John Denver was onto something when he wrote about our cathedral mountains, silver clouds, quiet solitude of the forest and the streams, and being a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly. We are so truly lucky to live in such a gorgeous place, and fortunate to have hiking trails to take a moment and escape from the day to day and feed our wanderlust with nature.
There are so many hiking trails in our area I can’t even begin to scratch the surface here, and I’ve lived here for over a decade now and am still finding new trails I have yet to hike. I’m going to try and touch on some of my favorites and let you know why I love them, as well as some I’m wanting to try myself!
Beaver Lake – Located on Beaver Creek Mountain, you can actually visit Beaver Creek’s namesake lake! My favorite way to do this trail is to take the lift up (you can purchase a day lift ticket or use your Epic Pass if you have one) and take the Royal Elk trail across. From there, you head uphill for a short bit and then the lake appears like out of a movie. It’s incredible. From there, you pretty much follow the creek down, and if you’re feeling adventurous you can start taking other trails in Beaver Creek to extend your hiking (one addition I love is to swing to the east at Allie’s Way and take that to Overlook right down to the base of the Centennial Lift. The reason why I choose to take Royal Elk is because I think it’s a more visually exciting hike, even though it’s easier. You get to traverse across Grouse Mountain, which is jagged and intimidating looking (so different than “the hills are alive with the sound of music” you see on so much of Beaver Creek!), and then tuck into the glades of Black Bear and Royal Elk. It’s also super exciting to see where I ski in another season. So if you’re willing to pay or have a pass, it is worth it. Also, the hike to Beaver Lake doesn’t have many switchbacks, so you’re pretty much hiking 1,500 vertical feet straight up, which is something I’m not a huge fan of! So there you have it!
Booth Falls – Booth Falls was my very first hike I did when I moved out to Colorado. I did everything wrong. I was grossly underprepared. I didn’t bring enough food or water. I didn’t bring the right clothing. I went in the afternoon without checking the weather. And so on…and yet I don’t hate this trail and it will always have a special place in my heart. Booth Falls is part of a longer Booth Creek Trail, which in itself is considered a “more difficult” trail and 9 miles round trip. The 60 foot waterfalls, however, are located just shy of mile 2, and because of this the trail is super busy. There’s limited parking at the trailhead, so overflow parking is at the nearby school. The trail ascends through a Gore Mountain Range drainage along Booth Creek, going up in elevation through high mountain meadows and tree groves. Despite it’s short trip to the falls, it’s very steep and begins at almost 9,000ft elevation. Don’t underestimate this trail like I did all those years ago! It’s worth the climb though, because the waterfall is absolutely stunning.
Mesquite Trail – Located within the Singletree Community, there are two entrances to the Mesquite trail. One is located on Mesquite Drive, and the second is on Charolais Circle. Parking is on the side of the road, so please be kind to the neighborhood and don’t block driveways, utilities, or fire hydrants. The trail gives beautiful panoramic views with Vail’s Game Creek Bowl and Gore Range to the east, Bellyache Ridge to the west, Beaver Creek, Arrowhead, and the Lake Creek Valley. It’s gorgeous! The trail itself is quite short, about 45 minutes to an hour round trip if you go at a steady pace, and has high traffic of locals on both foot and mountain bike. It connects to Berry Creek 4×4 road, which you can follow uphill for a bit if you’d like to extend your hike. It’s on the north side of I-70 and gets lots of southern exposure with minimal shade, so don’t forget your sunscreen and water for this one!
Missouri Lakes/Fancy Pass Loop – Homestake is the area where this beautiful loop is located, and is known for its cool waters of the reservoir and local camping spots. Follow the directions on the one sheet and you’ll get to the shared parking location for this trailhead. If you head clockwise, you’ll be doing Missouri Lakes first (counter clockwise for Fancy Pass). The two trails connect to make a super fun loop, but if you’re looking to do a shorter hike you can always just do part of one. It is considered a moderate to more difficult hike, however I think I would consider it more difficult due to the length and the starting elevation of 10,000ft. I definitely would not recommend this hike within your first day or so, especially if you’re going to be coming from sea level. The views throughout are absolutely breathtaking, from the forests at the beginning, to the high alpine lakes once you’ve gotten to treeline. The water is crystal blue (and cooooold!!!!) and the colors are so incredible, be it the flowers of the summer or yellows and orange of fall.
