Denver Weekend Backpacker: Mile-High Overnight Escapes

For mountain hiking, what could be a more natural choice than Colorado? With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop to the mile-high city, Denver is the perfect jumping-off point for a weekend wilderness adventure.

All the action is to the west, where the flatlands of the city rise into terrain more hilly and rugged. Finally you reach the snowcapped mountain peaks with their vibrant meadows, raging waterfalls, turbulent creeks, and gently rolling streams teeming with trout. Because of its great range in elevation (Denver sits at 5,600 feet; 54 of the state’s mountains top 14,000 feet), Colorado provides excellent opportunities to explore diverse climates in a short period of time. Hikers can climb high early in the day to reach the above-treeline splendors before the typical thunderstorms roll in, then loll about and rest in gentle lower-elevation meadows after the work is over. In between, you’ll find forests and flowers.

One warning: Many of the following hikes take place at elevations of more than 10,000 feet. If you’re not used to the altitude, you may feel out of breath, headachy, or nauseated. It’s normal to feel a little out of breath, but if you feel ill, don’t go any higher, and if necessary descend. Most people can acclimate to the elevations if they give themselves enough time (see High Country Safety for more information).

Here’s a look at some of the weekend wilderness opportunities that you can experience within a three-hour drive from Denver.

Mount Zirkel Wilderness

Routt National Forest
925 Weiss Drive
Steamboat Spring

Mount Zirkel WildernessExpect to see sweeping views of northern Colorado from Mount Zirkel Wilderness in the Routt National Forest. You’ll hike through high alpine meadows, which are typically in full bloom in late July and August. Because of its heavy snowfall, this area is often inaccessible even on the Fourth of July, so plan to hike here late in the summer. In fact, Buffalo Pass receives some of the deepest snowpack in the state. Besides meadows, hiking trails here also run through conifer forests where deer, elk, and bear make their homes.

Recommended hike: Start at the Buffalo Pass trailhead on the Wyoming Trail and head north as far as you like. Because this trail is also part of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which links Canada and Mexico, you could literally hike for hundreds of miles.

For a peaceful overnight experience, hike about seven miles to Lake Elbert and then on to Luna Lake, another one to two miles away. Camp overnight and then head back on the same trail the next day. This is a moderate to easy hike. The elevation is about 10,300 feet at the trailhead and there are no major climbs. The trail undulates somewhat, but the elevation remains about the same for the entire hike.

Getting there: Getting there is half the adventure. The trailhead is located about 3.5 hours from Denver. In Steamboat Springs, turn north on 6th Street and look for the signs for Buffalo Pass and Strawberry Park. Head north on Strawberry Park Road (gravel) and then take the eastern fork to Buffalo Pass. Travel 11 miles on a winding gravel road to the trailhead near the Summit Lake Campground.

Camping: Wilderness camping is permitted, but tents must be set back 100 feet from lakes, streams, and trails. Come prepared to treat drinking and cooking water. Always camp on durable surfaces.

Permit: No permit required.

Maps: Available at the United States Forest Service office on Highway 40 in Steamboat Springs. Recommended maps include Clark/Buffalo Pass (Trails Illustrated map #117).

Cliff Creek Trail

Gunnison National Forest
216 N. Colorado
Gunnison, CO 81230
Phone: (970) 641-0471

Teeming with rivers and wildlife, the Gunnison National Forest comprises over 900 miles of trails crisscrossing eight wilderness areas. Here, hikers will experience scenic mountain views and moderate to strenuous hiking conditions. This area is about 200 miles from Denver.

Recommended hike: Cliff Creek Trail. The best time to hike this 24-mile loop trail is late June through October. Begin at the Horse Ranch Park. From the parking area on the south side of the road, look for the Cliff Creek Trail sign (trail #840) and head southwest into the aspen forest.

Starting at an elevation of 9,000 feet, you’ll cross the Beckwith Pass, then take the Castle Pass Trail (#441) east. Located about 12 miles down the trail, Castle Pass (elevation 11,570 feet) is the highest point on this hike. Here you’ll have a great view of volcanic formations in the West Elk range (about three miles away) known as”the castles.” These geologic wonders were formed when soft rock eroded and left harder volcanic rock that forms ten spires, much like the spires on a castle. Anywhere around Castle Pass is an opportune place to camp. For the return trip, continue east across the pass, where the trail will descend to North Castle Creek and South Castle Creek. About 3.5 miles from Castle Pass, pick up the low-lying trail #438, which heads northwest. After about five miles, this trail will intersect with the Cliff Creek Trail again and lead you back to the parking area.

