06 August 2013

Some of my favorite hikes in Northern Colorado

Gem Lake, RMNP

There are tons of online guides for finding hikes in Northern Colorado and the Denver area, but when I started searching recently with my own criteria in mind (shade, nearby beer), I couldn't find any variety in the listings.  Everybody thinks that you should spend as much time in Rocky Mountain National Park as you can, and I agree--that park is amazing.  It reminds me of just how incredible and diverse this country is every time I go, and since I only live 47 miles away, I go as often as possible.  But my most of my favorite hikes there generally take a half-day and/or a whole lot of energy.  The restaurants in Estes Park are terrible, and so is the beer. What about when it's hot out and you want some shade?  And some food and beer? What about when your sea level-dwelling friends and family come to visit and they hate you for taking them on the "easy" Gem Lake hike (that happened)?  And then there's the tourist traffic in the summer, which is welcome because that's how we make our money in Colorado, but it can get a little tiring if you know where you want to go and don't want to walk at a snail's pace, stopping in front of every crappy "Native American" jewelry store along the way.

Here are some great, quieter spots with hikes that will offer beautiful views, proximity to good beer and food (a must), and occasionally some shade, all without killing you if you're not from around here or it's been a while since you got out of the office.

In Boulder-ish:

Betasso Preserve, Canyon Loop Trail: This trail looks pretty easy, but we were surprisingly tired and hungry by the end.  There are some moderately steep sections, and the starting elevation is a bit higher than some. It's a 3.3 mile loop that takes you through some great shady areas and down some narrow paths you must share with bikes, but the park does a great job of controlling the traffic.  Every day, there is a sign that announces which direction bikers must take (and there will be a lot of them!), so walkers are encourage to go in the opposite direction.  If you're with someone who doesn't want to work up a sweat, stop in either direction at the first overlook with a bench, which provides a great view of the city of Boulder, and come back to the trail head to wander the short nature trail that takes you behind the bathrooms off the parking lot.

Forsythe Canyon West of Boulder

Forsythe Canyon: This 2-ish mile out-and-back trail is rated "easy" by most sources and has several shady sections as you walk along a waterfall, a stream, a lake, and through a canyon with some great wild flowers in June and July. Great sights and a pleasant stroll for groups with mixed physical abilities.  Dog allowed.

Eldorado Canyon State Park: There's a fee to park at this one, but they deserve it, don't they?  After all, they're providing you with this beautiful park.  Sorry for getting all political on you. There are several hikes here of varying difficulty, and they are all terrific.  The Streamside Trail is the shortest (.5 mile one way) and follows close to the sides of the creek and canyon walls. The Fowler Trail takes you .7 miles (one way) and provides great views of the canyon. The Rattlesnake Gulch Trail is more difficult, traveling 1.4 miles up to the ruins of the Crags Hotel that burned there in 1912. Another trail goes from the hotel another .8 mile loop and features a view of Colorado’s continental divide. The Eldorado Canyon Trail is the longest, 3.5 miles (one way), eventually intersecting with the Walker Ranch Loop Trail.  Great picnic spots abound in this park. 

Glen Haven/Estes Park area:

We love Crosier Mountain, in the town of Glen Haven, just east of Estes Park.  If you're visiting RMNP and want a good workout without the crowds during vacation season, had down (East) on US-34 and take a left in Drake, where you see the sign for Glen Haven.  At 1857 miles in elevation gain, this is not the hike to take your kids on, but if you make it the entire 3.7 miles to the top (there's a little scrambling along steep but stable, wide rocks at the end), you'll get a 360 degree view of the area.  There's not a lot of shade on this one, and it's rated "moderate to strenuous", making it a bit more work than the others I have listed here, but it's a great hidden gem when the crowds at Estes Park are getting to you and one of our favorites, so I wanted to include it here.

Fort Collins area:

Of course, Horsetooth Reservoir and Lory State Park (both have an admission fee) offer myriad wonderful trails and riparian landscapes.  Poudre Canyon has quite a few nice trails, too, so I'll just single out...

Young Gulch in Poudre Canyon

Young Gulch is in the Poudre Canyon, northwest of Fort Collins. It is 9 miles round trip and an easy to moderate hike, rising 1,000 feet in elevation. Much of the canyon is shaded, making it a great place to go in August.  It's popular in the summer, so arrive before 11am to ensure parking is available. The trail winds along a creek. It starts out fairly level in a meadow with ample wildflowers and then leads into the tress about a 1/2 mile in. If you hike during late spring, you can find a small pool in the rocks with a beautiful waterfall flowing into it. The last mile does get quite steep, and if there is still snow on the ground it can slow you down a bit.  If you don't do that last bit, you'll still have gotten a great show. 

The historic Hall Ranch just West of Lyons has some great trails that are longer than they are steep, so you can turn back at any time if someone gets tired or cranky.  Hall Ranch is rich in wildlife. It is considered a crucial nesting habitat for numerous birds. Predatory birds such as golden eagles hunt here and are always on the lookout for a feast of prairie dog or squirrel. White-tailed deer and rabbit are also commonly seen from the trail. One of the better places for observing wildlife at Hall Ranch is in the meadow at the junction of Bitterbrush and Nelson Loop.  The oldest rock in the area is about 1.7 billion years old and the youngest is approximately 62 million years old. The rocks are a mix of sandstone and granite. Bitterbrush Trail is 5.9 miles one-way, and a lot of it is in the sun, so you could save this one for winter when other trails are snow-packed and the cool weather encourages a longer walk.  However, the town of Lyons is a lot of fun in summer.
Nearby food/beer: It's not as obvious as Boulder or Fort Collins, where you are surrounded by great breweries and restaurants, but you should stop at the original Oscar Blues in Lyons,.  It's good pub food, fantastic beer, and  has a great relaxed, grubby vibe like Lyons itself. This is definitely my favorite town in Boulder Country.  There is also a little family farm along the South side of the road on the way back to town with an inconspicuous sign selling "Fresh Eggs" in the summer.  Stop and get the eggs.  They are amazing, and so are the owners. 

Adorable Lyons, CO