Denver is such a cool city with great food, art scene, and sports all centrally located in the city center. However, as most Coloradans would tell you, the greatest thing about Denver is the abundant nature opportunities that lie just outside of the city. We visited Denver over Labor Day weekend and didn’t spend a single day indoors. Renting a car when visiting the Mile High City is a must in order to reach these three amazing places to connect with nature.
Resembling Plitvice Lakes in Croatia more than the Rocky Mountains, Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, CO is an out of this world hiking experience that everyone should take at least once in their life. While it was the furthest from Denver with about a two hour drive each way, it was one of the most unbelievable hikes we’ve taken this year and we would absolutely do it again in a heart beat. The hike itself is mostly uphill. While only said to be about a mile to the lake, the hike is very strenuous and takes anywhere between one and two hours each direction depending on your fitness level. However, the views along the way are stunning and most of the trail runs along a creek.
Once you’ve taken some time to appreciate the beautiful lake and falls, take a short trail to Spouting Rock. The trail head is subtle, but there are signs and after a short trek you’ll come to a largely deserted waterfall that can be appreciated from all angles – including from a cave behind the waterfall.
Getting to the base of the trail is a little complicated. The parking lot just off the highway with only enough spaces to fit about 100 people in the park at a time. While this can make getting to the lake difficult (especially on weekends), it means that the trails aren’t too crowded and the lake is relatively quiet once you make it to the top. Visiting the falls during the week is highly advisable. Since the parking lot is directly off of the highway off ramp, if there are no spaces left there’s no place to park and no nearby exit to reach the falls from. So the key to enjoying the lake is to get there early. For those looking to stay a little closer to the falls, there are several towns nearby that would reduce the drive time including Glenwood Springs, Aspen, and our favorite Colorado small town – Frisco.
Rocky Mountain National Park
While it seems completely obvious to include Rocky Mountain National Park on this list, we’ve now had several friends visit Denver without ever going to this iconic park. This blows our mind because there is so much that the park has to offer. With more than 300 miles of trails, it’s a bit overwhelming to know where to start. If coming from Denver, you’ll likely enter the park from Estes Park. From there, our favorite trails start at Bear Lake – which is the perfect spot for hikers of all ages and skill levels. Mostly flat and well maintained trail circle the small lake. Kids and grandparents alike will enjoy this spot, while more experienced hikers can continue beyond Bear Lake to Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake.
While the lakes are the big attraction, the mountain views along the way are spectacular. The trail is moderate difficulty, but for those visiting from lower elevations (like we were), it was easy to get winded on even the most mild grades in the park. We brought two liters of water each and needed it as well as snacks to get us to the end.
When you’ve finished the trail, you can take a trail fork toward Alberta Falls or make your way back to the parking lot. We opted for the falls, which were powerful but hidden by large rocks at most points and were much more crowded than any of the other places in the area. However, there were a lot of rocks around the falls that were fun to climb and explore, and the trail was relatively easy.
When you’ve hiked to your heart’s content, be sure to jump onto Trail Ridge Road for scenic 360 views of the entire park, including the highest point in the park. The road can get very busy on peak weekends, but is worth the slowdown to take in the amazing scenery.
Garden of the Gods
We’re not ones to flock to the traditional tourist hot spots but Garden of the Gods and neighboring Seven Falls were an exception we made and stand by. While filled with traditional tourist-aimed knick-knacks and paved trails, walking among the red and orange rock formations at Garden of the Gods was a pretty cool experience.
While there are a few trails surrounding the rocks, there certainly weren’t enough to entertain us for a day. So we decided to try out Seven Falls which was an even bigger tourist attraction. We actually felt like we were in a mini version of a Disney theme park – minus the characters – for most of the time, but once you get past the well-groomed trails and falls, you can take the 1 mile Inspiration Point trail to the top of a mountain. The trail is mostly uphill, but hikers are rewarded with fantastic views of Colorado Springs and the surrounding mountains and landscape.
These are just three hiking spots that take you well outside of the Denver city limits. There are several trails closer into the city and in nearby Boulder that are well worth exploring. What we loved about the three featured here was the diversity in landscape. From green lakes, to rocky mountain climbs, to red rocks and cactus, these three trails give you a taste of all that Colorado has to offer!