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Off The Beaten Path

10 Off-The-Beaten-Path Hiking Trails for Outdoor Adventure in Colorado

Hikers are often seeking solitude when heading out onto the trails, but avoiding the crowds has become more challenging as resources regarding local trailheads and hiking objectives become more readily available. There are a few tactics that can be used to avoid others on the trails.

Hitting the trailhead early or late is usually a good idea. Getting on the trail by 6:30 a.m., or  after 6:30 p.m., are good ways to miss the high traffic times of the middle of the day. If you’re not a morning person, or your schedule doesn’t allow for sunset hikes, relying on apps such as COTREX—a collaborative project between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources to provide a comprehensive trail map of Colorado’s trail systems using data from more than 230 trail managers—can give you an in-depth look at all trails in your local area, allowing you to pick the less popular ones.

The last bit of advice is to look for trails that break off of heavy use routes; the scenery at those objectives tends to be just as amazing as their more popular neighbors, but with far less traffic. 

For now, start by taking a look at these 10 off-the-beaten-path hikes that are sure to reward your efforts with a quiet space to enjoy the beautiful landscape of Colorado. 

  1. Harmonica Arch
  • Trailhead: Goose Creek
  • Distance: 5.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,200
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

You can often gauge how serene a hike will be based on how long the road to the trailhead is. Forest Service Road 211, which takes you to the Goose Creek Trailhead in the Lost Creek Wilderness, is just that: a long approach. After 40-plus minutes of bumping along the dirt road through the wide-open foothills cleared out by the 2002 Hayman Fire, you’ll arrive at the trailhead. The route to Harmonica Arch begins at the Goose Creek Trailhead, found about a two-hour drive southwest of Denver, and you’ll follow the same-named trail for just under a mile where you’ll encounter a bridge across the creek. Head left on the social trail, which will follow the river on the left-hand side for about another mile before splitting left up a steep canyon that will have you hiking over 900 feet in just under a mile to the summit. Once you’ve reached the top, itself a giant dome of Pike’s Peak granite, you’ll be rewarded with expansive views of the otherworldly geological features of the Lost Creek Wilderness—granite spires, knobs, rock stacks, and the primary objective, a rainbow painted arch.

  1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
  • Trailhead: Warner Point
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,034 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

While Rocky Mountain National Park is the third-most visited national park in the United States, seeing roughly 4.6 million visitors in 2019, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park only saw 432,000. While it receives less hype and visitation than its Front Range sibling, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, located northeast of Montrose, about a five-hour drive from Denver, is a natural wonder of the state of Colorado.

The National Park is littered with steep, jagged canyons and large vertical cliffs, such as the 2,250-foot-tall Painted Wall, and the deep, shadowy nooks of the area give off a certain mystique and are what earned its name as the Black Canyon. There are hikes around the canyon’s rim for all ability levels, as well as more expert trails found within the remote wilderness of the Inner Canyon. The Warner Route is a great kicking off point to experiencing Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, although hiking the route is steep and challenging, and requires a backcountry permit from the South Rim Ranger Station.

  1. Hahns Peak
  • Trailhead: Hahns Peak
  • Distance: 3.7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,409 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

The Elkhead Mountains of northern Colorado get overlooked because of their relatively low elevation, but these volcanic peaks offer a ton of solitude in one of the most picturesque areas of the state. While Hahns is the most popular summit in the range, it’s still far less trafficked than other mountains in the state, given the remoteness of the Routt National Forest, as well as the fact that no peaks in the range reach above 11,000 feet in elevation. Though steep, the hiking route to the top of Hahn’s is a mere 3.7 miles round trip, and on top, you’re rewarded with 360-degree views of northern Colorado, Steamboat Lake, and the Elkheads, and a beautiful fire tower sits atop the mountain for you to stop and enjoy the scenery. The trailhead is 45 minutes from Steamboat Springs, which is about a three-hour drive from Denver.

  1. Square Top Mountain
  • Trailhead: Guanella Pass
  • Distance: 6.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,440 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt are two of the most popular 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado; it’s not uncommon for the trailhead parking lot on top of Guanella Pass to fill up early on summer mornings. However, Square Top Mountain, located west of the two 14ers, offers all of the expansive views as its neighbors without all of the crowds. The hike to the top requires a bit of route-finding, scrambling, and patience (there are four false summits!); but when you reach the top and gaze out at the ants marching up Evans and Bierstadt, with no one around you, it’ll all be worth it. Guanella Pass is a quick hour-and-twenty-minute drive from Denver.

