Colorado offers thousands of miles of hiking trails: long, short, easy, tough, scenic, isolated, adventurous, family-friendly, even handicap accessible, 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. Or for a serene mountain escape, some trails are suitable for exploring in winter, while sporting snowshoes.
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.
Considered one of the top day hikes in the state, Missouri Lakes is for every skill level. It's only about two and a half hours from Denver and only seven miles roundtrip. This is the perfect starter hike for those looking to get out for the day and see if hiking is for them.
This starts at Fancy Lake Trailhead, starting high and ending high. Only a few sections are difficult, but for most, these can be navigated with slow walking and taking your time. Fellow hikers are always happy to help a beginner get the hang of these points on the trail.
Missouri Lakes sits above Alpine trees and has a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains. The basin is huge, letting you camp, picnic, or spend a few days away from it all. Camping here is a wonderful experience, especially during the spring and summer months.
Missouri Lakes and the surrounding area can be very busy because of how easy the hike is and how quick of a drive it is from Denver. If you want to stay the night, make sure to get a free overnight pass to do so – this is a great way to camp, take a few days, and try to avoid the crowds by going early morning instead of later in the day.
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 — over two 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.
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.
As with all Colorado's famous hikes, Hanging Lake can be really crowded, especially in the summer season (although it is open year-round and the frozen waterfalls are 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 AM when the crowds arrive.
If you're looking for a quieter hike and are away from Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park – Crater Lake is it. The Indian Peaks Wilderness is a lesser-visited area of Colorado. For first time hikers and those looking to gain experience, something a little slower in pace will help build your endurance.
If you want to get started early in the morning, you'll require an overnight permit to sleep in the area. It's worth it to get started at sunrise for a beautiful view and lead into making it to Crater Lake. This does make the hike more popular during the day vs. those who want to get an early start, so keep that in mind when planning your hike.
Starting at Cascade Creek Trailhead – the other side of Monarch Lake – you'll face some steep sections and forks that'll take a little longer than normal in different parts. You'll walk by wildflowers and waterfalls before making it to Mirror Lake and a view of Lone Eagle Peak – one of the most beautiful sights in all Colorado. Keep pushing to make it to Crater Lake to enjoy majestic views and rest before crossing this one off your bucket list.
The Longs Peak Trail is 13.6 miles and takes on average 14 hours to complete. The goal 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 AM (at the latest) in the pitch black; you want to try to hit the summit by 10 AM. 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.
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.
Rocky Mountain National Parks offers hikers something for everyone and every skill level. We're highlighting Sky Pond because it is somewhere people travel to, but few really hike the area as they should.
Sky Pond is a slower-paced hike, a lot quieter than other hikes around the park. You'll start at Glacier Gorge Trailhead on Bear Lake Road – the busiest part of the park's hiking trails. Use the local shuttle to get there if you get a late start; you'll want to be there as the sun rises if you're walking to the trailhead to get started.
Albert Falls is the first viewpoint you'll cross. A gorgeous start as you make your way to Mills Lake and The Loch. The Loch is the perfect place for lunch and getting some rest before continuing on to Sky Pond itself. Its jagged geography and beauty make for a remarkable close to your hike. Make sure to take some pictures, take in the fresh air, and head back before it gets dark to catch that shuttle back to your car.
Conundrum Hot Springs
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.
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). In response to the demand, you must first purchase an overnight permit before your visit and carry it during your stay. Get a permit at recreation.gov. This may also help spread out the visits.
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 groves, wildlife, and mountain scenery.
This trail, in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, is pretty busy (and growing in popularity; officials say it's the busiest trail in the area), due to the views and hot spring novelty, so visit during the slower weekdays.
Ice Lakes Basin
The Ice Lakes Basin is a very popular hike for a very good reason – the eponymous Ice Lake is arguably the bluest in the entire Rocky Mountains.
Many people gasp at the sight of such pure blue colors and remark that this is the best hike in Colorado, period. The lake itself is worth the relatively moderate hike; throw in some spectacular wildflowers and a theater of 13ers, and you've got yourself a no-brainer.
The hike starts near South Mineral Campground, which is located near Silverton, at a manageable grade before leveling at Lower Ice Lake. By now, you will see why people consider this one of the best wildflower hikes in Colorado as the basin is often carpeted with local flora.
You will be impressed by this lake, but don't stop pushing on to our ultimate goal, Upper Ice Lake. The trail into the upper basin steepens considerably but give it a good push, and you'll make it soon enough.
Upper Ice Lake is the crown jewel of the trail. It is an extremely deep shade of blue, surrounded by a number of gorgeous peaks.
We suggest that you consider spending the night here and maybe even hike up to Grant/Swamp Pass. This high point offers amazing views of the surrounding landscape, but reaching it is not for the faint-hearted.
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 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 tree line. The views at the top are otherworldly. Mount Elbert is not far from the small Victorian town of Leadville.
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 AM) and drive to Maroon Lake for $10 a car. Walk around the lake. This drive closes between 8 AM and 5 PM. 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. 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. Plus, the classic photo of the mountains towering above an alpine lake is postcard-worthy.
Four Pass Loop
Four Pass Loop is a hidden gem among Colorado hikers. It's called "loop," because it takes multiple hikes to see everything. It starts at Maroon Bells Like and veers off the Scenic Lake Trail there to become a hike of its own. When you reach the Snowmass Trail Fork, you've reached the pinnacle of hiking this trail.
This is a three to five-day hike, depending on your pace. You'll venture into the Elk Mountains, visiting four passes, to get some of the most photographed views in all Colorado and the west. Waterfalls dot the landscape as will fields of wildflowers in all colors of the rainbow.
This hike is very popular, and while you can drive in to park yourself, consider taking a shuttle to avoid the traffic and frustration of finding a parking space.