DestiNATION Denver

10 Beautiful Hikes to Take Near Denver

stone lake
Stone Lake | ProTrails.com
Stone Lake | ProTrails.com
If you're even thinking of being in Denver, check out the rest of our DestiNATION Denver travel guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do in the Mile High.

Shhh... do you hear that? If you hoist your sticker-adorned Nalgene up to your ear at just the right angle, you can hear an amped-up Denverite talking about a trail they just conquered. With endless sunshine and mind-blowing views courtesy of some of the highest peaks in North America, the Rockies suffer no shortage of great hiking options -- many of which can be found within an hour or two of the city.

Obviously, there’s a big difference between a short-and-sweet stroll and an all-day odyssey requiring a serious supply of water and snacks. So to give you a sense of what you’re in for, we’ve ranked our favorite trails on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, from easiest to hardest, with 1 being a relaxed ramble and 10 being a quad-killing, lung-busting effort requiring focus and fortitude to reach the ultimate reward: the view from the top.

Mayflower Gulch Trail

Distance from Denver: 78 miles
Difficulty: 3
Length: 5.9 miles round-trip
Best for: Flatlanders looking for Colorado hiking cred... and families with kids

Get a glimpse into Colorado’s gold and silver mining history. The Mayflower Gulch trailhead sits just off Interstate 70 at the Copper Mountain Exit 91 South toward Leadville. After a short walk through a thick forest, fields of wildflowers and old mining cabins make for great photo opps, and the shortness of the journey means plenty of time to meander (be careful off-trail, though, because there are mine shafts all around). An extra (and super-steep) half-mile hike past the cabins nets views over the ridge -- the initial stopping point -- of a wide expanse of meadows backed by sawtooth peaks.

Copper Mountain is in Summit County, one of the most densely recreational sections of the state -- Breckenridge, Keystone, Leadville, Frisco, Lake Dillon, and Silverthorne (famous for its outlets) are all within easy striking distance. Grab a pint -- keeping in mind that the altitude can be one hell of a buzz accelerator -- at the High Rockies Whiskey and Wine Bar, a convivial dive that barrel-ages on-site and lets you build your own flatbread (we recommend the figs and Brie, with a little fresh basil).

St. Mary’s Falls Trail

Distance from Denver: 77 miles
Difficulty: 5
Length: 6.9 miles round-trip
Best for: A moderately difficult waterfall hike where the journey is just as pretty as the destination

Most hikers head toward the Seven Bridges hike that splits off from this 6.9-mile out-and-back near Colorado Springs’ North Cheyenne Cañon Park, especially during the week, and that makes this a good choice for those who want to spend some time checking out the United States Air Force Academy or the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame - Museum of the American Cowboy before (or after). This is one of those hikes that taxes beginners and makes the advanced feel accomplished because the uphill isn’t the steepest, but will assuredly keep you on your toes. Brook trout can be seen in the creek along the way as you wind in and out of the woods, and keep in mind that the road to the trailhead can be gnarly, so very low-clearance vehicles will struggle. On your way back, stop in at TAPAteria for creative cocktails and Spanish snacks.

Booth Creek Trail | Brendan Bombaci/flickr

Booth Falls Trail

Distance from Denver: 101 miles
Difficulty: 6
Length: 3.9 miles round-trip
Best for: Visitors to the Vail Valley with limited time and the itch to see a waterfall

The reward for this straight-up trail is the 60-foot-high Booth Falls, made even more magnificent in fall by the surrounding endless expanse of shimmering gold aspens. Take your time here. There are views of the valley and the Gore Range en route -- this hike changes to a 7 rating if you try to rush up -- and the view of the drainage you just climbed is a nice sight on the way down. When you get to the falls, there are several options: Take one of the many social trails to get up close and personal with the falls, or take the overlook path to get a wider angle.

The parking lot is always full, but there’s a bus stop right by the trailhead, and if you start early, you might have the falls to yourself for a hot minute. Post-hike, since you’re already here, you might as well act like a local and hit up the rustic charmer Bart & Yeti’s, where you can rest your weary limbs, people-watch, and check out live local music on the expansive outdoor deck while sampling a textbook version of Colorado’s unique brand of chile verde.

Cristine Laird King
Summit of Hell's Hole Trail | Cristine Laird King

Hell’s Hole Trail

Distance from Denver: 43 miles
Difficulty: 6
Length: 3.9 miles round-trip
Best for: Directionally challenged hikers looking for a more straightforward but still badass hike that avoids the Mount Evans mayhem

While the rest of the hordes head to the summit of popular Mount Evans in their cars just to brag that they’ve bagged a 14er, smarter summit-seekers know that the Hell’s Hole hike is seriously misnamed. Weaving between aspen forests and grassy meadows, this pretty trek crosses West Chicago Creek several times and offers many opportunities to take photos of the mountain goats and bighorn sheep that call the Mount Evans Wilderness home. Flatlanders will appreciate that there are no switchbacks or confusing trail crossings -- it’s a simple, 9-mile out-and-back with a gradually increasing grade. You know you’re done when you reach the obvious base of Gray Wolf Mountain. Meanwhile, that alleged hole from hell turns out to be a dried-up glacial cirque (in other words, a big, wide-open valley that’s nonetheless jaw-droppingly gorgeous).

