15 Best Hikes in Colorado for 2023 (By a Local)
Colorado is an outdoor lover’s paradise, rich in natural beauty and opportunities for adventure. Hiking is one of the most popular things to do in Colorado, and trails range from easy day hikes to expert backpacking expeditions.
In this post, I’ll share the 15 best hikes in Colorado. I’m a Colorado local who’s hiked the majority of these trails, and I’ll give you an in-depth overview of what to expect on each. I’ll also suggest my favorite gear picks so that you arrive at the trailhead fully prepared.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- 15 Best Hikes in Colorado
- Emerald Lake Trail
- First and Second Flatirons Loop
- Longs Peak – Keyhole Route
- Hanging Lake Trail
- Sky Pond – Glacier Gorge Trail
- Mount Bierstadt
- Crater Lake – Cascade Creek Trail
- Perkins Central Garden Trail
- Ice Lakes Basin
- Star Dune
- Four Pass Loop
- Warner Point Nature Trail
- South Colony Lakes Trail
- Fish Creek Falls
- Royal Arch Trail
- FAQs About Hiking in Colorado
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15 Best Hikes in Colorado
Emerald Lake Trail
👇 Swipe to change photo
🥾 Moderate | 3.2 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 2-hour drive from Denver | Cost: National Park Pass ($70 annual, $25/vehicle for day entry)
Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most famous Colorado hiking trails. Moderate in difficulty, even families and those who aren’t used to the altitude will enjoy this out and back hike.
Along this 3.2-mile trail, you’ll pass a series of crystal clear alpine lakes. First is Nymph Lake, the smallest of the pools. Dream Lake comes into view next, where you may see elk herds and even rainbow trout in the water. Last is Emerald Lake, surrounded by the dramatic spires of Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain.
If the beautiful scenery has you wanting more, consider stepping off the beaten path. East of Dream Lake is an intersecting trail, where you can extend your hike to Lake Haiyaha. I highly recommend this detour, as it allows you to enjoy the heart of the National Park without the crowds.
👉 Pro Tip: Parking at Bear Lake Trailhead is very limited and during peak season, the lot fills up fast. Plan to arrive before sunrise, or hitch a ride via the park’s shuttle service. Alternatively, you can skip the hassle of travel by booking a Rocky Mountain National Park tour.
First and Second Flatirons Loop
🥾 Moderate | 2.7 miles | Google Maps | Boulder Website | 30-minute drive from Denver | Cost: $2.50/hour on summer weekends and holidays, free all other times | 👉 Take A Hike Plus Beer Tour
The First and Second Flatirons Loop is one of the best hikes in Boulder, Colorado. With an elevation gain of more than 1,400 feet, this trail is rated as moderate but some may find the ascent rather difficult. However, the incredible views of the front range are worth the effort.
The trail’s close proximity to town makes it easy to access, though, for that reason, it’s heavily trafficked. To find parking in the lot, consider visiting during the off-season or on a weekday. Otherwise, parking is available in nearby neighborhoods. You can also take the free Park-To-Park shuttle to the Chautauqua Trailhead.
👉 My Favorite Gear: Easy access and lesser crowds make this a great hike in the wintertime. However, it may be icy on portions of the trail. To avoid falls, strap a traction system to your hiking boots. Yaktrax makes a great, affordable solution!
Longs Peak – Keyhole Route
🥾 Expert | 14.8 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 1-hour 45-minute drive from Denver | Cost: National Park Pass ($70 annual, $25/vehicle for day entry)
The Keyhole Route to the summit of Longs Peak is one of the most iconic hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. Though a popular trail, be warned that this trek is only for the most advanced and experienced hikers.
At 14,259 feet elevation, Longs Peak is a prominent feature in the Park. To reach the peak in a single day, hikers must begin well before sunrise in order to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. Given that the hike takes 10-15 hours to complete, some choose to camp at the Boulder Field the night before summiting.
To reach Longs Peak, you must be comfortable with high exposure and scrambling. This route involves sheer cliff faces, narrow ledges, and loose rock. The elevation, too, can affect your abilities. But for those with bravery and ability, the experience will be rewarding.
👉 My Favorite Gear: Though not a technical climb, wearing a helmet when hiking Longs Peak is highly recommended. I love my Petzl Borea Helmet, but check out all the helmet options at REI to find one that best suits you.
