Colorado is filled with some of the most beautiful hikes in America. The landscape across the state varies from alpine, high desert, and plains. If you’re looking for adventure and the chance to find yourself in the outdoors, here is a guide to some of the most inspiring hikes in the state of Colorado.
1. Mount Zirkel Loop Trail
Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area is in Northwestern Colorado in Routt National Forest. This loop trail has it all: wildflowers, waterfalls, a rushing creek, and plenty of wildlife. This part of Colorado is one of the best places to find moose and elk. This loop begins at the Slavonia Trailhead in the wilderness area near Clark, Colorado.
The trail is 10.3 miles round trip, with about 2,400 feet of elevation gain. Hikers have reported that hiking the loop counterclockwise disperses the elevation gain to make the trail a little easier. Some of the trail has been washed out or devastated by a winter storm that occurred in 1997 known as the Routt Divide Blowdown, so bring a map and compass or download the trail map onto your phone with a service like AllTrails.
There are a couple river crossings, so be prepared to get wet with extra clothes and proper shoes.
The trail is on National Forest property, so dispersed camping is allowed, if you wanted to break up the hike. There are also designated campgrounds in other parts of the wilderness area. Dogs are allowed here, on leash only. The best season to hike this trail is June-September. In early June, there might still be snow on the trail which makes the washed out sections even more difficult to maneuver.
Length: 10.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
2. Conundrum Hot Springs
Conundrum Hot Springs sit high in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado. From the Conundrum Creek Trailhead, the Hot Springs are about 8.5 miles into the trail accompanied by an elevation gain of 2,400 feet. The trail follows Conundrum Creek through meadows and aspen groves.
There are a couple beautiful creek crossings along the trail. The first couple have bridges, the last one only has a rope you can hold as you walk across the creek.
Conundrum Creek Trail is lightly trafficked and used for other activities such as fishing and bird watching. The best season for this trail is June to September to avoid any snow on the trail or at camp.
To protect the Hot Springs, no dogs or campfires are permitted once you reach the campsites. You must also pack out human waste and toilet paper to avoid contaminating the hot springs water. The trailhead has a supply of Wag Bags available for hikers – do not take more than your group needs.
Each group is limited to 10 people, and multiple campsites must be reserved. You can find camping permit info and a mandatory Leave No Trace video HERE.
Length: 16.7 Miles Out & Back
Difficulty: Moderate to Hard
3. Rifle Falls
Rifle Falls is a lovely 0.6-mile hike to one of Colorado’s iconic waterfalls! This trail is good for all skill levels and fun for kids to explore. This loop trail is best used from March-October. The trail features an 80-foot triple waterfall, lush tropical-like greenery, and small limestone caves. On the surrounding trails, there are amazing rock formations that you can scramble on, and wildlife is prominent in this area.
There’s a trail off Squirrel Loop Trail that takes you to a fish hatchery nearby – a nice little find in the woods.
Rifle Falls State Park is close to I-70, which makes it a great and easy road-trip stop. Parking is limited, so getting there early might be your best bet. There is an $8 park entry fee. The park features picnic tables and restroom facilities near the trailhead to the falls. There are a few other trails throughout the state park you can venture on as well.
Dogs are allowed on trails and in campgrounds in Rifle State Park but must be kept on a leash. The park is open year-round but is most accessible between April and October. For information on camping here, look HERE.
Length: 0.6 Miles
4. Paint Mines Trail
Near Calhan, Colorado, Paint Mines Interpretive Park is a hidden gem of Colorado. Erosion by wind and water have created wondrous sandstone shapes and formations of varying colors. To accompany the beautiful colors of the rock, this park features unique flora and fauna. The park offers great views of Pikes Peak and the surrounding prairies of Eastern El Paso County.
The main trail is just under a 4-mile figure-8 loop. It is lightly trafficked and great for all skill levels. Paint Mines Park is tucked away and hidden in Eastern Colorado, which makes for quite the quiet and intimate day in a gorgeous and historic location.
No dogs, horses, bicycles, or motorized vehicles are allowed here to protect the site. No camping is allowed here, and it is prohibited to scramble or climb on any of the formations.
The park is open year-round but is best from March-October. The clay here can make the trail muddy and tricky after heavy rains or snow. While this figure-8 loop is the main trail through the park, there are a few trails that cut off from it that are great to explore as well. Washouts are common in areas due to the clay and can be mistaken for trails; try to avoid these to avoid adding to the erosion.
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
5. Sky Pond and Lake of Glass
Located in Rocky Mountain National Park, these high alpine lakes are worth the hike and commotion you’ll face at the trailhead. You can access the Lake of Glass and Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This trailhead also leads visitors to Alberta Falls, one of the Park’s most visited sites. The crowds dissipate once you pass the falls, however.
Since this is in a National Park, no dogs, horses, or bikes are allowed on the trail.
This is a 9 mile out and back trail with just over 1,700 feet of elevation gain. To get to the lakes, there are connections to other trails you will have to make. Be sure to note these somewhere BEFORE leaving… and bring a map! There will be no signs for the lakes for the first two miles of the hike in.
The route meanders through various trails, but also through amazing features of this Rocky Mountain landscape! You’ll pass through glacial valleys, cross footbridges, aspen groves, Alberta Falls and Timberline Falls, and (of course) the lakes! Glass Lake has a remarkable emerald hue and is filled with large trout.
