The 13 Best Hiking Trails In Colorado

Whether you’re planning a big move to the mile-high city or just a nice visit to the Rockies, Colorado is one of the best states to seek out incredible hiking adventures. But which are considered the best hiking trails in Colorado?

The 13 best hiking trails in Colorado are:

  1. Lake Isabelle via Pawnee Pass
  2. Conundrum Creek to Conundrum Hot Springs
  3. Crag Crest National Recreation Trail
  4. Chasm Lake
  5. Emerald Lake
  6. Herman Gulch
  7. Saint Mary’s Glacier
  8. Columbine Lake
  9. Blue Lakes
  10. Bear Creek Falls
  11. Button Rock Dam
  12. Sniktau Mountain
  13. Mount Falcon Castle Loop

This article compiles over a dozen of the best hikes within the state of Colorado, many of which are only an hour or so outside of Denver. With over 17,000 trails to choose from, this list will help you narrow down not only the best of the best, but which is the best one for you!

The 13 Best Hiking Trails In Colorado

1. Lake Isabelle Via Pawnee Pass

Length: 4-5.5 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 551 ft

The trail to Lake Isabelle comes highly recommended from those with plenty of experience hiking in Colorado. Take note, however, that reservations are required even for day hikes to maintain control of the number of people on the trail and in the parking lots. Hikers that fail to make a reservation at least 2-3 weeks in advance will leave disappointed when turned away at the parking lot.

Reserve your spot for Long Lake Trailhead parking if you can. Brainard Lake Trailhead parking lot adds a couple miles to the round trip, but it may be easier to get a pass during peak season. There is no other parking available for this trailhead without making a reservation.

Family Friendly

Once you’re in, take the Pawnee Pass Trail, which is rated a moderate 5.5 miles from Brainard Lake Trailhead. The incline isn’t incredibly steep aside from a few sections near the base of the glacier that require some scrambling. This makes an ideal trail for families with younger kids. Dogs on leashes are also allowed.

During the summer months, the hike to Lake Isabelle boasts plenty of wildflowers, so be sure to bring a camera! As you hike, keep an eye out for wildlife, as moose and elk are frequently spotted along the way to the lake. Just remember to keep your distance from any wild animal. As calm and slow as moose often act, they are not always gentle giants.

Go In June/July

When you get to the lake, you’ll have gorgeous glacier views all around you. Once you take in the stunning landscape, continue on to see the beautiful waterfall at the far end of the lake. Isabelle lake is drained for agricultural use each summer, so this is best hiked in June or July.

By August, the lake’s water level is usually fairly low. As a result, mosquitos peak in mid-July, so bring your bug spray. And like many Colorado hikes, don’t forget to wear layers for that chilly breeze. The area is subject to some summer drizzles, so check the forecast and bring a rain poncho if you’re heading out there.

2. Conundrum Creek To Conundrum Hot Springs

Length: 18 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 2,791 ft

Nestled into the mountains of Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Conundrum Creek Trail is an 18-mile out and back trail that ends at Conundrum Hot Springs. The trail is rated as difficult due to the length of the trail rather than the steady elevation gain over the 9 miles to the hot springs.

A Good All-Day Hike

For this reason, many hikers opt to do this as an all-day day hike. If this entices you, you’ll want to leave the trailhead early, but not before sunrise, as mountain lions have been spotted on the trail in the very early morning.

For the average hiker, you should allow a minimum of 4 hours to get to the hot springs but should only need 2-3 hours to descend back to the trailhead after a nice soak in the pools. The geothermal springs located here are one of the highest in elevation within the United States, and the largest of pools can fit 10 or more people.

Geothermal Pools

While you soak in the 100°F mineral water, be sure to take in the scenery which includes waterfalls, year-round snow-capped peaks, and avalanche chutes. 

Although the trail is heavily trafficked, hiking Conundrum Creek Trail on a weekday when possible will allow for a more pleasant and secluded visit to the hot springs. If backpacking is in your wheelhouse, consider spending the night at one of the 20 campgrounds near the springs. Just be sure to reserve a permit and remember to pack out your waste.

3. Crag Crest National Recreation Trail

Length: 6-10.3 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 1,548 ft

If you have one day for hiking in Colorado and don’t mind walking a razor’s edge, Crag Crest Trail in Grand Mesa National Forest is the hike for you.

This heavily trafficked 10.3-mile loop trail offers 360° views of alpine lakes, forests, mountains and more on top of a thin-trailed ridge. Of the two loops available, the upper loop is reported to be less steep and strenuous and can be done as a 6-mile out and back trail to the top of the ridge.