You’ll experience aspen and conifer forests on this hike, as well as swamps, mountain meadows, and excellent views of the Anthracite Mountains to the east. Look for the Ruby Range in the Raggeds Wilderness to the north and Beckwith Mountain to the west of the Beckwith Pass.

Mosquitoes and flies are particularly prevalent in July and early August. As always, treat water from creeks and streams before drinking.

Getting there: The trailhead is about 12 miles west of Crested Butte. Take Kebler Pass (County Road 12) and look for the signs marking the trailhead. There will be parking areas on both sides of the road. Park in the lot on the south side of the road and follow the signs for the Cliff Creek Trail.

Camping: Hikers can camp anywhere along the trail. Rangers advise looking for places where people have camped before and to camp at least 200 feet away from creeks or trails. No permit is required to camp.

Permits: None required.

Maps: Trails Illustrated map of Kebler Pass and the Paonia Reservoir (#133) or the Gunnison National Forest visitor map.

Buffalo Peaks Wilderness

Pike National Forest
Fairplay Ranger District
PO Box 219
Fairplay, CO 80440
(719) 836-2031

Located about 80 miles from Denver, Fairplay provides access to about 40 hiking trails in the Pike National Forest. You can connect these trails to form longer hikes or take them one at a time for shorter day hikes.

Recommended hike: Rich Creek Trail. Located in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness, this hike combines the Rich Creek Trail (#616, six miles) and the Rough and Tumble Trail (#617, nine miles) for a moderate 15-mile loop. This trail begins below 10,000 feet and climbs to about 11,500 feet, skirting creeks, beaver ponds, open meadow, and low scrub areas. Look for the expansive Buffalo Meadows where the Rich Creek Trail meets the Rough and Tumble Trail. From this vantage point, you will also have a clear view of both the East and West Buffalo Peaks. Timing is crucial for this hike, as the trails can get boggy if it is too wet. Check trail conditions at the ranger station before heading out.

Fishing opportunities abound in the mountain streams along the trail and the terrain is moderately rugged, making it easy to travel off the trails and to the tops of the peaks.

Water is available at the Weston Pass Campground but backcountry water must be treated. Recommended seasons are summer and fall.

Getting there: From Fairplay take Highway 285 south to County Road 5. Head west on County Road 22 (Weston Pass Road). Look for the trailhead just before the Weston Pass Campground. Park here and cross the stream, turn right, and follow the trail upstream.

Camping: Wilderness camping is permitted, but park regulations restrict groups to no more than 15 people. Camping closer than 100 feet to lakes, streams, or trails is prohibited.

Permits: None required.

Maps: USGS maps for South Peak and Jones Hill or the Trails Illustrated map for Leadville and Fairplay (#110).

Poudre Canyon

Roosevelt National Forest
1311 S. College Ave.
Fort Collins, CO 80524
(970) 498-2770

Combined, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests make up 1.3 million acres of public land in the Rocky Mountains. This expansive area extends from the Wyoming border in the north to Mount Evans in the south. The Roosevelt National Forest is confined to the eastern side of the Continental Divide, and its terrain varies from rolling hills to snow-covered peaks more than 14,000 feet high.

Included in the boundaries of the Roosevelt National Forest is the Pawnee National Grassland. Here more than 193,000 acres of intriguing grasslands can be found about 30 miles east of Fort Collins.

Recommended hike: Roaring Creek Trail #952. This is a moderate climb of five miles with an elevation gain of 2,130 feet, making it suitable for either a day hike or an overnight trip. Beginning in Poudre Canyon, the trail starts at 7,750 feet and follows Roaring Creek, which forms in the Nunn Creek Basin area of the Roosevelt National Forest.

You can often see bighorn sheep lingering near the trail. As you head north, cross the bridge over the north branch of Roaring Creek. Here the trail climbs steeply, making several switchbacks through sagebrush, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir forest before leveling off. Next you will meander along the willow-topped creek and lodgepole pine forests until you hit the South Bald Mountain jeep road. Here you can turn around or camp.