Pack a picnic lunch for the tree stump at the top, and if you’re feeling brawny, keep in mind that Gray Wolf offers more intensity on its east wall. Either way, when you’re back down, the return drive -- famously the most hellacious part of this journey -- takes you past Idaho Springs, where zip lining and river rafting offer more intense ways to test your mettle. Refuel at Westbound & Down Brewing Co., which sends out local buffalo in burger form from its partner restaurant, along with a deliciously fruity-hopped, house-brewed double IPA.

Elk Falls Overlook
Elk Falls Overlook | Courtesy of GoHikeColorado

Elk Falls Overlook

Distance from Denver: 39 miles
Difficulty: 7
Length: 10.8 miles round-trip
Best for: Tackling something close to Denver that still lets you feel like you really got out there, man

Staunton State Park is one of Colorado’s best state parks, and Elk Falls is just one of its many hidden gems. Famous for being the highest waterfall closest to Denver, Elk Falls starts at 8,200 feet and gains another 900 as it passes through large stands of ponderosa pine and massive granite cliffs. The Foothills locale means the weather won’t be as quick to turn mid-day, and because this is a state park, there’s plenty of parking (although the line to get in after, say, 10am on weekends can be daunting). Plan to spend some time at the park before or after, as well, but there are a lot of cool things to explore in its nearly 4,000 acres, including a well-varied natural rock-climbing area, streams to cool your feet off in, and fishing in the Elk Falls Pond.

Those up for a culinary (and driving) adventure can take on the curvy road to the fun and funky Bucksnort Saloon, which feels like the Old West on acid and serves up a near-legendary half-pound mess of a burger. If you’re running out of time but want something healthy, try a quick, organic, locally sourced bite at Taspen’s Cosmic Kitchen, which serves burgers made from Colorado yak (no joke) and sends out a chicken pot pie that’ll surely have you salivating with joy.

Summit Adventure Trail

Distance from Denver: 63 miles
Difficulty: 6
Length: 9.1 miles round-trip
Best for: History buffs wanting a workout with a side of information, and those who want to say they hiked all day, man, but still got some lungs left

Topping out at just 8,450 feet, the Summit Adventure Trail on Sheep Mountain in the Roosevelt National Forest certainly isn’t the highest peak around, but don’t let that fool you -- the upper sections of this 9.1-mile round-tripper require some serious stamina. The flood of 2013 turned much of this area into one giant mud pie, shutting down the designated National Recreation Trail and its beautiful peek into Rocky Mountain National Park for years. But now it’s kindergarten all over again at the beginning, which starts with the 1-mile Foothills Nature Trail, complete with a brochure you can download pointing out the medicinal uses of plants and spots where Native American tribes and pioneers may have hunted. The next 3.5 miles to the top become increasingly steep and a bit of a slog of tight switchbacks and sketchy scree, putting some teeth into this designated National Recreation Trail. Beware of horse shit (literally) and the occasional mountain biker, but also keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep and elk.

There’s a bailout option if that first mile is all you can handle, but it’s worth it to hang in there to get the views of anglers working Big Thompson Canyon, as well as the eastern plains along the way. When what can turn into a very long day is done, wine drinkers will love the extensive list in nearby Loveland at Origins Wine Bar & Wood-Fired Pizza, whose top-notch wood-fired pies include the crispy-crusted soppressata and honey, or go for the moonshine and fried oysters at the aptly named Mo’ Betta Gumbo, a Mardi Gras-festive spot that also does a mean ettouffée.

Storm Pass Trail to Estes Cone

Distance from Denver: 67 miles
Difficulty: 8
Length: 7.5 miles round-trip
Best for: Avoiding the national park pandemonium while still getting a 360-degree vista of the best stuff

An iconic sight at the eastern edge of an iconic destination, Estes Cone in Rocky Mountain National Park isn’t a volcano, but a really big round mound formed by natural erosion. The trail starts at Lily Lake (which asks for a $20 donation collected on the honor system near the trailhead) and you’ll get to check off all of those fabulous must-sees: the Estes Valley, the Mummy Range, the Continental Divide, Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, and Twin Sisters, as well as a satisfying look at where you came from when Lily Lake appears far below. Not to mention the many, many people sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get through the park.

After starting off on the Storm Pass Trail, veer off onto the Estes Cone trail. You’ll get to see Longs Peak for a long time at the beginning, and get ready for the last bit that requires big-time bouldering. Hang on to your snack when you stop at the top -- the chipmunks up here are infamously savage. The Cone’s shape was created by the same open isolation that makes it a lightning rod, so although the enticing rocky outcroppings along the way provide places to rest, you'll need to hustle to get back down before afternoon to avoid being fried like a Rocky Mountain oyster.