Ideal For Families

This makes a great all-day hike for families with older kids, dog lovers (leashes required), and trail riding aficionados. For plant lovers, wildflower sightings are common from June through October, when this hike is most accessible.

Both loops wind their way through forest, serene meadows, and cleared land, allowing hikers to experience the many types of landscapes and scenery found throughout Colorado, all on one trail.

Atop a 5-foot-wide crest at the peak of the upper loop trail, however, panoramic views of the surrounding area are exalted. Sights seen include Grand Mesa below, Book Cliffs, Utah to the west, and Gunnison Valley to the south with Uncompahgre Peak way in the distance.

4. Chasm Lake

Length: 8.8 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 2,542 ft

Chasm Lake is located at the base of Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Standing at a huge 14,259 feet, Longs Peak is the tallest peak in the National Park. This hike is an absolute must when visiting the park.

To get there, you’ll need to park at the Longs Peak Trailhead, but since this is perhaps the most popular area of the park, you’ll need to arrive early to get a parking spot. A park pass is also required and there are no rangers’ stations or kiosks in the parking lot, so plan ahead and purchase a pass online before heading out.

A Well-Maintained Trail

Following signage for Longs Peak Trail, hikers make their way up the steep trail following beautiful streams and fabulous wildflower displays all the way to the edge of the tree line. There are many creek crossings, but most can be traversed without getting your feet wet. The trail is very well maintained since the area is so heavily trafficked.

After about 2 miles, the trail surpasses the tree line and becomes very exposed to the elements. This is where layers are important. The Colorado sun is incredibly hot because of the elevation and even more so during summer. Remember as you shed your warmer layers to dawn some sunscreen on any exposed skin.

If you’re one for frequent bathroom breaks, you’ll be happy to hear there are two primitive toilets towards the top of the hike, right before the last stretches of trail up to the lake.

Beautiful Scenery

A long, gorgeous waterfall accompanies you through the last part of your journey up to Chasm Lake. One last rocky scramble,that many claim is the hardest part of the hike, is all that stands between you and the beautiful glacial scene.

Even in the middle of summer, there is ice or snow on and around the lake. Towering over the lake is the most epic view of Longs Peak. Be sure to take a well-deserved break at the top and enjoy the lake. Be careful coming back down the incredibly steep portion of the trail, especially if your legs are tired.

5. Emerald Lake

Length: 3.2 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 698 ft

Another incredibly popular but much easier trail within the Rocky Mountain National Park is the 3.2-mile out and back trail to Emerald Lake. This hike is perfect for beginners or for those that only have a single day to spend in the park.

Beginning at Bear Lake Trailhead, Emerald Lake trail makes its way gradually up to three beautiful alpine lakes. These are Dream Lake, Emerald Lake and Nymph Lake. Much of the trail is relatively flat and very well-maintained to keep up with the many visitors the trail receives each year.

Great For Beginners

Because this trail is popular and well-traveled year-round, it is an excellent choice for beginners looking to try their footing at winter hiking and snowshoeing.

On the way up to Emerald Lake, you will first come across Nymph Lake, a shallow alpine lake dotted with lily pads in the summer months. As you continue up the trail and climb the ridge, you will find yourself walking along a creek with many small waterfalls.

Dream Lake is next on the trail, a much larger snowmelt lake with views of flat-topped Hallett Peak in the distance. Walk across the fallen tree bridge and continue lakeside, following signage for Emerald Lake.

Views Of Hallett Peak

Emerald Lake offers up close and personal views of Hallett Peak, as well as a large waterfall on the opposite end of the lake. Swimming is possible during the warmer times of the year, but during winter when the lake is frozen over it is often too windy to reach the shore, so it is best appreciated from afar.

6. Herman Gulch

Length: 7.2 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 1,774 ft

Herman Gulch Trailhead located in the Creek Ranger District of the Arapaho National Forest offers a picturesque and versatile day hike during any time of year.

The hike begins in quaking aspens and pine forest. One of the best times for hiking Herman Gulch is during late summer or early fall before the first snow. The trees will have just started to change colors and the sunlight shining through them is gorgeously picture worthy.

Winter Hiking

It is possible to traverse this trail during winter with the right planning and gear, but the majority of traffic occurs during the summer months. Be sure to arrive at the trailhead early during peak season to avoid crowds on the trail and parking issues.