  1. West Spanish Peak
  • Trailhead: Cordova Pass
  • Distance: 7.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,624 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

The Spanish Peaks are twin mountains located in the southeastern corner of the majestic Sangre de Cristo Range. West Spanish Peak is the larger of the two, and while not technically difficult, it can provide enough vertical to get your legs burning and the sweeping views of southern Colorado from the top offer a unique summit reward. The Cordova Pass trailhead, about 12 miles from Cuchara, offers a high elevation start, taking a lot of the work out of the equation to get to the summit of this peak. The distance from Colorado’s major metro areas keeps the big crowds away, but starting your hike early is a good idea, both to avoid crowds and miss the summer thunderstorms. The drive from Denver to Cordova Pass is just under four hours. 

  1. Sleepy Lion Trail
  • Trailhead: Button Rock
  • Distance: 5.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 921 feet
  • Trail Type: Lollipop

Lyons is the last town you pass through before climbing west into the mountains towards Estes Park, and while it doesn’t get the recognition of Estes and Rocky Mountain National Park, the trail system in town is world-class. The Button Rock trailhead is just under 40 minutes from Boulder, and just over an hour’s drive from Denver. The Picture Rock, Antelope, and Bitterbrush trails all see significantly more traffic than the Sleepy Lion Trail which forms a lollipop loop within the Button Rock Preserve. Hikers are rewarded with beautiful views of Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak across Ralph Price Reservoir, as well as a diverse wildlife population including a wide variety of birds. 

  1. Byers Peak
  • Trailhead: Byers Peak
  • Distance: 8.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,818 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

While Grand County has become an increasingly popular location for hikers in the Front Range, Byers Peak remains a lightly trafficked summit, and perhaps the most aesthetic in the entire area. The trailhead is just over 10 minutes from downtown Fraser, and under two hours from the city of Denver. The route to the summit at 12,816 feet begins at a closed gate on Forest Service Road 164, just west of Fraser. The 1.8 miles on the road can be walked or, for those able to, mountain biked; there is a spot at the singletrack trailhead to stash and lock up your bikes. From the singletrack trailhead, it’s steep hiking, a 1.5-mile trek straight up the mountain. Because of its relatively isolated location above the Fraser Valley, a stiff wind often greets hikers when they crest treeline, but the panoramic views from above 12,000 feet at the top (and a warm jacket) will make you forget about the breeze. 

  1. Greenhorn Mountain
  • Trailhead: Greenhorn Trail
  • Distance: 12.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,098 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

The tallest peak of the Wet Mountains, Greenhorn rises nearly 7,000 feet above the prairies to the east. While the Wet Mountains are one of the state’s lower ranges and lack the eye-popping summit architecture of more famous groupings nearby, it offers a variety of ecosystems, wildlife, and solitude. The 12.5-mile out-and-back Greenhorn Trail, located an hour-and-20 minutes from Colorado Springs, is reserved for experienced and in-shape hikers, but the length and elevation gain are a worthy price of admission, as Greenhorn is the tallest mountain for forty miles, so the panoramic views from the top are unmatched, allowing hikers to witness the stark contrast between eastern prairies and western peaks reaching to the sky. 

  1. Upper Cataract Lake
  • Trailhead: Surprise
  • Distance: 10.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,510 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

The Gore Range, and specifically, the Eagles Nest Wilderness, is a great place to find both solitude and incredible mountain scenery, as hikers often overlook it due to the absence of 14,000-foot mountains in the range. Sitting below the namesake peak of the wilderness, Upper Cataract Lake is a beautiful, pristine alpine lake that offers peace and solitude. While the trail there is arduous, its 1,980-foot elevation gain is not out of the question for most experienced hikers. For those looking to spend several nights in the wilderness, a 25-mile, point-to-point hiking loop can be executed with many camping spots available along the way. The Surprise Trailhead is just north of the town of Silverthorne, about two hours from Denver. 

  1. Picketwire Canyonlands
  • Trailhead: Withers Canyon
  • Distance: 11.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 620 feet
  • Trail Type: Out-and-Back

The Picketwire Canyonlands, just south of La Junta, is a unique hiking inclusion in this list, as they are not home to high mountain peaks, but rather, primitive canyons with the largest dinosaur track sites in North America. The prints, over 1,900 in total, are found in the bedrock along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grasslands. The Withers Canyon Trailhead is the starting point of the 11.2-mile loop through the dinosaur tracks, and the combination of rugged prairie-desert and historical sites like the Dolores Mission and Cemetery give off a unique “old west” vibe. The Picketwire Canyonlands is a truly unique spot in Colorado.

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