Colorado

10 Best Hikes in Colorado for Getting Out into Nature

by Sarah Lamagna
Updated September 29, 2021

best hikes in colorado
Photo: Rajesh Jyothiswaran / Shutterstock

With eight national monuments, four national parks, and 42 state parks, there’s more than enough room for everyone to enjoy the outdoors in Colorado.

Though truthfully, that might not always seem like the case if you’re within a two-hour drive from Denver. It’s true: trails among the Front Range are usually overrun with residents aching to get out of the city. After all, Colorado regularly tops the charts of the top five fittest states year after year.

With majestic mountains and thousands of trails, you can expect to spend some of your vacation with your blood pumping and thighs burning as you huff and puff up the mountains.

Speaking of huffing: you should never trifle with these mountains, whether you’re a full-time resident or visitor. In the summer, storms are frequent and violent. Ridges are highly exposed and can be dangerous in winter. Altitude sickness can come on quick and cause serious problems. Make sure you’re prepared and react to any signs of dangerous conditions.

Once you’re all set with the right gear (and right mindset) for exploring the best hikes in Colorado, the opportunities are endless. But if you’re wondering where the best spots are across the state to wander, look no further than the recommendations below. These are all strong contenders for the best hikes in Colorado.

1. Ouray Perimeter Trail

Ouray Perimeter Trail colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Walk through an earthen tunnel and a canyon.

  • Nearest town: Ouray
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,500 feet

Ouray, located in southwestern Colorado, is known as the “Little Switzerland of the Rockies” and it’s easy to see why. The large mountains surrounding the town are coated in striking green trees and cold rock similar to the European country.

Compared to other hikes in the area, the Ouray Perimeter Trail is one of the busier ones. Fortunately, it’s also seven hours from Denver, so it’s not nearly as crowded as the ones surrounding the Mile-High City. The trail itself is a gift that keeps on giving.

You can start almost anywhere on the trail since it loops around the town. Most people start in the Ouray Visitor Center to stop in and chat with the folks behind the counter. Once you’re on the trail, you can head in either direction. There’s no huge ascent to get on the trail; most of the elevation gain is spread out along the six miles, making it doable for anyone in average shape. The trail meanders past several lookouts and also goes up and over Box Cañon (a birding hot-spot).

Related Read: 11 Best Winter Hiking Destinations in Colorado

2. Sky Pond

Sky Pond colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Amazing rock formations and smaller crowds in RMNP.

  • Nearest town: Estes Park
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Distance: 9.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,800 feet

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of Colorado’s best treasures, and both residents and tourists know it. Even knowing how crowded the park always is no matter the time of year, it’s hard to stay away. While most tourists think Long’s Peak is one of the best hikes in Colorado, try instead heading to Sky Pond.

You can access the trail via Glacier Gorge trailhead or the Bear Lake trailhead. Both are busy spots, but the Glacier Gorge trailhead is smaller and parking tends to fill up faster. Expect the trail to be busy just past the trailhead, but it starts to clear out the further you go. You’ll scramble a bit on the way up Timberline Falls, but most people can manage it (and going slow is fine). What awaits just past the falls are two alpine lakes surrounding by incredible cliffs called “Sharkstooth” — you’ll see why it’s called that if you go.

Related Read: 10 Best Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park

3. Mount Flora

Mount Flora colorado
Photo: Chelsea Henske / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Wildflowers for days and days and days.

  • Nearest town: Idaho Springs
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Distance: 6 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,900 feet

Sitting at 13,132 feet above sea level, Mount Flora is a botanist’s dream trail thanks to dozens of plant species  along the route. The entire path is almost all above treeline as the trailhead begins around 11,300 feet above sea level (and 11,500 feet is the average treeline for Colorado). That means that you’ll be exposed for the majority of the trek, so come prepared for any type of weather.

The trail slowly ascends the 13’er (what you call peaks more than 13,000 feet above sea level) with nonstop views the whole way. Make sure to keep an eye out for the marmots that frequent the area. Once you reach the summit, there are several wind shelters to duck behind if you need a break. There’s also usually a small container with a notebook to sign your name and write a little word of wisdom. So be sure to make your mark on the world (except don’t literally mark anything but the notebook; remember Leave No Trace principles).

4. Lake Isabelle

Lake Isabelle colorado
Photo: Alla Gill / Shutterstock

Why you should go: To hang out on a beach nearly 11,000 feet above sea level.

  • Nearest town: Ward
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Distance: 5.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 550 feet

Like many of the best hikes in Colorado, the path to Lake Isabelle can be quite crowded on a summer weekend. There are several beautiful lakes in Brainard Lake Recreation Area, but Lake Isabelle truly takes the cake when it comes to scenery. The parking lots near the Long Lake and Mitchell Lake trailheads fill up quickly (think 7:00 a.m.) so get there early or expect to walk an extra mile each way to the trailhead.

You walk along a portion of Long Lake and then take the turn towards Lake Isabelle and head towards Pawnee Pass. Once you get on Isabelle Glacier trail, you’ll likely see one of the area’s resident moose. Make sure to give any moose you see a very wide berth. If you can’t safely pass them, turn around.

If you hike this trail in August, you’ll notice the lake is mostly drained. Every year a private company that owns the reservoir drains the lake to user the water for agriculture.

5. Rattlesnake Arches

Rattlesnake Arches colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: See natural arches without the crowds of a Utah national park.

  • Nearest town: Grand Junction
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Distance: 14 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,500 feet

Western Colorado has some incredible national monuments and conservation areas, but they always seem to be overshadowed by the more popular national parks. But if you want to hike in the area and do only one trail, make sure it’s the Rattlesnake Arches Trail. It has the largest concentration of red sandstone arches outside of the famed Arches National Park in Utah. The crowds are nowhere near as large as those you’d find in Colorado’s four national parks throughout the state (or Arches, for that matter).