The area between Glass Lake and Sky Pond are sprinkled with smaller ponds, wildflower filled meadows and streams.
Length: 9 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
6. The Manitou Incline
Colorado Springs’ resident training grounds and just simply a unique and extreme hike located in Manitou Springs. In just under one mile, there is a 2,000-foot elevation gain.
The mile up is made up of 2,744 large “steps” or railway ties. This line of stairs used to be a cog railway built to carry materials and supplies to build pipelines on Pikes Peak. In 1990, the Incline was closed down due to a rock slide damaging a section of the track. However, people kept climbing it even though it was illegal. It was officially reopened and legalized in 2013.
The damaged areas were also redone, and some ties were replaced at this time. It is free to hike the incline, but you will have to pay for lot or street parking.
Our in-depth guide: The Manitou Incline | Colorado’s Stairway to Heaven
Due to the extreme nature of this hike, no dogs are allowed (to protect them from being submitted to this type of exertion).
To descend, you can either walk back down the incline. This option is very harsh on knees, so I suggest taking the Barr Trail down. The Barr trail is a lovely switchback trail that many people jog down. There is also a bailout in the middle of the Incline that takes you to the Barr trail just before the infamous false summit.
Length: (With the Barr Trail descent) 3.6 miles
Difficulty: Very Hard
7. Saint Mary’s Glacier
Located near Idaho Springs, Colorado, Saint Mary’s Glacier is a short out and back trail to an alpine lake. This trail is very popular and wonderful for fishing, cross country skiing, rock climbing, and snowshoeing. Saint Mary’s Glacier (technically a semi-permanent snowfield) is open year-round to all activities such as skiing, glissading, and sledding.
This trail is often crowded, and parking is sparse, so getting there early will be your best bet. Parking in the lot is $5, but there is no fee to hike in. Dogs are allowed here but must always be on leash. The trail is rocky and hard to follow at times. If it is busy, you can usually just follow other people, or you can follow the sound of water as you go uphill to stay on-route.
The trail is a total of 1.9 miles out and back with only an 807-foot elevation gain. Some of the trail passes through private property, but the owners have allowed hikers to access the lake for years. It is best to keep this access going and stay on the trail and do not fish or camp until you are above Saint Mary’s lake. This is on national forest land, so dispersed camping is permitted.
Length: 1.9 miles
8. Timberline Falls
Located in Rocky Mountain National Park, you can get to Timberline Falls from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. This trailhead and parking lot is usually crowded because this is the same trail for Alberta Falls and Bear Lake.
You’ll get to pass Alberta Falls on your way to Timberline Falls, and you’ll likely lose a lot of people on the trail there. You can link Timberline Falls with Sky Pond trail and make a small loop and later converge back with the Glacier Creek Trail. To stick to the Timberline Falls Trail, follow THESE directions. This direct trail is 8.1 miles out and back, accompanied by just over 1,500 feet of elevation gain.
There are amazing views along this whole trail, as well as a varying landscape and never-ending water and rock features. You’ll pass another prominent lake in the Park at Loch Vale. You can see a bird’s eye view of Loch Vale from the base of Timberline Falls, and it is absolutely stunning. The water cascades about 100 feet at Timberline Falls and continues to flow into the valley below you.
HERE is a link to permitting information about wilderness camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Length: 8.1 miles, if you make a loop with Sky Pond: 9 miles
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
9. Four Pass Loop
As the name suggests, this trail crosses 4 passes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area at about 12,400 feet above sea level: West Maroon Pass, Frigid Air Pass, Trail Rider Pass, and Buckskin Pass. There are many designated campsites along the way, which makes camping along the trail easy. Dispersed camping is also allowed. This trail is a solid 26.8-mile loop. Some of the most detailed information of this trail can be found HERE.
This trail is quite committing, so be prepared for all weather you might encounter. For a trip like this, it is vital to have a map, compass, and first aid kit able to treat serious injuries. Since this trail does travel along 4 passes, there are steep climbs and descents at each pass, which can be rough at such high elevation.
Dogs are allowed as long as they are on leash at all times. To camp here, you must have a bear-proof food canister; a bear bag will not work in these woods. This helps protect your campsite and your food preserves.
There is plenty of wildlife and fauna to awe you as you hike and camp through this wilderness area.
Length: 26.8 miles
10. Gem Lake
Another classic in Rocky Mountain National Park that is not in the main park. This is on the outskirts of the Park on the North side of Estes Park. To get here, drive up Devils Gulch Road, and turn into the Lumpy Ridge parking lot. Unlike the Main Park area, there is no entrance fee or parking fee for this lot.
This trail is just over a 3 mile out and back trail that is decently traveled. The parking lot isn’t terribly small, but during peak season the lot is usually packed. Lumpy Ridge is also a popular rock-climbing destination during the summer for its cooler temperatures, so this lot can quickly fill up.
The trail is steep, but there is a lot of shade on your way in. Its distance denotes a nicer hike, but it can be strenuous in sections. There are a lot of leeches in Gem Lake, so be aware and careful if you do get in the water.
You’ll see amazing views of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park from the Lake. There is an abundance of wildflowers along the trail and at the lake which makes this a wonderful destination to hammock or picnic.
Length: 3.1 miles
Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.