It might be getting warmer in Denver, but in the higher altitudes in Colorado, cold weather and snow tend to linger a little longer. (The higher you get, the more likely you are to encounter snow, even in June and July.) Fortunately for hikers ready to shake the dust off their boots, there are plenty of Colorado trails scattered across the state to kick off your season.
Before you hit the trail, be sure to check the weather forecast. Conditions can change quickly in Colorado, and a day that starts off pleasant and sunny can quickly turn cold and wet. This also means occasional muddy trails, even at low elevations. Avoid hiking on trails that are saturated, as leaving tons of footprints in muddy trails damages them for other users. If you do encounter a little mud, walk right through it rather than widening the trail—that’s what sturdy hiking shoes are for.
Ready to strap on your daypack and get to hiking? Check out these seven Colorado trails perfect for an early season hike.
1. Waterton Canyon | Littleton
Distance: 6.5 miles one-way to the dam
Start your hiking season off with a quick jaunt on the Colorado Trail. Waterton Canyon is the 486-mile trail’s eastern terminus, which means it’s a short drive from Denver and is at a fairly low elevation. In the spring and early summer, the canyon comes to life: foliage is in bloom and you have good odds of seeing bighorn sheep. It’s 6.5 miles alongside the South Platte River to the dam that creates the Strontia Springs Reservoir, but you can make this out-and-back hike as long or short as you like. Leave the pups at home for this one—in order to protect wildlife habitat, they’re not allowed on the trail.
2. Red Rocks Trail | Morrison
Distance: 6 miles round trip
Ask any Coloradan about Red Rocks, and they’ll tell you all about the famous amphitheater. But Red Rocks is so much more than a concert venue—the trails in the area are open to hikers during the day and many a morning boot camp is held in the stands. To get the most bang for your buck, park at Matthews/Winters Park at the north end of the trail. The Morrison Slide Trail leads toward Red Rocks Park, where you’ll see stunning geological formations (don’t climb on them—you’ll likely get a citation) and probably mule deer. You can turn this one into a 7-mile loop by heading back to your car via the Dakota Ridge Trail. Enjoy the sweeping views of the Front Range and downtown Denver along the way.
3. Centennial Cone Park | Golden
Distance: 12 miles round trip
Thanks to its location in the foothills, Golden has no shortage of excellent early season hikes. Walking through Centennial Cone Park often feels like being in the mountains, but without the long-lingering snow. The park is accessible from three points: Clear Creek Canyon at the Mayhem Gulch Trailhead and north in two points in Golden Gate Canyon. Part of the full loop is closed for elk calving until mid-June, but this doesn’t detract from the hike at all—it’s still a great out-and-back on the Travois Trail from the Camino Perdido access (You might even get to see cute elk calves in the park’s interior!). Check the schedule before you head out: on weekdays any mode of transport is fair game, but on weekends, hiking is only allowed on odd-numbered dates.
4. Royal Arch Trail | Boulder
Distance: 3.5 miles round trip
Like most outdoor adventures in Boulder, this hike is a lung-buster. Start at the Chautauqua Trailhead for a visit to the ranger station and check on any closures, then head up toward the iconic flatirons. The Royal Arch Trail is short, clocking in at around 3.5 miles, but it packs a punch—expect to climb many flights of rock stairs. In fact, lots of hikers bring trekking poles for this one to save their knees on the way down. Once you reach the top, walk through the arch and scramble around on the rocks, where you’ll get a world-class view of Boulder.
5. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park | Evergreen
Distance: 7-10 miles round trip
Alderfer/Three Sisters truly feels like you’re deep in the mountains, but it’s at a low enough elevation that it’s typically snow- and mud-free early in the hiking season. The park boasts more than 15 miles of trail through stands of ponderosa pine and is also a popular destination for mountain biking and rock climbing. The Three Sisters Trail leads you almost seven miles up and over one of the park’s tall rock outcroppings, or follow the trails around the park’s perimeter for a 10-mile loop.
6. Lily Lake | Estes Park
Distance: approx. .8 miles round trip
Rocky Mountain National Park is definitely at high elevation—it’s even home to the iconic 14,259-foot Longs Peak, which you can see from the Lily Lake Trail—but in the late spring and early summer, you’ll find snow-free conditions in parts of the park. The level, easily-accessible loop around the lake itself is only about a mile long, but the trail also offers access to numerous spur trails. (There’s also excellent sport climbing just off the trail above the lake.) As the temperatures start to warm up, keep an eye out for tiger salamanders.
7. Colorado National Monument | Fruita
Distance: Varies from 0.5 to 17 miles round trip
You don’t have to leave Colorado to make it to the desert, and spring/early summer is a great time to see the cactus in bloom at Colorado National Monument. The park has several short nature trails where you can watch as the desert comes to life. If you’re craving a little more adventure, the monument is also home to rugged, remote backcountry trails, including the Black Ridge and Liberty Cap Trails. Always keep an eye on the weather in the desert—if there’s rain in the forecast, steer clear of washes and canyons, where you might encounter flash flooding. (Note: Pets and bikes aren’t allowed in Colorado National Monument.)
Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated in partnership with 37.5.
Featured image provided by Todd Petrie