Hanging Lake Trail
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🥾 Moderate | 3.1 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 2-hour 45-minute drive from Denver | Cost: $12/person for permit | Temporarily closed due to mudslides
Hanging Lake is one of the Rocky Mountains’ most scenic hikes. Though considered moderate in difficulty, the 1.5-mile ascent has an elevation gain of nearly 1,200 feet.
Come prepared with plenty of water! Because the trail requires a bit of rock scrambling, consider using a hands-free hydration reservoir. These flexible pouches comfortably fit into most backpacks.
On this hike, you’ll cross a series of wooden bridges that traverse Dead Horse Creek. Towards the top, take a short trail extension to see Spouting Rock, a waterfall gushing through the rock face.
Then, a short handrail section will lead you to Hanging Lake. Multiple waterfalls trickle into the aquamarine pool, creating a breathtaking scene. To the south, you’ll see gorgeous views of Glenwood Canyon.
👉 Pro Tip: After your hike, head to one of three hot spring resorts in Glenwood Springs! Your sore muscles will thank you.
Sky Pond – Glacier Gorge Trail
🥾 Difficult | 9.4 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 2-hour drive from Denver | Cost: National Park Pass ($70 annual, $25/vehicle for day entry)
Looking for a less popular hike in Rocky Mountain National Park? For peaceful solitude and incredible scenery, head to Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge Trail.
Alberta Falls, a well-known waterfall hike near Denver, draws many visitors to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. But past that attraction, crowds quickly thin. From here, you’ll hike through alpine meadows, passing several blue lakes.
First, you’ll see The Loch, followed by Lake of Glass and Timberline Falls. Finally, Sky Pond comes into view, surrounded by the jagged peaks of Petit Grepon, Sabre, and Sharkstooth. The dramatic, rugged scene is contrasted by delicate wildflowers and the quiet trickle of a small waterfall.
Given the length and remote setting, you may want to pack a GPS device. Digital maps are easy to follow, and several devices come with communication abilities in case of emergency. But at a minimum, be sure to include a reliable compass in your Colorado mountain packing checklist.
🥾 Difficult | 7.8 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 1-hour 30-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
The Mount Bierstadt trailhead is located on the seasonal Guanella Pass Road. Though inaccessible during the winter months, this hike is best enjoyed during warmer weather.
After the snow melts, the grassy meadows and surrounding landscape become wildflower fields. From the summit, you’ll see panoramic views of the Arapaho National Forest and nearby peaks. These include Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, both located on the Continental Divide. Next to Bierstadt is Mount Evans, which is accessible via Class 3 climbing across the Sawtooth Ridge.
Mount Bierstadt was the first Colorado 14er I summited, and this is the case for many. Its close proximity to Denver and straightforward route make it a great introduction to hiking 14,000-foot peaks.
If you’re interested in hiking a 14ers, hit play on my video roundup of the best 14ers to start with:
But be warned that no 14er hike is “easy.” Start early to avoid afternoon storms and come prepared. Pack plenty of water, layers to protect you from the wind and sun, as well as a first aid kit. And trust me, blister treatment is essential on these types of Colorado hikes!
👉 Pro Tip: Once above treeline, keep an eye out for pika, marmots, and mountain goats!
Crater Lake – Cascade Creek Trail
🥾 Difficult | 16 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 2-hour 30-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
Cascade Creek Trail to Crater Lake is arguably one of the best hikes in Colorado. Regularly trafficked and having plenty of water access, this trail is a great introduction to backpacking.
To reach the Monarch Lake Trailhead, drive Arapaho Bay Road (CR 6) along the perimeter of Lake Granby. Note that this dirt road is generally inaccessible during wintertime.
But in the summer months, the area comes alive with hikers from near and far. The start of the trail is often quite crowded, as Monarch Lake Loop is one of the region’s most popular day hikes.
However, past the first couple of miles, you’ll see fewer hikers and even more impressive views. Ascend switchbacks and trek through wildflower-covered alpine meadows until you reach Mirror Lake. Here, Lone Eagle Peak comes into view and Crater Lake lies just another half-mile up ahead.
👉 Pro Tip: Extend your trip and sleep under the stars at one of the area’s dispersed campsites. Just be sure to have proper backpacking gear and an Indian Peaks Wilderness overnight permit.
Perkins Central Garden Trail
🥾 Easy | 1.1 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 1-hour 30-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
The Perkin Central Garden Trail is a great experience, regardless of what time of year you visit. Many Colorado hikes require significant exertion in order to enjoy spectacular views. But that isn’t the case at Garden of the Gods.
