If you’re like me, you can’t just stare at the mountains – you have to go into them to explore. Denver makes a terrific home base for exploring the Rockies, and it’s in proximity to tons of hikes suitable for beginner and intermediate hikers. Here are just a few of the trails I recommend:
Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park – 2.2 miles, easy
Rocky Mountain National Park is perhaps the most popular hiking area for visiting travelers because it’s so well-known. What makes it even better is the easy access to hiking trails. When you drive into the park (it’s about an hour from downtown Denver) you pay the toll and head straight in. To reach the trailhead that leads you to Dream Lake, you’ll drive along Bear Lake Road and look for signs for a Park and Ride lot. Especially during peak season (May through September), the parking lots fill before 10 am. The Park and Ride lot is equipped with really nice restrooms, water fountains, and a line for the free shuttle bus. Quick tip – the line for the shuttle bus can be quite long, but it moves fairly quickly. Getting an earlier start makes wait times lower and trail traffic less intense. However, this is a well-loved, and highly-traveled trail – so you shouldn’t expect to find yourself alone in the wilderness. There’s plenty of beauty, peace and quiet for all, though.
The shuttle bus will take you further up into the park, and drop you off at the Bear Lake Trailhead. From Bear Lake, the trail splits – take it to the left toward Dream Lake. The trail climbs steadily up toward Nymph Lake, which makes a terrific spot to rest and take in the views. Continue around the lake and head up the steep climb that will offer you incredible views on your way up. Your next landmark is the trailhead for Lake Haiyaha. Turn right here to continue to Dream Lake, and enjoy the beautiful scene laid out before you. When I visited (in late September at the peak of fall colors) I sat on the boulders in front of the lake and had a picnic lunch, before heading back to the Lake Haiyaha trailhead and looping around to find it. I had more time and energy, and it was a convenient add-on.
Trading Post Trail at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater – 1.4 miles, easy
Red Rocks is known for its amphitheater and the incredible concerts it hosts, but there are also some beautiful hiking trails connected to the park. Trading Post Trail showcases the incredible rock formations, valleys, meadows, and more. The terrain is a little rough, so even though it’s just over one mile long, I recommend hiking shoes. While you’re there, take the time to walk the amphitheater steps and take in the views from the top. It’s truly stunning.
Lake Isabelle in Indian Peaks Wilderness – 4 miles, intermediate
The trail to Lake Isabelle was a favorite for me, because it was more wild than the other trails. Terrain ranged from lush forest to boulders and stones littering creekbeds that flowed down the mountain. Plus, I saw a moose IRL (from a distance). Located in the Lake Brainard area just outside of Boulder, the hike to Lake Isabelle is stunning. After a quick stroll around Long Lake, simply follow the signs across valleys and streams for two miles to reach Lake Isabelle. This hike only gains 400 feet in elevation, but it had my heart pumping. When you arrive at the top, expect wildflowers, spectacular views, and even a bit of snow – it’s generally found here year-round.
You can tack on an additional two miles and 1,500 feet in elevation from Lake Isabelle to reach the Isabelle Glacier if you have the time and energy – I opted to head back, and backtracked the two miles to my car.
If you decide to make Denver your home base, be sure to check out the local food and beer scene – after a few hours hiking in the mountains, I thoroughly enjoyed replenishing those spent calories at The Populist, Hops and Pie, Great Divide Brewing Company, River North Brewing Company, and Our Mutual Friend, to name a few.