The 5 Most Iconic Hikes in Colorado

Colorado offers thousands of miles of hiking trails: long, short, easy, tough, scenic, isolated, adventurous and dog-friendly. Some are perfect for viewing the changing of the aspen trees in the fall, whereas others come to life every spring with colorful wildflowers.

Truly, pick a trail and go. Colorado won't disappoint. There are no bad trails.

But if you're looking for the quintessential Colorado experience ​—with that famous scenery or prestige — there are a few hikes that stand out from the rest. These are the most iconic hikes, trails that Colorado is famous for. That means they're often heavily trafficked by other hikers, so beware; leave early and prepare for mountainside congestion. Yes, we can get traffic jams on our trails. 

  • 01 of 05

    Hanging Lake

    Hanging Lake, in Glenwood Canyon near Shoshone Dam.
    ••• Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images

    This trail is located about 10 miles from Glenwood Springs, making it a popular day hike for travelers visiting the famous hot springs off Interstate 70.

    The trail itself is pretty short — just over 2 and a half miles round trip — but don’t be fooled. This isn’t a quick-and-dirty, in-and-out hike. Hanging Lake trail is steep, rocky and can take two to four hours, depending on your fitness level, the time of day, how you do with the altitude and how crowded the trail is. Don’t try to squeeze it in quickly. Take time to climb safely and then take some time to gaze at the surreal lake and waterfalls at the top. Bring a great camera.

    At the top, keep going until you get to Sprouting Rock for additional views.

    Hanging Lake trail, through canyons and along a creek, is rated as moderate. If you’re not wearing good shoes and prepared, it can feel harder than that. Make sure you bring a backpack with plenty of water and emergency supplies. Your phone won’t work here.

    As with all of Colorado’s...MORE famous hikes, Hanging Lake can be really crowded, especially in the summer season (although it is open year-round and the frozen waterfalls are just as incredible, although the trail is even trickier when it’s snowy and icy). Your best bet: Leave way early, before the crowds get up, so you can get a parking spot and get in and out before 9 or 10 a.m. when the crowds arrive.

    Important: Don’t be “trail trash.” Don’t get into the water or walk across the logs in the lake. The ecosystem here is extremely fragile and it is harmful to introduce any unnatural elements into the waters. Respect it, or don’t visit.

    This lake is a natural marvel, magically suspended on the edge of a cliff, formed by a rare travertine deposition. Green plants hang around the stunningly blue water. You may be tempted to want to jump in. Don’t.

    Hanging Lake is a National Natural Landmark.

  • 02 of 05

    Longs Peak

    Longs Peak
    ••• Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. Getty Images/Ethan Welty

    Colorado is home to many "fourteeners" (mountains taller than 14,000 feet above sea level), but Longs Peak is one of the most famous. It stands tall and easy to spot along the mountainscape, especially if you’re visiting the Northern Front Range of Colorado. It’s the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park.

    Hiking Longs Peak is considered a badge of honor for locals and visitors, but it's certainly not everyone. While this is one of Colorado’s most famous, and heavily trafficked, hikes it is also extremely challenging and an attempt to reach the top should only be left to people who are prepared, in good health and fully acclimated to the altitude. Hikers experience more than 5,000 feet in elevation gain throughout the trail. That being said, you don’t have to go all the way to the top. You can take on just a portion of this hike and still enjoy good views and a physical challenge.

    The Longs Peak Trail is 13.6 miles and takes on average 14 hours to complete. The goal...MORE is to get up and down the mountain before noon (or at least far from the top), when the afternoon storms roll in and will make the hike even more dangerous (and miserable). Longs Peak is known for its lightning. You don’t want to get to know that side of Longs firsthand. It can also get quite windy and is frigid at the top, even in August.

    This means you need to start your hike well before the sun rises. Start around 2 a.m. (at the latest) in the pitch black; you want to try to hit the summit by 10 a.m. Night hiking creates a whole different kind of adventure and brings up added difficulties. You will be surprised by how many other hikers are out at that time of night. It’s a surreal experience to see all of the headlamps bouncing up the trail.