Easy to access and minimal in elevation gain, this hike is perfect for families and all skill levels. The trail loops through the center of the park, providing an up-close look at the large sandstone rock formations. Oftentimes, you’ll spot a rock climber or two ascending the vertical routes.
If you’d like to extend this classic Colorado hike, you can easily do so. Continue onto Scottsman Trail to reach picnic tables and views of the park’s southern features. Or head back to the parking lot, where across the street, Palmer Trail will allow you to see the landscape from a higher vantage point. You may even get a glimpse of the famed Pikes Peak.
📚 Related Reading: If you’re planning to visit Colorado Springs, check out Laura’s guide on the 23 Best Hikes in Colorado Springs!
Ice Lakes Basin
🥾 Difficult | 8.3 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 6-hour 45-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
Located in the San Juan Mountains, Ice Lakes Basin is hands-down one of the best hikes in Colorado. Though rated as difficult and far from major metropolitan areas, it’s a very popular hike. The famed alpine lakes draw visitors from all over Colorado and beyond.
To begin your journey, park at South Mineral Campground and cross the street to find the trailhead. With an elevation gain of nearly 3,000 feet, you’ll hike what feels like unending switchbacks. But every turn leads to more breathtaking views of wildflowers, waterfalls, and ultimately, alpine lakes.
First, you’ll pass Lower Ice Lake, but don’t stop there. Upper Ice Lake, the main attraction, is right up ahead. Surrounded by 13ers Golden Horn, Pilot Knob, and Vermillion Peak, the turquoise pool is absolutely stunning.
Extend your hike an extra 1.5-miles to reach Island Lake, another famous attraction in the San Juans. The spur trail is found just east of Ice Lake at the 3.2-mile marker.
📚 Related Reading: If you plan to visit this area, be sure to read my guides on the 25 Best Things To Do in Silverton and Where To Stay in Silverton!
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🥾 Difficult | 8 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 3-hour 45-minute drive from Denver | Cost: National Park Pass ($70 annual, $25/vehicle for day entry)
Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of the best places to visit in Colorado, and the hike to Star Dune is a personal favorite. Most who attempt this trail only come as far as the false summit known as High Dune. But the peak is another 2.5-miles ahead, and from High Dune, you likely won’t see another hiker.
The sand makes hiking difficult, but the views are sure to amaze. The sand dunes appear never-ending, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains create a breathtaking backdrop.
The peaceful quiet is only interrupted by the occasional hum of the dunes. Hiking along a rim, you may push enough sand down a dune face to create a small avalanche. This produces an audible vibration, almost like a low note on a string instrument. The phenomenon is one of the most magical, unique occurrences I’ve ever witnessed in nature.
👉 My Favorite Gear: Ensure a positive hiking experience at Great Sand Dunes National Park with a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. These lightweight shoes will not only keep sand out, but they’ll also protect your soles from the summer heat.
Four Pass Loop
🥾 Expert | 25.7 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 3-hour 45-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
Four Pass Loop through the Maroon Bells Wilderness is easily one of the best hikes in Colorado. This epic backpacking trip generally takes 3-4 days to complete.
Most hikers take the shuttle bus from downtown Aspen, beginning their adventure at the famed Maroon Lake. Near the 1.5-mile marker, you’ll reach where the West Maroon Trail and Snowmass Trail fork. You can travel the 23-mile loop in either direction, though most hike counter-clockwise.
On this trail, you’ll traverse four mountain passes: Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon. The scenic landscape includes wildflowers, alpine lakes, waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife. Know that this area is bear country, and precautions should be taken. Bear canisters are a hiking essential here, and it’s wise to carry bear spray, just in case.
This isn’t a beginner’s backpacking trip. But with proper research and skill level, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Warner Point Nature Trail
🥾 Easy | 1.5 miles | Google Maps | Park Website | 5-hour drive from Denver | Cost: National Park Pass ($70 annual, $25/vehicle for day entry)
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, one of the least visited Colorado National Parks, is often thought of by extreme athletes. Painted Wall, the highest cliff in Colorado, and other sheer faces draw rock and ice climbers. Pro kayakers visit to take on this gnarly section of the Colorado River.
But even everyday hikers can appreciate the beauty of Black Canyon of the Gunnison by exploring the rim. Warner Point Nature Trail is an easy 1.5-miles, gaining little elevation. The trail offers panoramic views of surrounding mountain ranges, as well as the inner canyon.
