50 Hikes 50 States Project–Colorado
Colorful Colorado. From the nation’s tallest mountain range to red rocks and prairies, Colorado dazzles with healthy people constantly enjoying the beautiful outdoors. Everyone wants to be outside.
Even the state’s lotto contributes to the outdoors, giving its proceeds to trail building and outdoor recreation.
So picking one hike to do for this 50 Hikes 50 States Project might have been one of the toughest challenge of this project. With such richness of choice, what would I pick as the one hike to do in Colorado?
Back to the Project’s Criteria
To top it off, Colorado is my home state, and picking one trail to recommend is like favoring a child. It might be impossible to pick without bias and with clear direction. Thus I returned to the criteria I’ve relied on this entire project in my trail picking. Ideally the trail will
- Quintessentially represent the state
- Be within 2-3 hours of a major airport, and
- Loop for 3-5 miles.
And for Colorado, I think it might be necessary to throw in some required wildlife.
No High Country Hikes
For Colorado, I knew the hike needed to be near Denver. I refused to find a hike in the high country, where the altitude at 9000 feet to 14500 challenges even the locals. So I immediately eliminated some of the popular places people like to hike and ski in Colorado like Breckenridge, Aspen, Vail, or Steamboat Springs. Plus, with the exception of Breckenridge, these quaint hamlets are too far for the driving criteria.
Along the Front Range, an area the locals know as the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains that borders the large cities of Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs, many hikes attract locals every day. From the Flat Irons in Boulder to the crazy and very difficult Manitou Incline just outside of Colorado Springs, a hiker can stay busy every day of the year and not repeat a single hike.
Where do I get my gear? REI exclusively. I love their return policy.
Which isn’t to say that you should overlook Denver, the city, itself. Within Denver there are over 300 parks, 200 miles of trails, and all the urban hiking you’d ever want to know. I should know; I wrote the book about Denver’s hikes and maintain its number one website for Denver hiking.
But honestly, I really wanted to stick to the quintessential-ness of the criteria. Although my heart wanted to recommend one of the fabulous trails in Denver such as the Sand Creek Greenway, the Platte River Trail or the High Line Canal Trail, these trails don’t really represent the collective beauty of Colorado.
>>A Word on Altitude Sickness<<
Hiking in Colorado can be challenging for anyone. Your fitness level DOES NOT determine your ability to handle Denver’s elevation of 5280′ or the higher elevations in the high country. It’s best to take time to acclimate to the area by arriving, resting a day or two, then working your way up the mountains to the higher elevations. Going from the Denver airport straight to an outdoor activity of hiking, skiing or snowboarding can cause for lots of discomfort, such as headaches, shortness of breath, and other issues, for those not acclimated.
In addition to taking your time to acclimate, carry a water bottle with you, drinking twice as much water as you normally would at lower elevations. Even the locals who are acclimated carry water with them everywhere.
The Perfect Colorado Trail to Hike
I wanted to find a hike that showed the Rockies, the plains or the meadows of the east, and the amazing red rock sculptures (after all Red Rocks Amphitheater is the number one outdoor music venue in the world.) The hike also had to be not too-well known, preferably free to enter (so that excluded Roxborough State Park and Rocky Mountain National Park on both accounts), and stayed under 8000 feet in elevation so that our visiting sea-level friends would enjoy themselves.
Based on this criteria, if you’re a Denver local, what would you have recommended?
I picked South Valley Park in the Ken Caryl area of metro Denver in Littleton.
South Valley Park Hike
The Colorow and Ute once called the area home. Ranchers eventually developed the area for dairy and beef ranching, and ultimately Ken Caryl’s name was derived from a rancher’s two sons’ names. Many locals know Ken Caryl as the place where (Lockheed Martin) Martin Marietta’s research lab created the Titan rocket.
I know it as a place to hike and one that showcases some of the best features of colorful Colorado. Right from the start at the trail head, you’ll see all three elements that make Colorado unique. The Front Range of the Rockies are to the west, red rock formations jut to sky in the east, and meadows full of deer sway to the south. It’s a perfect trail any time of the year.
If you hike in the winter, you might want to bring cleats and poles, as it can get icy in a few spots.
We hiked in at the end of summer, right before the fall trees pop, which would probably be the best time of the year to hike it. Sunset and sunrise make the hike even more spectacular, regardless of what season you hike the trail.
But no matter when you go, you won’t go wrong.
A Good Energetic Loop for Hiking
You’ll walk a basic loop that has a long steady down hill and a steep uphill if you do the loop in a counter clockwise route. Conversely, a quick uphill, a steep downhill, and a long uphill great you if you walk the loop in a clockwise route. I enjoy this walk immensely because there are spurs that jut up to high points.
You won’t want to miss the Lyon’s Back Trail spur at sunset. And you’ll catch the herd of white tall deer grazing throughout the park.
If you do the full loop and the spurs, you’ll hike 3 miles. Cross the street for an additional 2-3 mile loop that will keep you entertained for another hour, if necessary.
Go Vegan without Fear
Once you’ve finished consuming the beauty of this all-encompassing hike, head back into town for what might be the best vegan food in Colorado. Either enjoy City O City, or its sister restaurant, Watercourse Foods, where I love their all-vegan Turkey and Brie sandwich with a side of mac n cheese. Denver has a great vegan scene, so you not only won’t go hungry, but you’ll have many choices on most menus beyond your standard black bean burger.