have faith in you.
For the Family…
One of the most challenging parts of hiking with little ones can be not the length but the elevation gain. At Rifle Falls State Park in Garfield County, there are some fantastic short trails with less than 100 feet elevation gain, as well as the trio of 60-foot high waterfalls the park is named for. Rifle Falls is also home to several limestone caves, located just past the falls, which explorers of all ages can venture into after a short hike on the Coyote Trail. Make sure to bring headlamps and flashlights!
If You’re Looking to Get Off the Beaten Path…
The 10th Mountain Hut Association has 34 huts and cabins across the Rocky Mountains, some of which are about an eighth of a mile away from parking, but others that are deep in the backcountry. Each of the huts has their own personality and level of amenities, from the most rustic options without electricity or running water to some with solar power, woodburning saunas, and flush toilets. When you stay in one of the huts, getting there is half the fun. They’re all technically connected by 350 miles of trail, and you’ll find terrain of various difficulty. Some of the huts are deep in high-altitude backcountry, meaning they have lots of elevation gain and require lots of preparation beforehand. You’ll need to pack in your own food, sleeping bag, water, and emergency gear, but cabin camping doesn’t get much further from the beaten path than some of these huts. Usually, they’re a great way to make friends with other campers, as the huts are reservable by bed, but this year, due to the pandemic, you’ll need to reserve the entire cabin for your party. For more information, check out our piece on the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association.
For the History Buff…
Ghost towns abound in Colorado, mostly from the historic days of the mining boom. While some are accessible by vehicle, others have become all but inaccessible unless you have an OHV… or a pair of feet and a little bit of conviction. The ghost town of Carson, near Lake City, is accessible via the Wager Bulch Road off Road 30 from Highway 149. The seven-mile out and back trail culminates in an abandoned town with many intact structures that look much like they did in the late 19th century when the gold and silver mines were running strong. A hike to Carson is scenic and unique, and you’ll find not just the town but also great views of the Weminuche Wilderness Area and the Rio Grande Pyramid.
For a Refreshing Swim…
You should note that swimming at higher elevations, no matter the time of year, is liable to be downright cold, thanks to the snow runoff and mountain springs that feed many of our alpine lakes and watering holes, but sometimes after a strenuous hike, a cold dip in the water is exactly what you need.
Next time you’re out in the direction of Independence Pass near Aspen, hit up Devil’s Punchbowl, a swimming hole surrounded by tall rock formations and fed by a waterfall from the Roaring Fork River. It’s popular with cliff jumpers (though legally it isn’t condoned), swimmers, and picnickers. You can hike to Devil’s Punchbowl from the town of Crystal for a 3-mile hike each way, though bear in mind you’ll be sharing the trail with off-road vehicles, or you can park off Highway 82 by the Grotto Day Use parking lot to find the swimming hole just a few steps away—but where’s the fun in that?
For the Backpacker…
It’s hard to choose just one when it comes to multi-day hikes in Colorado. There’s the obvious big guns—like the Colorado Trail, which runs 500 miles from Denver to Durango—and the destination trails, like Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, where your 17-mile hike will culminate in a beautiful and relaxing soak in the natural hot springs overlooking Conundrum Peak Valley. But if you’re looking for a multi-day hiking excursion that shows off some of the best Colorado has to offer, check out the Continental Divide Loop in Rocky Mountain National Park, which starts and ends near Bear Lake, though you can also choose to start near Grand Lake. This 45-mile loop includes 20 miles on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, and will take you travel over peaks and through valleys, past waterfalls and lakes, through grassy meadows, and spend a good portion of your time above the tree line.
Hiking this trail requires a permit, and should only be attempted by experienced hikers who have done their research and prepared appropriately for the journey and possible conditions. The backcountry is no joke, and if you’re inadequately prepared it could mean life or death. If you want to get out there but don’t have the experience, hire a guide or set it as a goal and start working your way up to a bigger trip at the end of the season, or in the next couple of years.
For the Peak-Bagger…
The tallest mountains in the Rockies are those that extend to over 14,000 feet elevation—fondly known as 14ers. There are more than fifty of them in Colorado, and they range in difficulty, though it should be noted that you should never attempt a 14er without proper preparation or if you’re not an experienced hiker. Grab two 14ers in one go with Greys and Torreys, or four in one day on the DeCaLiBron (only three are technically classified as 14ers due to prominence). Especially during the summer and on weekends, 14ers are getting more and more busy, so get there early—like, really early—if you want to find a good parking spot and don’t want to hike up with a crowd.
For a high-altitude hike with fewer crowds, start trying to knock some of Colorado’s 13ers off your list. Many of the 13ers offer the same incredible views, but with the coveted solitude you might be looking for at the summit.
As with all high-altitude hiking above the tree line, follow the hiking rule of thumb: Be off the mountain by noon, and keep a close eye on the sky for the afternoon thunderstorms which roll in a lot faster than you’d think.
For the Masochist—Errr, Fitness-Enthusiast…
Have you ever wanted to see if you could manage climbing the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building—and then some more, just for fun? Yeah, us neither, but if you ever get the itch, head to Manitou Springs where you’ll find the Manitou Incline, just called “the incline” by locals. This brutal stretch of trail stairs set into the side of a mountain clocks in at a whopping 2,000’ elevation gain over one mile for a grand total of 2,744 stairs. The view at the top is stunning, especially if you manage to catch it early in the day as the sun is still rising, and there’s a trail back down so your poor knees can take a little break. The Manitou Incline requires free reservations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and bookings open up a week in advance, so plan ahead!
Hiking in Colorado
This list barely scratches the surface of what Colorado has to offer when it comes to hiking, and the more people you talk to, the more you’ll realize everyone has opinions on what makes a hiking destination great. So whatever type of hiker you are, the only way to find the best hikes for you is to get out there and start exploring! Happy trails!
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