During the warmer months, the juxtaposition of the lush green surrounding the creek against the dry brush all around makes for some excellent photo opportunities. The numerous small alpine meadows offer views of the surrounding mountains as you make your way up to the lake and they make a great place for wildflowers during summer.

As you venture down the trail, you can climb in and around the creek if it’s warm, or pick a place among the trees to sit and enjoy nature. This is a perfect chance to see wildlife all along the trail because the creek serves as a main water source for animals in the area.

Pet Friendly

You can also bring along your furry friends, but just be sure to keep your dog on their leash. The trail even supports horse traffic. At the top of the first big hill, there will be a fork in the trail. Head right, down the more established path, and you will begin the steepest and final stretch of the hike before reaching the beautiful seafoam-colored alpine lake at the top.

After this point, the trail is exposed to the sun and wind chill, so be sure to bring layers to stay at a comfortable temperature. Follow the cairns all the way to Herman Lake where views of Pettingell Peak (13,553 feet) towering above will take your breath away.

7. Saint Mary’s Glacier

Length: 2.4 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 1,030 ft

Anyone on the lookout for a shorter day hike near Idaho Springs should check out Saint Mary’s Glacier. This moderate 2.4-mile out and back trail features a gorgeous alpine lake and a glacier-fed waterfall at the end.

The trailhead for Saint Mary’s is off Fall River Road and you’ll need to bring $5 exactly and a pen to pay the parking fee. During peak season the lot fills up pretty early in the day, so plan accordingly. Avoid parking along the roadside because local law enforcement are known to give parking tickets in this area.

Great For Winter Hiking

Even though snow patches can be found year-round here, this is a favorite for winter hiking. If visiting in the summer, you’ll want sturdy hiking boots for this trail, as most of it is loose gravel and rocks. Reaching the lake is steep, but quick and straightforward. You’ll want to continue to the other side of it, though, for spectacular close-up views of the waterfall.

If you’ve taken in the beauty there and are still feeling adventurous, you can veer to the right and continue up toward the glacier into the James Peak Wilderness area. The trail disappears shortly after this, so you may have to find your own way, but it’s a great opportunity to challenge yourself and your hiking companions.

This short hike is strongly recommended for families, beginners, and those that don’t want to spend all day out on the trail.

8. Columbine Lake

Length: 8.3 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 2,933 ft

For a true hidden gem of a hike, you’ll want to check out Columbine Lake Trail in the San Juan Mountain Range. The 8.3-mile out and back trail is rated difficult, both in length and in elevation change, but the views at the top are incredibly worthwhile.

The hike begins at a very small dirt parking lot near Silverton, CO, with room for a few vehicles. Hike along the dirt road for a while and be on the lookout for a separate trailhead on your left heading up the mountain. It does not have signage, so it can be easy to miss, and you’ll end up just continuing down the same road.

Great Views All The Way Up

The first two miles of the trail are very steep as you switch-back up the mountain, so prep your calves and quads for it. When you get tired, be sure to turn around and appreciate the view of the San Juan Mountains.

Once you’re past the tree line, the trail opens up to beautiful meadows and cliffsides where wildflowers thrive during the summer months. As you hike along the ridge be sure to take in the lush greenery and snowcapped peaks all around.

Windy At The Top

Near the top, you’ll find a small stream flowing down the mountain side which the trail follows until you reach serene and calm Columbine Lake. It is of course windy at the top, so you might want to find a boulder to lean against and escape the elements while you eat lunch and enjoy views of the lake.

Camping is allowed, but keep in mind that alpine meadows are fragile ecosystems and should be treated with great care to preserve them for future travelers.

9. Blue Lakes

Length: 8.7-9.6 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 2,509 ft

Not to be confused with the Californian trail of the same name, the Blue Lakes Trail of Colorado is located in the northern San Juan Mountain Range. It is a well-traveled and well-maintained 9+ mile out and back trail that is typically bustling with people even on most weekdays.

The trail is even dog friendly, but do consider your canine’s soft pads against the sometimes rocky trail.

Poor Terrain

Conditions of the dirt road to the trailhead are not ideal, so you may want to make the drive in a high-clearance vehicle, but if you don’t have one don’t let this deter you. Just take plenty of time heading up and move over for other cars.

The first bit of the trail is fairly easy as you venture through the woods, with a stream just below you. As you slowly begin to climb in elevation, this trail is known to be a lung buster.

Hikers that have experienced this trail are in agreement that the first lake is an absolute must, with dramatically teal blue water. There’s also an established campground for those that choose to backpack in and spend the night.