Meanwhile, a much better meal than said oysters awaits you at the original Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Brews in Estes Park, which cooks up a killer cornmeal-crusted catfish, as well as mac & cheese with chiles and bacon, and a Kentucky bourbon pecan pie that you most certainly have earned, all ready to be washed down with one of 15 beers on tap.

stone lake
Stone Lake | ProTrails.com

Stone Lake

Distance from Denver: 96 miles
Difficulty: 8
Length: 12.3 miles round-trip
Best for: Hikers who would rather explore something hidden than go where everyone else goes -- namely nearby Mirror, Gourd and Crater lakes -- as well as fly-fishing folk

For a classic hike to a high-alpine lake, it’s hard to beat the Stone Lake trail, winding through dense forests of aspen and bristlecone pine via the Roaring Fork drainage leading up to Mount Irving Hale Pass. Leave from the east side of Granby Lake, and be prepared for a tough start, followed by a mellow middle, and then a really tough final ascent, boosted by ridiculously photogenic views of the Indian Peaks. About halfway to the lake at the pass, the open area hosting the remains of an old cabin is popular with elk, and also offers wild raspberries for most of the year. Who knows why the people who name natural features are so obsessed with the word “hell,” but Hell Canyon is a surprisingly heavenly place, although the steep descent can be loose and slippery, and signals that you’re about to hit the final, brutal uphill to the lake.

Be aware that not only is it a tough trek, but it’s also not well marked; a good topo is your friend here. If fishing and camping are your goals, in less than a half mile past Stone Lake, Upper Stone Lake offers an even more remote locale in an equally stunning setting, with its backdrop of the 12,000-plus Hiamovi Mountain and Cooper Peak.

If you’d rather spend the night in an old-school motel, the quaint little mountain town of Granby -- which you’ll see from the trail -- is one hell of a throwback, flanked by forest and walkable from one end to the other. In case you didn’t get enough river or lake in your life -- natives of the landlocked state never do -- Mustachio’s On The Lake is the place for a good night’s sleep and a delicious meal (think rack of lamb and lobster ravioli), all, you guessed it, with a view of Granby Lake itself. On the way out of town, Showboat’s Drive By Pie bakes the best green chile apple pie you’ve never heard of.

mount audubon trail
Mount Audubon Trail | ProTrails.com

Mount Audubon Trail

Distance from Denver: 55 miles
Difficulty: 9
Length: 7.9 miles round-trip
Best for: Getting some of that much lauded Continental Divide time and Front Range views in all their panoramic glory

Because of its close proximity to Boulder, Brainard Lake Recreation Area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is mecca for the multitudes of weekend warriors longing to use the word krummholz seven times in a sentence. Here’s the good news: The Mount Audubon Trail can help make that happen, because just a few miles from the 13,223-foot summit, the trees all sport that characteristic wind-blown, bent-over shape. More than half of the varied terrain -- from easygoing spruce-lined singletrack and open tundra, to steep switchbacks and some boulder scrambling -- is above tree line and feels like serious work, because of the monster 2,789-foot total elevation gain and the fact that at 13,223 feet, oxygen-hungry lungs start to heave like a romance-novel bosom. The payoff views are epic, though, and why we all agree to suffer (added bonus: you might see a moose!).

It’s almost always a party at the summit, if only because everyone feels like they’ve done something, and isn’t it way more fun to say “holy shit!” when someone else can affirm your efforts? If it’s a windy day, the handmade rock shelters are the way to go -- just hunker down and get psyched to point those jackhammering quads downward. If you start early like the savvy, you’re down before the afternoon thunderstorms kick in, which means it’s time to head to Marrocco’s Family Dining in the tiny town of Ward for exactly the kind of carb-loaded Italian meal you’re craving, served in a cozy circa 1894 cabin.

Barr Trail

Distance from Denver: 75 miles
Difficulty: 10
Length: 24 miles round-trip
Best for: In-shape hikers looking to check a solid 14er off their bucket lists

Barr Trail is a commitment. Pikes Peak is not the easiest 14er to climb (of Colorado’s 53 peaks that summit out at more than 14,000 feet high), but it’s one of the most beloved -- and one of the most attempted (more than 150,000 do so annually). Leave before the crack of dawn, and plan to camp overnight if you can. Plenty of people make the 24-mile up-and-down journey to 14,115 feet in one day, but the 7,800 feet in elevation gain (yep, you read that right) and potential for the hike to take 10-14 hours has been known to do in even the most self-assured of trailblazers... so only attempt if you have acclimated.

Once you get there, order a hot donut from the shop at the top -- which they have been serving for more than a hundred years -- and take in the views across Colorado and into Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Kansas, along with the curvature of the planet (sorry not sorry Flat Earthers).

If you need to bail, you can always rough it overnight at Barr Camp and make your way down the next day, or bail entirely and hop on the Cog Railway to the top. Either way, treat yourself to one of Manitou Springs’ best restaurants, either the stellar Slow Food at the cozy Adam’s Mountain Café (try the life-sustaining quinoa-based Buddha Bowl) or if you’re in more of a hurry, Manitou Brewing Company at the base of Pikes Peak for a pour of Red Rock Red Rye and pulled pork tacos (pro-tip: get two orders, you'll need it).

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Kyle Wagner has been a Colorado-based food, travel, and outdoors writer and editor since 1993, and she hopes that never changes. Follow her on Twitter.