Denver, CO provides a great mix for those loving the hustle and bustle of the city while being able to escape to the mountains all in a day.
There is a huge stigmatism in Colorado surrounding climbing one of the state’s 54 14ers. Many of these hikes can be absolutely packed with folks ticking off peaks over 14,000 ft. I hiked a popular 14er route bagging 4 peaks in a day trek loop and at one point stepped off trail waiting for a few minutes watching 20+ people trek up as we were on the descent. Even though we got to the trailhead at 6:00 am, it still felt like Grand Central Station with over 100 other people gearing up for their day hike.
I think it’s great that so many people are getting out and about being active. I’m selfish in the sense that when I make an escape to nature, I prefer to be by myself in my own peace and solitude. Some folks enjoy the camaraderie and encouragement other humans bring when hiking up a mountain and some do not! For the latter, this post is for you!
This post is by no means meant to be an official trail guide or map. It is merely a starting point for your adventure! Check in at a visitor center or ranger station for trail and weather conditions!
James Peak near Idaho Springs (8.3 miles)
- Description – At 13,294 ft., James peak doesn’t have the status as one of the revered Colorado 14ers, lucky for the solitude seeking hiker! This hike has incredibly variety including St. Mary’s Lake, hiking along a snowfield (it used to be St. Mary’s Glacier) and making your way across a deserted tundra flat to the base of James Peak. Climb on up the peak for private, panorama views of the front range.
- Directions – From I-70, take exit 238 (“Fall River Road”). Drive north on Fall River Road until you reach a parking area on the left hand side just before mile marker #9. There is a $5 fee per car to park. The trailhead is just up the road and to the left! Keep left at the 2 intersections making your way to St. Mary’s Lake. Once you reach the lake, hike around the right side and towards the snowfield. Stay to the right of the snowfield and top out on the tundra flat above. James Peak will be straight ahead of you.
- Relevant Information – Dogs are permitted on this hike. The short hike from the trailhead to St. Mary’s Lake is quite popular. Start your trek early to avoid crowds and enjoy the peaceful hike up past the lake. For a more detailed trail map, check out ProTrails’ write up!
Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park (9 miles)
- Description – The trail to Sky Pond leads past a waterfalls, lakes and through beautiful trees for an incredible day of nature! There are quite a few folks that enjoy the hike to Alberta Falls (0.8 miles in), the further you hike towards Sky Pond, the less people you will encounter. This is considered a strenuous trail based on a short scramble near the end and the 1780 feet of elevation gain. Don’t let this deter you, it is very manageable with ample time and the scenery will be more than worth it!
- Directions – From Estes Park, follow HWY 36 towards Rocky Mountain National Park. Pass the fee station ($20/day, $80 annual pass for ANY National Park) and turn left on Bear Lake Rd and drive until you reach the Glacier Gorge Trailhead after about 8 miles. The Sky Pond trail begins at Glacier Gorge Trailhead. The trail is very well marked but for a more detailed account, check out this trail description.
- Relevant Information – Dogs are not permitted on any trails inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lost Lake Trail at Hessie Trailhead near Nederland, CO (2.7 miles)
- Description – Lost Lake is a beautiful spot for a relaxing day, possible picnic lunch or a great first backpacking trip! The trail to Lost Lake is short but steadily and gradually uphill while passing a waterfall through Indian Peaks Wilderness. Plan this hike for a mellow day of relaxing hiking and lounging near a pristine alpine lake. There are plenty of trout in Lost Lake to keep the fishermen and women happy! For more trails accessed by Hessie Trailhead, stop at the Visitor Center in Nederland for a trail map!
- Directions – From Nederland, drive south on CO 119 for 0.5 miles. Turn right (west) onto CR 130 (there will be signs for Eldora). Take 119 through the town of Eldora, past where the pavement turns into dirt and you will reach a small parking area with signs for Hessie Trailhead. Park here unless you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. The trail to Lost Lake will begin on the left hand side of the road. After walking 0.25 mile, you will reach a footbridge. Cross it and stay on the main/obvious trail until you reach a junction pointing to Lost Lake. From there, the trail is well marked.
- Relevant Information – Dogs are permitted on this hike. Lost Lake is just outside of Indian Peaks Wilderness so you do not need a permit to use the backcountry campsites. However, do check in with the Visitor Center in Nederland to check if a fire ban is in effect. For a more details, click here for information put out be the USDA.
Rattlesnake Gulch Trail in Eldorado Canyon State park (3.8 miles)
- Description – Just south of Boulder lies the mouth of an incredible canyon featuring elegant pines, private trail systems and great solitude! The Rattlesnake Gulch Trail features an old hotel foundation, incredible canyon views and a bird’s eye view of the Continental Divide. Check out the visitor center up the canyon for a complete trail maps; there are some other great trails in the canyon such as the Fowler Trail, Walker Ranch Loop and Crescent Meadows.
- Directions – From highway 93, drive west on CO 170 approx. 3 miles into the town of Eldorado Springs. Drive slowly through the town to reach the park entrance and into the mouth of the canyon. There is an $8/car fee to enter the State Park. The Rattlesnake Gulch Trailhead is located .7 miles past the fee station on the left hand side of the road. At the first intersection on the trail, take the right trail continuing up the canyon. The trail is well marked from here.
- Relevant Information – Dogs are permitted in Eldorado Canyon State Park. For a detailed trail map and GPS coordinates, check out ProTrails’ write up.
Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park (3.5 miles)
- Description – The trail to Emerald Lake passes Nymph Lake and Dream Lake as it climbs steadily uphill to reach Emerald Lake. Many folks hike to Nymph Lake and turn around there. The further you hike towards Emerald Lake, the less people you will see. For the real prize in this hike, don’t stop at the shore of Emerald Lake! Hike around the lake on the left hand side skirting the boulder field towards the waterfall. From the right side of the waterfall, start up the scree field following a very slight climber trail. Make your way up as far as you desire depending on your ability and enjoy the peaceful solitude with a few marmots overlooking Emerald Lake from a different viewpoint.
- Directions – From Estes Park, follow HWY 36 towards Rocky Mountain National Park. Pass the fee station ($20/day, $80 annual pass for ANY National Park) and turn left on Bear Lake Rd and drive until you reach the Bear Lake Parking Area after about 9 miles. From the trailhead, the trail is very well marked. Head left towards Nymph Lake then on to Dream Lake and finally Emerald Lake.
- Relevant Information – Dogs are not permitted on the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. For a more detailed description of the hike with mile markers and gps coordinates, check out this trail description.
Tips and Tricks
- The best way to enjoy nature is make it your own adventure! Sure, you may only have Saturdays and Sundays off work to play but avoid crowds and mainstream activities by planning an overnight backpacking trip, hike up a mountain under the full moon or explore by making your own trail.
- Begin your hikes early in the morning, you’ll be rewarded with fewer people and the incredible morning light casting reflections on lakes.
- Even if the weather in Denver is a warm and balmy 80 degrees, be sure to bring extra layers for the higher elevation!
Happy Trails, Folks!!