John Denver once said, “Things go up and down. If you can survive the down, it will come back.” It isn’t totally clear what he’s talking about, but we like to think he was on a hike in the Rocky Mountains. While we’re not exactly sure what’s coming back to us, we can safely say from experience that it has one of the following characteristics: four legs, fantastic views, or flourishing wildflowers. Maybe snow or a clear lake. Rocky spires atop the lower continental crown.
It’s a big state, so hand-picking a few hikes to fill your day is no small task. We have plenty of primers to get your feet wet, but don’t take my word for it—here is a list:
Nil sine Numine, Colorado. A lifetime or more in Colorado wouldn’t satisfy the soul’s wandering for natural beauty. Please forgive us for trying.
But day hikes: You want them. Quality over quantity, my friends.
From our adventure archives and beyond, here are seven of the best, most unique day hikes in the Centennial State...
Shameless plugs for the southwestern region of Colorado already exist on Outdoor Project—see above—so it seems counterproductive to reiterate an undying affection here. As hikes go, the Via Ferrata may be a cheap, kitchy thrill, but it still makes our palms sweat to imagine clipping into protection 1,500 feet above Telluride with nothing below us but cliff swallows and swirling Rocky Mountain air.
A visit to Colorado would be incomplete without visiting one of its most unique ecological zones. Great Sand Dunes National Park encompasses a geographical anomaly, sand dunes hundreds of feet high where hikers can roam and wander at their will. The High Dune Loop is unlike any other hike in the state.
Maroon Bells and Hallett Peak are iconic peaks in Colorado, but Lone Eagle Peak may surpass both for spectacle. Rising more than 11,000 feet after an 8-mile hike into the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the aerie is a striking granitic dome as easily accessed as those more popular peaks, but the crowds are nowhere in sight.
It’s one of the most popular hikes in the San Juan Mountains, but Ice Lake and Island Lake deserve the attention with their silty celadon waters a striking hue inset into ruddy alpine grasses and jutting peaks. If there’s only one hike you can do in the San Juans, this is it.
Sure, go to Chasm Lake and Bear Lake and Lake Haiyaha and Trail Ridge Road and Moraine Park and the CCY Route, blah blah blah. Once you tire of the slow hikers, shutter releases, and insufferable traffic that accumulates at the first sight of an elk’s monumental rack—yes, yes, it’s very impressive—take your llamas to the Wild Basin. If Lone Eagle Peak is where birds of prey roost, the Lion Lakes are where they go to drink. And you might see an actual mountain lion.
This is one of those you’ll-thank-me-later hikes. Descending and ascending about 4,000 feet over 3 miles of poison ivy that is 5 feet tall better be worth it, and it is. A visit to the Black is one of the most visceral Colorado hiking experiences, where the drop-off is bigger and more gut-wrenching than any other place in the state. Descending its angles of repose will show you every side of the mythical and brooding canyon.
Other than whitewater, who thinks of eastern Colorado for outdoor recreation? The Pawnee Buttes Trail isn't spectacular like the Rockies, but it shows off a completely different part of the state that most of its visitors ignore, and the high plains have a charm all their own.