The area around the trail (McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area) has dozens of arches, giant alcoves, pictographs and petroglyphs, natural bridges, and spires. If you like rocks, this place fits the bill.

6. Chief Mountain

Chief Mountain colorado
Photo: Brian Wolski / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Big bang for very little buck.

  • Nearest town: Idaho Springs
  • Difficulty: Easy to moderate
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,000 feet

Chief Mountain tops out just above treeline (it’s 11,709 feet above sea level) with 360-degree views from the rock outcrop at the summit. The hike  is short and easy for most people, and the trailhead is just off Squaw Pass Road on the opposite side of Echo Mountain Ski Area. The small parking area creates a battle for spaces on busy summer weekends, so get there early to avoid the crowds. Better yet, go on a weekday.

The 1.5 miles to the summit are a steady but moderate and even climb. And you’ll have views of Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Evans, Pikes Peak (on a clear day), and Grays and Torrey’s Peaks.

7. Dream and Emerald Lakes

Dream and Emerald Lakes colorado
Photo: Francisco Blanco / Shutterstock

Why you should go: To see your alpine dreams in real life.

  • Nearest town: Estes Park
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 750 feet

Rocky Mountain National Park has several hikeable lakes, each of which has its own appeal. Dream and Emerald lakes are no different. Hallett Peak is the jaw-dropping backdrop for both lakes and perfect for taking some epic RMNP photos.

The trail isn’t hard, so expect a lot of crowds with this one. You can cut down on a lot of the traffic if you do it as a sunrise hike. The path begins at Bear Lake parking area, which has very limited parking. You should get there early (or better yet, take the free shuttle). You’ll pass Bear and Nymph lakes prior to getting to the more picturesque Dream and Emerald lakes. And if you want to tack on a fifth alpine lake, add Lake Haiyaha to the route.

8. Mount Sniktau and Grizzly Peak Traverse

Mount Sniktau and Grizzly Peak Traverse colorado
Photo: Nicholas Courtney / Shutterstock

Why you should go: Bag three 13’ers in a day.

  • Nearest town: Montezuma
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Distance: 7.5 miles
  • Elevation gain: 3,300 feet

The first time I attempted to climb Grizzly Peak, I turned around. I read all the reviews and trained for months to hike the highest 13’er in Colorado. I was prepared. But standing at the base of the mountain, I realized I wasn’t mentally ready.

The trek along the Grizzly Peak Traverse is a grueling and unforgiving climb. The trailhead starts at Loveland Pass and gains 1,000 vertical feet in the first .9 miles. It’s a seriously hard hike. The trail is notorious for high winds and extreme exposure, and even with wind shelters, you’ll notice the wild weather.

At the split, head north (right) to summit Mount Sniktau (your first 13’er of the day), before turning around and backtracking to the wind shelters. From there, the trail dips down then heads back up to Cupid Peak (your second 13’er) — and then it goes back down. From there, it goes up yet again to bring you to the base of Grizzly Peak (the third and final 13’er). The push to the Grizzly Peak summit is steep and loose.

If you feel like pushing your body even more, add two fourteeners to your list by climbing Grays and Torreys Peaks from there. Otherwise, enjoy the views, and prepare yourself for an equally hard hike back to the car.

9. Ice Lake Basin

Ice and Island Lake colorado
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: Hike to two lakes so blue they shouldn’t be possible — yet there they are.

  • Nearest town: Silverton
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Distance: 7 miles
  • Elevation gain: 2,650 feet

The Ice Lakes Trail has become quite popular in recent years due to its popularity on social media. Fortunately, the trailhead is over six hours from Denver, which helps keep the crowds somewhat low despite being one of the best hikes in Colorado. But if you’re traveling from the Front Range, you’ll likely want to camp overnight somewhere to attempt this trail. There are several campgrounds nearby within San Juan National Forest.

The trail has a constant gain with few chances to take a break. It’s a demanding trail and most people underestimate it. A sign near the start warns that you’re about to attempt to walk up the equivalent of two Empire State Buildings in 3.5 miles — two Empire State Buildings. But the reward is worth the effort.

Ice Lake comes first and is the deepest shade of blue you’ve ever seen. It’s a lovely contrast against the white and red rocks of the surrounding San Juan mountains. From Ice Lake, it’s a short climb to Island Lake, which truly showcases an aqua hue that seems like it shouldn’t be possible in nature. The return hike isn’t much easier than the way up, so bring trekking poles to save your knees.

Important note: this trail is closed as of mid-2021. Check the trail status in advance before making any plans.

Pro tip: Bring an inflatable tube or floatie to use in the lakes. Or at the very least, bring a swimsuit. You’ll want to cool off after that grueling climb.

10. Hanging Lake

Hanging Lake colorado
Photo: Andy Konieczny / Shutterstock

Why you should go: A quintessential Colorado hike to one of the state’s most stunning spots.

  • Nearest town: Glenwood Springs
  • Difficulty: Moderate to challenging
  • Distance: 3 miles
  • Elevation gain: 1,200 feet

A “best hikes in Colorado” list isn’t complete without mentioning Hanging Lake. It defies gravity, perched on the edge of a cliff in White River National Forest. It’a a natural bowl filled by the tricking falls above it, which may not sound amazing, but it really is. It’s one of the most beautiful hikes in the state. The water is so clear, it looks like it should be home to some kind of magical water nymph. It’s really stunning.

Unfortunately, the lake has seen better days after recently surviving wildfires and mudslides, and it’s likely closed until the end of 2021, if not longer. Due to its popularity, hikers have to take a shuttle to the trailhead. Make sure to stay on trail, and going in the actual lake is off-limits.

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