Top 5 Hikes Near Denver – Way Too Early Edition

I’ve explored a number of different hikes in the front range near Denver, and I decided to put together my list of personal top 5 hikes – even though as the title suggests, there’s way too many more places to explore for this to be anything but a “way too early top 5”. I’ve had my share of hikes that have surprised when I wasn’t expecting much, but unfortunately there has to be some that disappoint, as well. In putting this list together, I’m hoping this could potentially help someone as they’re deciding what hike to take when visiting Denver the next time, or maybe a local will see it and feel inspired to try one of them they haven’t before. Or maybe someone can give me a suggestion on where to go for my next adventure! I fully expect that some on this list will be replaced as I go to new places and take in new sights, but for now, here goes!

5. Glacier Gorge to Loch Lake – RMNP

Number 5 on the list feels a little bit like cheating, because it’s in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is beautiful no matter where you look or where you go. It was a long hike made more difficult by the snow, but knowing that there was a payoff at the top kept us going. It certainly didn’t disappoint and made us feel like our efforts were well worth it.

This hike was one that I’ll never forget, and made the top 5 for a few reasons. To start us off, it was the first time that Carly or I had ever gone snowshoeing, which proved to be quite the adventure. We didn’t need them for most of the time, until the last half mile or so, which started to get deep, but we looked really cool carrying them on our backs!

Husband and wife taking picture on snow covered trail
Beginning of the hike, so we didn’t have our snowshoes on yet!

The next thing that made this an unforgettable journey for me was that my brother came to visit and went on this hike with us, which of course makes it more memorable for me.

Two brothers taking a selfie in the mountains

And lastly, how can you beat these views?! I felt like I was on top of the world standing there on Loch Lake, with the majesty of the national park around me.

Man celebrating on frozen lake with mountains in background

I could definitely see us coming back to snowshoe this one again, or maybe visit in the summertime to see what the lake actually looks like under all that snow and ice!

4. Adams Falls Trail – Grand Lake, Colorado

This hike will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was the hike that everyone took at our welcome picnic for our wedding. The hike to the falls is short and something that most everyone could do, and the waterfall didn’t disappoint, though it was a bit more impressive when we hiked it last weekend in July and there was more water flowing than there was in September for our wedding.

Waterfall cascading down rocks and in between pine trees

If you continue up the trail a little bit further, you’re presented with what I have called one of the most amazing views I’ve seen in Colorado, and it still holds true. There’s a meadow, with a creek flowing through it on its journey to Adams Falls, and huge mountains as your backdrop. It’s one that everyone should try to see. This spot is also special for me, as it brings back memories of being there with my friends and my fiancĂ©e just days before becoming a married man.

Group of 4 friends taking a picture in front of the mountains
Husband and wife taking a picture in front of the creek and mountains

We’ve never gone too far down the trail, but there are camping sites further along and I’m sure some day we will have to check out what that has in store!

3. Chicago Lakes Trail – Mt Evans Wilderness

This is a hike that I did recently for the first time, and it was one of the hardest workouts I’ve done, but it made the list because of several different features that make it stick out to me. It all started very near the beginning of the trailhead, when I was met with the challenge of a steep dropoff and a very narrow trail. I turned around a few times due to my fear of heights, but finally was able to push past it and overcome the situation.

Steep drop off on narrow trail

From there it was an uphill battle, literally and figuratively. I passed the first lake and was underwhelmed with what I had found, so I continued on well past what I thought were my limits in terms of distance and elevation gain combination in a hike.

Mountain lake with cool blue sky above

I eventually reached the second lake, and my legs were tired before I even started the descent. I took some time to enjoy the peacefulness of the surrounding landscape (and to give myself a rest) before starting on my trek back down.

Mountain lake with massive mountains in the back drop

This trail already would’ve been in my top 5 I think, but I had a lucky break on my way down when I ran into a couple of moose right off the trail! I stayed and watched them for quite a while, and it was honestly hard to walk away even when I did.

Two moose grazing in a meadow in the mountains

This is another highly recommended hike if you’re up for a challenge! The views are spectacular, and there’s even a third lake if you continue the hike past where I forced myself to turn around.

2. Mt. Bierstadt – Guanella Pass

There’s no way that I could put together a top 5 hikes without including the only fourteener that I’ve ever tried and completed. For anyone that doesn’t know, a fourteener is a 14,000 foot peak, of which there are quite a few in Colorado (58 to be exact). Mt. Bierstadt is generally considered to be one of the easier ones, though any time you’re hiking at 14,000 feet, it’s not going to be easy.

