From majestic mountains rising and falling on the horizon, charming alpine lakes, picturesque meadows, therapeutic waterfalls, mist-filled forests, to red rock deserts, hiking in Colorado has more to offer than any one person could take in a lifetime. With a trail network comprising more than 17,000 trails, it’s tough to know where to begin your adventure.
This guide will help you make the most of your visit to this iconic outdoor destination.
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Best Colorado Hiking Areas
Few locations in Colorado will put you more than a few minutes’ drive away from a magical hiking destination. However, some areas are more famous for the diversity and beauty they offer. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to go, check out these areas, each one offering something unique:
- Rocky Mountain National Park – Easily the most popular hiking area in the stat, this outdoor paradise has over 350 miles of trails. Its main highlights include jagged mountains, alpine lakes, waterfalls, and wildlife.Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve – Centered around North America’s tallest sand dune, this park is also home to trails that weave through wetlands, grassy plains, and mountain forests.
- Mesa Verde National Park – The park’s crown jewel is a well-preserved ancestral Puebloan dwelling tucked securely into cliff walls. It also offers panoramic canyon views.
- Aspen Area – If you want to see golden aspen trees and enchanting wildflower meadows, Maroon Bells in Aspen has amazing trails that will put you in the middle of the action. It offers the classic Colorado scenery that you see in pictures.
- Golden Gate Canyon State Park – This hiking area has an excellent trail system and provides an abundance of dense forest, rocky peaks, and wildflower fields.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – It may be one of the lesser-known national parks, but it has treasures you can’t find elsewhere. The park harbors one of the most spectacular stretches of wild river in America and has breathtaking trails that run along its rims.
- South Juan Mountains of West Colorado – If you want to explore an area dotted with incredible mountain lakes without the crowds, head to this area. The trails skirt around brilliant blue alpine lakes considered to be Colorado’s most beautiful.
When to Hike in Colorado
Each hiking area in Colorado has unique conditions. Some trails are accessible year-round, while others can only be hiked in specific months. Hiking in low elevation areas is available all year, while high-altitude mountain trails can be snowy until July. Most high mountain trails open between July and August.
Colorado’s mountain ranges sink into red and orange desert plateaus on the western side. The best time for hiking in these desert-like landscapes is around spring and fall. In the summer, they are too hot, and in the winter, the weather is unpredictable.
If you want to explore year-round, concentrate on lower-elevation trails in the eastern Colorado grasslands. Also, most of the foothills around cities like Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder are accessible anytime.
How to Hike Safely in Colorado
If you’re new to Colorado hiking, first understand that this state presents some unique hazards due to high elevation and unpredictable weather. For a fulfilling experience, use these safety tips.
- Acclimatize – If you’re coming from sea level, spend a couple of nights in a mountain town before attempting a high-altitude hike. This will help your body adjust to the altitude changes and prevent altitude illness.
- Pack Layers – Even if you’re heading to a trail that is accessible year-round, bring some layers if you plan to adventure between October and June.
- Keep a Close Eye on the Weather – Colorado’s weather patterns are very unpredictable. Call ranger stations in advance and inquire about the weather. When you’re on the trail, keep checking the forecast. Violent thunderstorms, strong wind gusts, and lightning are prevalent in the afternoon.
- Learn What to do in a Lightning Storm – Start your hike early so you can complete the hikes by noon. But If lightning threatens when you’re in the backcountry, stay away from solitary trees, descend from ridges, and move away from water. Seek shelter within a group of trees.
- Tell Someone Your Plan – Before you start exploring Colorado, create a detailed itinerary, make a copy and give it to someone you can rely on. Make sure the plan reveals the exact route you plan to hike and the date when you’ll be back.
- Know Your Limits – Always listen to your body and obey the signals it sends to you. If you have an unbearable headache and nausea when attempting a peak, head down. If you feel dizzy when hiking on an excessively hot day, rest in the shade, rehydrate, then turn around. Choose a trail based on its difficulty rating and your own experience level.
- Stay Hydrated – Make sure you drink at least one liter of H2O an hour. In the hot summer weather, bring more water and remember to take a sip every ten to fifteen minutes, even when you aren’t thirsty.
- Watch out for Lake Hazards – Don’t walk on frozen lakes. Colorado’s scorching sun can quickly melt weak spots in the ice, even when temperatures are very low.
The Essential Gear for Hiking in Colorado
The gear you pack will depend on the terrain and weather conditions. Most hikes will require the following items:
- Comfortable hiking footwear.
- Sun protection–sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide brim hat.
- A lightweight first aid kit.
- A map, compass, and GPS plus the skills to use them.
- Multitool or knife and a flashlight.
- Firestarters in case an emergency forces you to sleep in the wilderness.
- Proper clothing for the specific trail plus a raincoat, gloves, beanie, and a warm mid-layer.
- Nutritious snacks and lots of water to last the hike.
- Bring specialized climbing gear if you plan to hike any of the major mountains in Colorado.
Enjoy the Colorado Landscape and Hike Responsibly
Experiencing Colorado on foot allows you the opportunity to see untouched parts of the wilderness that most people will never lay eyes on. But before you hit the trails, make sure you acclimatize, pack the proper gear, and take note of the weather. When you’re out there, practice the leave no trace principles to keep these natural spaces pristine.