    The view at the top will be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. Highlights along the way include Chasm Lake, the Keyhole, Glacier Gorge and views of the Rocky Mountain National Park.

    Here are some more tips:

    • Prepare thoroughly before this hike. Bring plenty of water and snacks.

    • The best time to do Longs Peak is mid-July through mid-September, due to weather. Always check the conditions and closures before departing.

    • If possible, hit the trail on a weekday, when it’s not as crowded (and dangerous; having to shuffle past people on ledges and wait for others can put you at risk).

    • If you’re afraid of heights, this hike is not for you. It’s definitely not for young kids.

    • Beware of “summit fever” and altitude sickness.

    • Don’t do this hike alone.

    • If the weather gets bad, don’t push your luck. Head back down immediately. 

  • 03 of 05

    Conundrum Hot Springs

    Conundrum Hot Springs
    ••• The natural Conundrum Hot Springs. Flickr user Chris Bartle

    Conundrum Hot Springs is a popular backcountry hike not far from Aspen that ends with a beautiful, natural, alpine hot springs: two main pools and four smaller swimming holes.

    Due to overuse, there has been talk of closing or limiting the hot springs. To respect nature, we don’t recommend going swimming here. There are plenty of other hot springs across Colorado designed just for swimming, without the risk of causing harm.

    The hike will take up the majority of your day, because it’s about 17 miles round trip and moderately difficult (maybe a bit more than moderate in some parts). Because it’s so long, many visitors break it up in two days and camp in one of the designated campsites along the way. It’s considered bad etiquette to camp out more than one day, due to the demand for the camp spots.

    Expect to trek through the forest, up the valley and across meadows. The trail will bring you up high, to 11,200 feet above sea level. Along the way, expect bright flowers, stream crossings, aspen...MORE groves, wildlife and mountain scenery.

    This trail, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, is pretty busy (and growing in popularity), due to the views and hot spring novelty, so visit during the slower weekdays.

  • 04 of 05

    Mount Elbert

    Mount Elbert
    ••• The view from atop Mount Elbert. Getty Images/Mark Lewis

    If you’re looking to cross another "fourteener" off your bucket list, make it Mount Elbert. This is the highest point in Colorado. It’s not only the state’s highest mountain, but it’s also the second-highest peak in the lower 48 states.

    Hike (climb) Mount Elbert for bragging rights. You’ll be surprised to know it’s not as tough as it sounds. In fact, you’ll regularly see school field trips scheduled here. If you’re in good shape and you plan wisely (i.e. are acclimated to the high altitude), you can likely conquer Elbert’s 14,433 feet. It’s not easy, but it’s not as extreme as some of the other "fourteeners". Still, take precautions, especially making sure to be down before the afternoon storms roll in around noon and lightning is a danger.

    Five different routes will get you up top, past the treeline. The views at the top are otherworldly. Mount Elbert is not far from the small, Victorian town of Leadville. 

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Maroon Bells

    Maroon Bells
    ••• Colorado's famous Maroon Bells. Getty Images/TerenceLeezy

    The Maroon Bells, near Aspen, are two of Colorado’s most famous mountains and one of the most photographed views in the nation. Needless to say, this national landmark is popular and can get busy. 

    There are several different ways to hike the Maroon Bells.

    • Easiest: Get up early (before 8 a.m.) and drive to Maroon Lake for $10 a car. Walk around the lake. This drive closes between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Then, you’ll need to take a public bus to the lake.

    • Easy: Maroon Lake Scenic Trail is a simple walk around the lake. It’s only a mile round trip. You still get the views without the sweat.

    • Medium: The Maroon Creek Trail is still not too tough, but it’s longer, making it more ideal for hikers who want to put in some work and see a little bit more. This hike along the creek is 3.2 miles each way.

    • Harder: Hikers who want a challenge should take Crater Lake Trail up to Crater Lake. The climb gets steep and rocky (it’s considered “moderate”), but it’s only 3.6 miles round trip, so it’s a great day hike....MORE This hike is less crowded than the others, too, making it a local favorite. We love Crater Lake Trail in the fall because it winds through a golden aspen grove.