Autumn is my favorite time to head into Colorado’s high country. Though wildflowers depart, quivering gold Aspen leaves arrive. The trails are quieter, air cooler, lightning gone. Late last September, my husband, Dale, and I drove up gorgeous Guanella Pass to hike Mount Bierstadt. Though I usually covet the showy palette of spring wildflowers, the rich rose-gold of sun on plants and rocks was a revelation.
Another revelation: how much I huffed and puffed on this, my second, visit to what’s supposed to be Colorado’s easiest Fourteener. If you’ve never hiked a 14,000-foot peak before, Bierstadt is a great introduction. But don’t let the word “easiest” fool you. It’s still high altitude, which means less oxygen and more work. It’s only about seven miles, but clear your whole day, pack a lunch, and bring plenty of warm layers. Even when it’s hot at the bottom, it’s always shockingly cold at the top – with winds as fierce as the teeth of Sawtooth Ridge, which links Bierstadt to Mount Evans. (If you’re a daring hiker, you can scramble across the ridge and bag two peaks in one day.)
Driving to Bierstadt is easy. Take I-70 to the Georgetown exit and follow signs through town for Guanella Pass Road. Take that road 11.8 miles up from town. You’ll see parking lots on both sides of the road. The trail starts on the east (left) side. The drive alone is worth it, as you’ll see at the beginning of this short video of the trail:
Hiking Mount Bierstadt – Guanella Pass, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
Nederland boasts some of Colorado’s prettiest hikes, with waterways, wildflowers (or fall colors), and views of the Continental Divide. Around this time last year, my husband Dale and I hiked the three-mile round trip to Lost Lake – more like four miles since part of the road leading to Hessie Trailhead was under water, forcing us to park the car below that and hoof it. Hessie is busy on weekends, but since Dale has Mondays off and I set my own schedule, we hike on Mondays so we can enjoy some solitude. If weekends are your only option, I suggest waiting until after Labor Day. Even if it’s still a bit busy, the scenery is worth it, as you can see in the video below.
If you head to Hessie from Denver, take U.S. Highway 36 West to Boulder, turn left on Canyon Blvd/Colorado 119, and drive through the canyon to Nederland. At Nederland’s traffic circle, take Highway 72 north through town for about half a mile, and turn right on County Road 130. Pass the turnoff for the Eldora Ski Resort and drive through the town of Eldora to a dirt road. About three-quarters of a mile down that road, you’ll see the area where most people park for the walk to the trailhead. From there, here’s what your hike will look like…if it’s really windy:
Hiking to Lost Lake – Hessie Trailhead, Nederland, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
Every year I think I’m going to stop discovering more hiking trails near Denver, and every year proves me wrong. Late last summer I discovered the Eldorado Canyon Trail in Eldorado Canyon State Park. This gem lies tucked away just past the Old West resort town of Eldorado Springs, five miles southwest of Boulder. The trail is about 8.5 miles roundtrip, but rumbling thunderheads warned my husband, Dale, and me to turn around early. We stopped at the ridge overlooking Walker Ranch and the distant Continental Divide, making the trip feel complete at a pleasant 5 miles.
Eldorado Canyon is also a great place for rock climbing, fishing, picnicking, or just listening to the peaceful rush of South Boulder Creek. To get to Eldorado Canyon from Denver, take I-25 to Highway 36 toward Boulder. Exit at Louisville-Superior, turn left at the light, and follow the signs for Eldorado Springs/Highway 170. Highway 170 will take you about 7.4 miles to the town of Eldorado Springs, where it becomes a dirt road that dead-ends at the park. The visitor’s center is one mile past the entrance, and you’ll find the trailhead there. Parking costs $8. Here’s a brief look at the creek and the trail, which are separate, but both worth a visit:
Hiking Eldorado Canyon Trail – Eldorado Springs, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
After spending several weeks out of town this summer, and adding a few new activities to my life – such as learning Tai Chi, and writing part two of my novel – I’ve been keeping my hikes relatively low-key this season. I’ve been focused on trails that are closer to Denver and less strenuous – though still challenging. That’s what recently took me to the Beaver Brook Trail and Chavez Loop, a hike that offers the feel of peaceful backcountry just a half-hour from the city. This hike through Clear Creek Canyon features plenty of my favorite natural feature: flowing water. It’s about 4 miles, with enough steep spots to work out the body and enough flowers to soothe the soul. If you want a quick getaway that leaves you plenty of time to have fun in town – maybe catch a farmers’ market before or a movie after – this is a perfect hike for you.