Lakes Two And Three

If you can continue through to the second and third lakes, however, you’ll hit several creek crossings and have to climb further to be rewarded with stunning views of the lower lake. The second and third lakes are much smaller, but usually less crowded and a great place to stop for lunch before making your way back down.

The length of the trail varies between 8.7 and 9.6 miles, depending on how far you decide to continue, but ultimately it is worth the work to get up to the lakes and back.

10. Bear Creek Falls

Length: 5.1 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation gain: 1,092 ft

For beginning hikers or families with kids, Bear Creek Falls is an excellent half day adventure. The trail is found in Bear Creek Preserve near Telluride, CO, and although it is rated as moderate, it is a fairly easy trail if you are acclimated to the elevation.

If you’re staying in or near the Telluride Ski Resort, be sure to take the free gondola ride from the resort into Telluride. From the station, the trailhead is a mere few blocks away. The hike in is mostly uphill, for a nice intermediate adventure. This makes it a great hike for beginners looking for a little bit of a challenge. You are sure to be rewarded when you make it to the falls!

Great For Kids

While you go, make sure to enjoy the rushing stream crossings and fields of wildflowers. Kids will enjoy boulder climbing and playing in the falls. Pets are also welcome as long as they remain on-leash.

Once you return from the hike, grab lunch in the town of Telluride and appreciate how close such a unique and beautiful place is to civilization.

11. Button Rock Dam

Length: 5.1 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 856 ft

Button Rock Dam is a 5.1-mile, easy to moderate loop trail near Longmont, CO. The main features of this hike are the magnificent views of Button Rock Preserve, as well as some of the most famous peaks in Colorado.

This trail is highly recommended for families with small children. The area is well maintained and the hike itself is not very strenuous. Even on weekends and holidays, the trail is usually not too crowded.

Views At The Top

After leaving the parking lot, the trail switches back up to the top of a moderate hill until it opens to a large grassy field. This is a great place to see wildflowers during the right season. As you continue to hike through the field, you’ll come to a huge reservoir. Looking beyond the reservoir, way off in the distance you’ll get a glimpse of Longs Peak, Mount Meeker, and Twin Sisters.

You’ll want to break here and have a snack or simply enjoy the view. The second half of the loop, while still surrounded by beautiful forest and streams, isn’t quite as spectacular as it returns you back to the trailhead.

12. Sniktau Mountain

Length: 4 miles | Difficulty: Hard | Elevation gain: 1,587 ft

Located near Dillion, CO, in the Arapaho National Forest, Sniktau Mountain Trail is 4 miles of difficult out and back trail. It is rated as such because of the serious elevation change in only a couple of miles. The peak sits at 13,240 feet and is an excellent day trip for those serious hikers and mountain climbers.

The first mile and a half is incredibly steep, and the whole hike is very exposed to the elements because you begin already above the tree line. This exposure, though daunting, offers magnificent views throughout the entire hike.

A Tough Trail

This trail is not for the faint of heart, as there are many false summits. But once you reach the ridgeline, the trail levels out for the remainder of the ascent and you’re able to truly enjoy your surroundings.

At the summit, it is spectacular to take a look down and around at all the other mountaintops, meadows, and lakes in the surrounding areas. This hike will leave you feeling like you’re on top of the world!

13. Mount Falcon Castle Loop

Length: 6.7 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation gain: 1,607 ft

Looking for a great Colorado hike for the whole family? Mount Falcon Castle Trail Loop should be at the top of your list.

The best part about this hike is that you drive to the top of the mountain that the trail is located on and walk along the ridge for spectacular views of Denver, the Rocky Mountains and sweeping plains. This makes the trail easily accessible to folks of all ages that aren’t able to climb the many steep peaks in the Rockies.

Castle Ruins

There are two lookout towers along the way that offer amazing panoramic views, but the main features of the trail are the castle ruins which are great for the kiddos to explore and have an educational component that parents will love.

If you’re not up for the full loop, you can of course turn back at any time. Parts of the trail are rocky with gradual elevation change that some might find difficult. For those committed to complete the full circle, be sure to pause at the far end of the short trail to catch a glimpse of Red Rocks Amphitheatre, an infamous concert venue in Colorado.

Final Thoughts

No matter who you are, what your hiking experience is, or why you might find yourself in Colorado, there is a trail out there for everyone. Hopefully this list helped you find the best hiking trails in Colorado for you to try out on your next adventure. Happy hiking!