Shrine Ridge Trail – Each year, I do this trail sometime between late July and early August. It begins at over 11,000ft so if you time it right the wildflowers come alive with the brightest reds, yellows, pinks, and purples. It’s a beautiful rainbow contrasting the green trees and bluest sky…this trail for me never gets old, and I never miss it. It’s probably the hike I’ve done most often, and I love sharing it with friends and family. You’ll be driving on a dirt road to get there, so make sure your car has clearance, and because it is a popular trail the parking lot gets filled up quickly so make sure to arrive early. You’ll be hiking above treeline for part of the hike, with limited shelter, so keep your eye on the weather. It can change super quickly! Cameras are always important for hiking, but definitely make sure you have it with you for this one, especially when you get to the top and see why it’s called “Shrine Mountain.” Bonus: there’s a survey marker at the top, too! Am I the only one who thinks survey markers are super neat?
Ones I want to try:
- Crystal Mill – It’s the most photographed place in Colorado and I’ve never been.
- Maroon Bells – The most photographed mountains in Colorado, and again, I’ve never been.
- Lost Lake Trail – It’s so close to Piney, where I go all the time. Time to see it!
- Rifle Falls – Ok, so technically this one is pretty far, but it’s a state park and stunning and waterfalls, so 3 reasons are good enough for me. And if you’re looking at a good day trip, you can go too!
About Fourteeners: You’ll probably hear the term “fourteener” at some point during your time in Colorado. Fourteeners are our 58 mountains over 14,000ft! In Eagle County, we have Mount of the Holy Cross, however some counties have multiple ones. The most famous is probably Pike’s Peak, which inspired “America the Beautiful.” Summiting a fourteener is a badge of honor for many Coloradans, and hiking these rugged peaks are no joke. Most often, hikers camp out at the trailhead and begin their trek before dawn, with the hike itself gaining thousands of vertical feet—it can even take 12+ hours! If you’re and avid hiker, you can definitely try summiting a fourteener during your trip to Colorado, however I definitely recommend having a guide with you. Your guide will ensure you have everything you need for safety, knows the trail (it’s easy to become lost when you’re surrounded by rocks), and is a vital asset for altitude sickness when it comes to these amazing mountains.
So now we’ve gotten this far and you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked about Hanging Lake. Odds are, you’ve probably seen Hanging Lake even if you don’t realize it. It’s one of Colorado’s most famous landmarks and within the last 5 years has become incredibly popular with travel heavy hitters like Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure, as well as instagram and social media.
Hanging Lake has become so popular, it needed intervention. It had unsustainable tourism levels, which came with graffiti, litter, and rule breakers (don’t go on the log and NEVER swim in the lake) to the point where the Forest Service couldn’t keep up. Our beautiful National Landmark was in jeopardy of being destroyed, so a permit system was put in place, similar to hikes like Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. This limited the amount of people who could hike it per day, as well as charge a fee to pay for the upkeep of the trail (which was maintained by an all-volunteer team prior), add rangers for assistance, and keep Hanging Lake pristine.
To book a reservation for Hanging Lake, please visit: https://visitglenwood.com/hanginglake/.
There’s a wonderful guide to Hanging Lake written by a Denver blogger, Day Hikes Near Denver. Aaron has written a phenomenal how-to for Hanging Lake, including information about the trail itself, hiking tips, all about parking and permits, you name it. Instead of reinventing his fantastic wheel, I suggest visiting his site for everything Hanging Lake!
Paragon Guides has been in our valley since 1978 and has extremely knowledgeable and friendly guides who love the outdoors. If you’re looking for a unique adventure, you can also do a hike with a llama!
If you’re looking to learn more about mountaineering and take your hiking to the next level, Apex offers challenging and exciting private guided trips up Mr. Arkansas and Mt. Elbert. Their guides have been in the business for 20+ years in our area.