Woman hiking on dirt trail in the mountains

We were also treated to a couple of moose on this hike, thought we didn’t get nearly as close as I did on the Chicago Lakes hikes. There were also quite a few more people.

Line of people hiking up a mountain with two moose off the trail

I was also confronted with my fear of heights when we got up to the top. There was a saddle with a little patch of snow right before the scramble to the top. I was fine all the way up to the saddle, but after it turned into a scramble with the multitudes of people crawling over the rocks like ants, it was enough to make me really nervous!

If you’re properly acclimated and in the right shape, I can’t recommend this hike enough. Not only can you say that you hiked to the top of a 14,000 foot peak, but the trail is nice the entire way and you truly feel like you’re on top of the world towering over the surrounding peaks.

1. St. Mary’s Glacier – Near Idaho Springs, CO

The number one hike on my list has the most meaning to me of any other hike in Colorado, but that doesn’t diminish the beauty that awaits everyone. This one is particularly special to me, because this is where I got engaged to my amazing and beautiful wife. I was so nervous that day, digging in my backpack for the ring alongside the lake and forgetting everything I was going to say. It was an even more beautiful setting than the pictures I had seen online, and it couldn’t have been more magical. We’ve made it a tradition to return and do this hike on the anniversary of our engagement every year, and we haven’t missed a year yet!

Panoramic view of St. Marys Glacier and the lake in front

The hike up is rocky and steep, but it’s also short at under a mile to the lake. When we visited from Oklahoma and did the hike, we were definitely struggling for air, but now when we return, it’s no problem carrying up a picnic. We find a spot along the lake to relax and enjoy a lunch, while watching the crazy people jump into the ice cold water from the cliffs above.

Even if you didn’t get engaged here, I think this is the best hike near Denver because of the combination of a short hike for a huge payoff, being able to touch snow year-round, and also for the ability to have a picnic and relax by the lake.

Many More To Come!

There are so many amazing hikes near Denver that it was hard to leave some of them off the list. What I love about Colorado is that there are still so many trails nearby that are on my “want to do” list, that this list will continue to be updated for years to come. There are some that will never be able to leave my top hikes because of the special meaning to me, but maybe it will have to expand to a top 10 soon, to capture all the incredible adventures that are in store! Also, if you have a favorite hike in Colorado that I should check out, definitely let me know!!

Chicago Lakes Trail – Mt. Evans Wilderness

There are certain hikes that I’ve done over the past couple of years that I’ll remember for a lifetime, and this turned into one of them. It may be because of a particularly impressive view the inspires awe, or potentially an encounter with wildlife that makes me appreciate the beauty around me. This hike would end up having more than one element of a truly unforgettable experience.

I decided on the Chicago Lakes Trail for Sunday’s hike, despite the fact that it was a heavily trafficked trail (something I tend to try to avoid), mostly because I really wanted to do a hike with a mountain lake payoff. Since I knew I needed to beat the crowds, I left the house around 5:30 and arrived at the trailhead at almost exactly 6:30, greeted by quite a few cars in the parking lot – certainly more than I expected arriving that early. There were a few people casting out their lures, but overall, Echo lake was serene and peaceful.

Looking over Echo Lake in the morning towards Mt Evans in Colorado

Still slightly groggy from the early morning and the drive up, I was confident in the trek ahead of me, and my adventure began. The trail was very nice and well defined, following the lake for the first stretch, with signs pointing me in the right direction. It was chilly – about 45 – and I was grateful for the trees surrounding me that offered a little bit of solace from the wind.

Sign marking the trail ahead
Beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail, where it splits from the Echo Lake Trail
Sunrise over the Rocky Mountains from the trail

The beautiful mountain trail that I was so peacefully enjoying quickly turned into a terrifying ordeal for me, as someone who is absurdly scared of heights, when I was confronted with a narrow, rocky, uneven trail, with a steep drop off on one side.

Steep cliff at the beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail

I had a lot of time on my hike to think about how to present this part of my hike. I thought about acting like I was perfectly confident and conquered my fears. I thought about acting like I was nervous, but continued to press forward despite my trepidation. The truth is, I turned around and headed back towards my car the first time I got to this part. I decided this wasn’t something I was prepared for, nor something I could do mentally.

As I headed back to the trailhead, I passed a few groups of people that looked like they should be more scared than they were, and it honestly gave me a little bit of confidence. I turned around to actually conquer my fears, only to reach the same exact point and decide a second time that this maybe wasn’t worth it.