Hikers have reported seeing moose along the upper portion of the trail, and the creek is inhabited by native greenback cutthroat trout. This is a popular hike: Don’t expect to be alone on the trail.

Getting there: From Fort Collins take Highway 287 10 miles north. Then travel west about 40 miles up the Poudre Canyon on Highway 14. The parking lot is on the right side of the road, 1.5 miles past the fish hatchery. The trail heads north out of the parking lot.

Camping: Camping is allowed along the trail.

Permits: None required.

Maps: Trails Illustrated Poudre River/Cameron Pass (#112).

Lost Creek Wilderness

Lost Creek Wilderness
c/o South Platte Ranger District
19316 Goddard Ranch Court
Morrison, CO 80465
(303) 275-5610

This interesting wilderness area contains a plethora of short trails that you can configure in many different ways to make an enjoyable day hike or a longer overnight trek. A blend of forested areas, meadows, and creeks provides scenic views, no matter which trails you select.

Recommended hike: From the trailhead at Ute Creek, take the 16-mile Brookside-McCurdy Trail (#607) along the creek. Just as you approach County Highway 64 at the end of the trail, pick up the Payne Creek Trail (#637, 9.5 miles). You can camp here overnight and then head back the next day on the Payne Creek Trail. The Payne Creek Trail will meet the Colorado Trail. Head south on the Colorado Trail and after a few miles you will meet the Brookside-McCurdy Trail again. Follow this back to the trailhead. This is a moderate to difficult hike at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.

Camping: The Lost Park Campground is located about six miles up the Brookside-McCurdy Trail. Dispersed camping is permitted 150 feet away from the trail, nearest campground, residence, or water source. Fires must be in rock rings.

Getting there: Take Highway 285 past Kenosha Pass. At Jefferson turn left at County Road 77, then travel along the Tarryall Reservoir until you see signs for the Ute Creek Trail. Begin your hike on the Ute Creek Trail, and it will join the Brookside-McCurdy after about 1.5 miles.

Permits: There is no charge for disbursed camping. There is a $10 fee for campground sites, plus a $4 parking fee.

Maps: Pike National Forest Map ($4) is available at the park office.

Flattop Mountain

Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO 80517
(970) 586-1206

With 355 miles of trails, it’s no wonder this park is one of Colorado’s most popular hiking destinations.

Located about 65 miles from Denver, 265,727-acre Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 17 mountain peaks above 13,000 feet. The highest peak is Longs Peak at 14,255.

Because of its high elevation, much of Rocky Mountain National Park is above treeline. While this is a fascinating environment to explore, it also poses some dangers. Rangers advise hikers to allow several days to acclimate to the altitude before attempting a rigorous hike. Although the park is open all year, the best hiking conditions occur June through October. Hikers should be prepared for changeable weather at any time of the year.

Recommended hike: Bear Lake to Grand Lake. This hike takes you over the Continental Divide along alpine forests and above the treeline. The trail to the summit of Flattop Mountain climbs at a steady, moderate grade for 4.5 miles. Gentle or not, the total elevation gain is a lung-busting 3,075 feet. The final 1.5 miles are above timberline, and you will have views to the east over Bierstadt Moraine and to the highest sections of Trail Ridge Road to the northwest. From the summit (12,324 feet), you can continue south a few hundred yards to the Tyndall Glacier.

From the top of Flattop Mountain, pick up the North Inlet Trail (#1). Head down the switchbacks to a small stream. Next you will see a pond and meadow. From here it is about 6.1 miles to Grand Lake.

This linear trail is about 18 miles one way and can be completed by very strong hikers in one day. For an overnight experience, reserve a backcountry site on the west side of Flattop Mountain and then continue on the trail the next day or turn around and head back to your vehicle.

If you plan to take this linear trail one way, you must arrange for transportation at the other end. By car it is 46 miles on Trail Ridge Road from one end to the other.

Camping: Allowed in designated sites. Reservations are required. Call the backcountry office at (970) 586-1242.

Getting there: From Denver, take I-25 north and go west on Colorado Highway 66 to Lyons. Merge with US Highway 36 and head toward Estes Park. Follow Highway 36 through Estes Park and follow the signs to the main entrance.

Permits and fees: Park admission is $10 per week per vehicle or $25 for an annual pass. Backcountry permits are required for overnight hikes. They are available from the park headquarters for $15 a night from May through October and $10 from November through April.

Maps: Maps are available at the park office.