Don’t forget to pack snacks and water. You’ll be burning lots of calories as you gain elevation and you will need to fuel your body. I also love bringing a sandwich to eat at my destination, be it a waterfall, lake, etc. to have an excuse to spend extra time in the beauty of it all.
Whatever trash you bring in, take it back out with you. Trash in, trash out. There are no garbage bins on the trail, so I like to bring an extra little ziploc for my trash to ensure I don’t lose it and it doesn’t get all over my pack.
Make sure you have a map with you, be it a trail map, GPS, one sheet, or topo map. It’s always good to know where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going, especially on a new trail. If you are with a guide, your guide will also have these things. Your guide will also have an emergency kit, but if you’d like to make your own (highly recommended) there are lots of tutorials on the internet. Most include waterproof matches, a pocket knife, basic first aid kit, storm whistle, some chord, a headlamp, a watch, moleskin for blisters, bug spray, toilet paper protected in a plastic bag, and extra ziplocs. They may even have a space blanket.
Vail Mountain Rescue Group is our local backcountry first responders and they have a great list of essentials for your pack too. I highly recommend you take a look at their suggestions: https://vailmountainrescue.org/day-hike-pack-list/.
Remember to tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to come back, just in case! Many of our trails are out of cell service to be aware. There’s also always a chance a high alpine storm can roll through quickly, so keep an eye on the weather—if it starts to turn for the worse, head down to a lower elevation and if immediate need is required, take shelter until it is safe again to head back to your car.
Be a kind hiker to Mother Nature. Stay on the trail—as much as it’s tempting to be a trailblazer, veering off trail tramples the surrounding flora. You may see small animals or birds on your hike, so leave them be and observe them in their home. Please do not feed them, because then they will rely on humans for food which is not good for their survival. And as pretty as a flower may be, please do not pick it! It’s not good for future years of flowers, and some flowers come with a fine if you are caught picking them, especially in a wilderness area.
“Take only photos, leave only footprints.”
This is just the beginning of important information, so if you have any questions, leave them in a comment below or email me. There are also great resources about hiking in our area online if you’d like to do more independent research.
WHAT DO I WEAR?
What you wear hiking is so much more than fashion, and you’ll have to have a trusty pack to put your extra layers in (Yep, you’ll need them!). Weather in the Rockies can change super quickly, and you don’t want to be caught in the elements unprepared, especially above treeline. There are many articles on the web highlighting what to wear, so please make sure to do your research, even if it’s just for a short hike.
Backpack – you’ll need a pack for your layers, water, and extra food. I like having a pack with a Camelback, because it makes drinking water much more convenient and spreads the weight of the water along your back making it more evenly distributed.
Good Hiking Shoes/Boots – don’t go cheap here, especially if you’re going to be doing lots of hiking. Invest in a good, quality pair of hiking boots from the top brands. Find one which fits your foot well and doesn’t rub funny.
Socks – hiking, synthetic socks. And an extra pair. REI has a great sock article!
Base Layers – for me, I typically hike in a pair of leggings and an athletic supportive top. My hubby wears hiking pants which zip off, synthetic (not cotton!) boxers, and a synthetic (again, not cotton!) shirt. Cotton is your enemy. It gets wet, it stays wet. Not fun, be it sweat or rain.
Mid-Layer – My second layer I bring is typically fleece pants and a fleece top. There’s a brand in Leadville beloved here called Melanzana which makes an awesome mid-layer for summer hiking, especially at higher elevations. If it’s looking to be cold in the forecast or if it’s early or late season, I also bring a down puffy because they are extremely packable and light weight.
Rain Gear – Rain can blow in super quickly. Rain jacket/rain pants are a must.
Warm hat – again, not cotton. It’s a theme.
Sun Hat – protect your face and skin
Balaclava – It can double as a mask for covid! It also will keep your neck warm, and if you need sun protection you can wear a lightweight one.
Gloves – If it gets cold, your hands will thank you. Water resistant is always helpful.
Sunglasses – protect your eyes!