Before you visit, be sure to check current conditions. South Rim Road, which provides access to the park, is generally closed from November through April.
South Colony Lakes Trail
🥾 Difficult | 8.9 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 3-hour 15-minute drive from Denver | Cost: free
Many have seen the Crestone Group from Great Sand Dunes National Park. But South Colony Lakes Trail gets you up close to Humboldt Peak, plus the famed Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak. All are 14ers, and the latter two are considered some of the most difficult to summit.
While this particular trail doesn’t require Class 3 climbing, the hike is challenging, gaining nearly 2,300 feet in elevation. The first two miles of the trail follow a dirt road, which some high-clearance vehicles can manage, shortening the hike.
Past this section, the views are stunning, making this one of the best hikes in Colorado. Here in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, you’ll pass a waterfall, wildflower meadows, and jagged mountain ranges.
You can extend your trip by backpacking in the region. 40 dispersed campsites are available at the basin, as well as several others along the road and at the trailhead.
Fish Creek Falls
🥾 Difficult | 4.7 miles | Google Maps | Forest Service Website | 3-hour drive from Denver | Cost: $5 for parking
Though largely known as a ski town, several incredible hikes lie in Steamboat Springs. Fish Creek Falls is one of the more popular hikes, providing views of a spectacular 280-foot waterfall.
The rocky trail is strenuous, ascending 1,450 feet. Most turn around at Upper Fish Creek Falls, completing a 4.7-mile out and back trek. Some continue on to Long Lake but note that this adds another 7.6-miles to your journey. On the other hand, others simply take the easy, 0.3-mile paved path to the falls’ viewing area.
A visit to this attraction in the Routt National Forest is a must, regardless of skill level. If you’re considering taking a Colorado road trip there, be sure to read my guide on the 21 best things to do in Steamboat Springs.
Royal Arch Trail
🥾 Difficult | 3.1 miles | Google Maps | Boulder Website | 30-minute drive from Denver | Cost: $2.50/hour on summer weekends and holidays, free all other times
Boulder is one of the best day trips from Denver, and hiking opportunities are abundant in this Front Range town. Royal Arch Trail is highly recommended by locals, as it leads to an impressive rock formation.
The adventure begins at Chautauqua Park. Here, many other trails are accessible, and several trails lead to Royal Arch. The most direct route is just 3.1-miles in length, but it’s steep and rocky with several switchbacks. At the end of the trail, hikers are rewarded with an impressive sight.
The stone arch stands 20 feet tall, allowing visitors to explore all sides of the structure. Views above the town of Boulder and into Bluebell Canyon are lovely at all times of the year. Though, my favorite time to visit is during the winter when there are fewer crowds. Just be sure to wear proper traction!
FAQs About Hiking in Colorado
What are the best hikes in Colorado?
The best hikes in Colorado are dispersed throughout the state, namely west of the Rocky Mountains. Several are located in Rocky Mountain National Park and other designated nature areas. Most are day hikes, but some are backpacking trips.
What is the prettiest hike in Colorado?
The prettiest hike in Colorado is Emerald Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s a classic Colorado trail that accommodates all skill levels. On this hike, visitors enjoy views of alpine lakes, wildflowers, and breathtaking mountain peaks.
What are the best months for hiking in Colorado?
The best months for hiking in Colorado are June through October. During these months, the snow has melted and mud season has passed. Plus, the days are longer and they’re generally Colorado’s warmest months.
📚 Related Reading: Read my guide on The Best Time To Visit Denver to learn more about Colorado’s seasons and climate.
Where in Colorado has the best hiking trails?
Colorado’s National Parks have the best hiking trails in the state. These include Rocky Mountain National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. To gain access to these trails for the best value, an annual National Park Pass is recommended.
What do you need to hike in Colorado?
For day hikes in Colorado, you’ll need a few gear essentials. These include a backpack, protective footwear, a lightweight jacket, water bottle, and first-aid kit. Navigation tools, trail snacks, and a light source are also important. See a full list of recommended gear on this checklist.
Hopefully, this article has helped you find the best hikes to add to your Colorado trip itinerary. Before arriving at any trailhead, be sure to research current conditions, pack proper gear, and leave no trace. Take lots of photos, too!
For more insights and inspiration, read our other Colorado hiking guides:
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