It’s really easy to get to the Beaver Brook Trailhead: just head west on I-70 for about 20 miles, get off at the Chief Hosa exit, turn right, and immediately turn right again onto the bumpy dirt road. That’s Stapleton Drive. Follow that road for about a mile to the trailhead. The hike starts at the short Braille Nature Center Trail, which has a guide rope and Braille interpretive signs for the blind. That leads to the Beaver Brook Trail, which meets the Chavez Loop. For the sighted, here’s a preview of what it all looks like:
Hiking Beaver Brook Trail & Chavez Loop – Clear Creek Canyon, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
To me, late September means it’s time to hit Colorado’s high country to see the Aspen turn the Rocky Mountains into shimmering gold. I love to drive the Peak-to-Peak Highway to see the show, and that makes a hike at Mount Audubon convenient. I’ve hiked this particular thirteener before (for non-Coloradans, that just means a peak over 13,000 feet). But the first time I didn’t have a video camera, so I thought I’d treat you to a brief video of my second visit.
If you want to visit Mount Audubon and throw in a good fall-foliage drive on the way, I recommend taking Coal Creek Canyon Road to Nederland, then taking the Peak-to-Peak Highway to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. You’ll need to pay $9 for a pass. The hike starts at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead. It’s about 8 miles round trip, but relatively easy as high-altitude hikes go, and the views of the Continental Divide are a spectacular reward for the effort. If you’d like a bit more information, check out my post on Indian Summer at Indian Peaks. But if you just want to see what makes this hike worth it, check out this video:
Hiking Mount Audubon: Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
The last time I hiked Red Rocks Trail, I started at the Matthews/Winters Park trailhead. But on Monday I wanted to focus more on Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the world’s coolest natural outdoor amphitheatre – except for maybe that floating movie theatre in Thailand. So this time I started from the trailhead at the Lower North Parking Lot of Red Rocks Park. I took Red Rocks Trail to the second junction with the Morrison Slide Trail, making a three-mile lollipop loop. If you do the same basic hike from the Matthews/Winters side, it’s about four miles.
Afterward, I rewarded myself with a short walk up to the amphitheatre. Even when no band is playing, the astonishing gathering of giant, red sandstone slabs rocks! They inspired me to buy tickets to take my teenage sister to see Gotye at Red Rocks next week. I only know a couple of Gotye’s songs, but I like them…and I can’t imagine a bad night at Red Rocks.
If you live in Denver, you probably know how to find Red Rocks. If not, you can go a few ways, but I prefer this one: Hampden/285 South, turn onto CO-470 toward I-70, take the Morrison Road exit, turn left, and follow the road through town as it changes names. When it becomes Highway 93, follow the signs to Red Rocks. You’ll need to wind through the park to hit the lower north lot. To start from the more hikerly trailhead, take 6th Avenue to I-70 to Highway 93 south, to Matthews/Winters Park. Here’s my promo for the amphitheatre trailhead: I saw a couple of deer there, which you’ll see in this video:
Hiking Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre – Red Rocks & Morrison Slide Loop from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.
Estes Park, Colorado is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and you don’t even have to pass through the official park entrance to reach many a lovely hike. Gem Lake is an easy-ish uphill walk of about 3.4 miles round trip, with rewarding views. Boulders and trees open up to show off 14,259-foot Long’s Peak and a range of 13ers, as you hike from nearly eight-thousand to nearly nine-thousand feet. The lake at the top is really more of a pond, but it’s surrounded by stunning granite formations. It’s a perfect spot for a picnic, if you don’t mind being harassed by small gangs of thieving chipmunks. I recommend going on a weekday for peace and quiet, and a chance to see raptors. We went on Monday, July 16, and even then we passed plenty of tourists.
The Gem Lake Trail is easy to find. Take US 36 to downtown Estes Park. From there, head north on MacGregor Avenue, which turns into Devils Gulch Road. Go less than a mile past the gateway to MacGregor Ranch, and turn left at the sign for the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. The parking lot isn’t far off Devils Gulch Road. Here’s a short video of a few things you might see along the trail, and yes, that sound at the end is a small afternoon thunderstorm:
Hiking Gem Lake – Rocky Mountain National Park, near Estes Park, Colorado from Cara Lopez Lee on Vimeo.