fall hiking: tour across colorado’s lesser-known trails
Traveling out of the country has unfortunately been hampered this year. Thankfully, the country we are stuck in right now has the unreal scenery to keep us occupied. I mean, what a country to be stuck in! We have endless beaches, top tier restaurants, world-renowned biking, and, of course, endless mountains to explore. So, I guess we’ll take it.
If you are taking a domestic fall trip, and that trip is to the mountains, and those mountains happen to be in Colorado, then you’ve come to the right article. Here I’ll lay out some lesser-known hikes for you to challenge yourself. No matter which portion of Colorado you hit, one of these hikes should be in your proximity. Starting near the Wyoming border, we’ll work our way down the state.
Instead of: Rocky Mountain National Park
Try: Cameron Pass
Heading west out of Fort Collins on State Highway 14, you get the pleasure of viewing the Poudre Canyon on the way to Cameron Pass. More than likely you’ve never heard of this area of Colorado. It gets less attention than RMNP, but with no drop off in scenery. A couple hikes to knock out here are the American Lakes trail and Agnes Lake trail. The reward here is not only glazed blue-colored lakes but also views of each side of the gnarly Nokhu Crags.
The American Lakes Trail is a steady climb through conifer trees reaching two different lakes just above tree-line, the goal being the higher Snow Lake. Clocking in at around 8.3 miles roundtrip, this one is enjoyable. The scenery of flowers and wildlife is entirely distracting for those 1600 ft of elevation. A lot of folks, including myself, have routinely seen groups of moose grazing in the valley below.
The Lake Agnes Trail is an alternative quick 2-mile round trip hike that takes up to view the west side of the impressive Nokhu Crags. This lake has a neat island in the middle and if fishing is your bag, bring a pole. You’ll probably encounter some fellow anglers.
Instead of: I-70 Corridor and Summit County
Try: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
From Denver, the infamous I-70 corridor is home to popular spots like Breckenridge and Vail. Keep on heading west past the busiest spots in Colorado, drop south at Glenwood Springs and you’ll reach the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. From Denver International Airport to the national park is a little over 5 hours. Absolutely worth the drive thRough.
The Black Canyon is not only one of the newest National Parks in the nation, but also the least visited National Park in Colorado. Not really sure why because in some regards it is more impressive than the Grand Canyon.
The gist of hiking at the Black Canyon is getting down to the river via various routes. The most impressive route that gives you the authentic canyon experience is the Gunnison Route Trail. The trail descends almost 2000 ft. to the Gunnison River. All in less than a mile. Meaning, that your lucky legs get to head up that same route to return to the car. Nature’s Stairmaster at work. FYI: You’ll need to grab a permit from the Ranger’s station the day before your hike.
While at this less popular National Park, might as well check out the other views that have little to no hiking involved. For only the price of a 0.2 mile hike, The Painted Wall can be viewed. What makes this wall special is its 2250 ft height, making it the highest vertical wall in all of Colorado.
Instead of: Ice Lake Basin Trail (Silverton)
Try: Engineer Mountain Summit or Blue Lakes Trail
Alright, side note, I shouldn’t steer you away from Ice Lake Basin so abruptly. This hike may be one of the most impressive in Colorado. Each year we’ve gone up, we see more and more cars at the trailhead. Instagram worthy places bring the crowds. Anyway, I’ve got two other hikes for you, one for the lake lovers and one for the peak-baggers.
Engineer Mountain is a little local gem with the trailhead right off the road from Durango heading north to Silverton on Highway 550. At the top of Coalbank Pass, the climb starts up through the forest and into a flower-filled meadow before a spicy scramble begins up to the summit. Only one crux gets in the way. There is an exposed chimney you have to climb through to continue the ridge. A little experience goes a long way here, although I did this climb as a kid. So be careful but don’t let it scare you off. The summit views from almost 13k feet are impressive. Total distance is around 6.4 miles.
For the water-lovers, I’ll steer you to a set of lakes in the gorgeous Sneffels Wilderness. The Blue Lakes Trail starts south of Ridgway on County Road 7. The trail gains about 2500 ft of elevation on the way to a set of glacial lakes colored in a sparkling greenish-blue. Total trip should be 7.6 miles. If your legs are still aching for more, you can head up to the Blue Lakes Pass and from that saddle even head up the southwest ridge of Mt. Sneffels and snag a “14er”.
I’ll leave you with some last-minute tips. These hikes are in elevation and if you are coming from sea level, your body will feel it. That’s where water and calories come in handy. Don’t expect to fully acclimate in only a few days here. What can help this is compensating with loads of water and food. Also, as these are in the mountains, storms come in quickly in the afternoon. Keep an eye on the weather and get off high elevated areas when those angry grey clouds come rolling in.
Guys, enjoy these hikes, and stay safe!
**9/9/20: Please note that some areas may close or are already closed due to worsening fires.
To see more of Brock's adventures, follow him on Instagram: @buffandabroad