It wasn’t until I was heading back a second time and passed a family with a small child that I decided maybe I was a little more scared than I should be. So I turned around once again and started out a third time. As they say, the third time was a charm. I think I was just a little bit more awake and my legs were just a little bit more warmed up, allowing me to navigate through. The sketchy terrain continued for maybe a mile, and there was nowhere to hide as the mountain forced you forward. I kept my head down, looking down at my feet and every step I took, and I eventually made it through. I decided to tell the full story to hopefully inspire someone else to push themselves past their boundaries and conquer their fears. It certainly was a good feeling getting through there though and descending further into the trees, where I felt much more comfortable. I had added probably a mile to my hike that I would come to regret fairly quickly, though.

Looking back at the tricky terrain just crossed, with mountains in the distance.

It’s not often that hikes start off going downhill, but it was nice coming down from the heights into a valley of sorts. There was a small stream to cross and the wind was almost nonexistent, allowing me to finally relax for the first time in a while.

Rocky terrain at the beginning of the Chicago Lakes Trail
Heavily wooded portion at the beginning of the trail

The hike went quickly going downhill and it was no time before I was turning the corner to start heading back up to the first lake. This part was a workout, with a seemingly never ending steady incline. The trail was wide and allowed faster people to pass easily, but this definitely got the heart pumping for me.

View of the steady incline going up to the first lake

In all honesty, reaching this lake was the goal for my hike when I left this house this morning, but there was at least a small part of me that thought maybe I could keep going. Upon reaching the lake, though, I have to say that I was at least a little bit underwhelmed. I think it was the fact that the lake was manmade via a dam, when I envisioned a natural mountain lake. It was still beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and I could see myself returning here for a picnic. You can walk all the way around the lake and find a place all to yourself to relax.

View over the first lake that you reach on the trail
Another view of the mountain lake and surrounding Cliffside's

This wasn’t what I was hoping for, though, and especially after pushing myself through the beginning, I wanted to make this hike count. I knew from my map that it was going to add a lot of mileage to my journey, and my stutter at the beginning had already added enough, but I decided to see what I could do.

Looking back over the first lake towards the dam

As you move past the first lake, you’re greeted with two cabins, and I honestly couldn’t be more jealous of the people that own them. Although a ton of foot traffic passes by their quiet cabins every day, they seemed friendly to the hikers and even had a labyrinth set up to break up the hike.

Labyrinth Instructions along the hike
Looking at the very unique labyrinth set up

I moved passed the two cabins and the incline started yet again. I wasn’t sure how long I could endure this, but as I’ve said before, sometimes I don’t know when to stop when I’m by myself – especially when I know there’s something more to see if I just keep going a little further.

Looking up the trail at the surrounding cliffs

The views were spectacular as I climbed higher and higher, alternating between wooded forest with stream crossings, and open meadows that offered wide panoramas of the surrounding mountains.

Steam crossing on the Chicago Lakes Trail
Sign depicting your entrance into the Mt. Evans wilderness area
Panoramic view of the trail and the surrounding mountains
View of the. meadow and surrounding mountains
Panoramic view of Mt. Evans and surrounding peaks

I couldn’t believe that I had pushed myself so far, but I finally reached the second lake after what seemed like an eternity of steady incline, and I was glad that I did. This was the payoff that I was looking for! There was the natural mountain lake that I set out to find, fed by the still melting snow, that gave way to the sheer cliffs of the peaks all around. I felt such a sense of awe at the scene around me that I found a large rock upon which I could sit to take it all in for a while. It was really cold at this point, probably in the low 40s with a strong wind and no protection around, but I sat on that rock for about 20 minutes taking in the scene. It was truly incredible.

View of the meadow in front of the second lake on the trail
Selfie in front of the lake and the mountains
Panoramic view of the second lake, Mt. Evans, and surrounding cliffs
Another shot of the taller mountains surrounding me

There was at least a little part of me again that wanted to keep going to the next lake, but my ankles and knees were hurting already and I hadn’t even started the trek back yet. I knew it was time to turn around and hope that I could actually make it. I hadn’t done a hike this long in a really long time and was again kicking myself for adding an extra mile.

I’m glad that I headed back when I did though, because I timed it perfectly for running into a couple of moose right off the trail! This is what I hope for every time I go out, and they were right there, so close to us. I felt so lucky to have this encounter.

Two moose grazing in a mountain meadow with cliffs behind
Lots of moose footage in the video below!!

It was hard to pull myself away, but after watching them for probably 10-15 minutes, they started to walk away and so did I, continuing on down the trail.

Giant boulder next to the hiking trail

It seemed so long ago already, but when I reached the part that was the descent at the beginning, suddenly I was faced with a steep final climb back to the trailhead. This time, though, there was a steady stream of traffic coming the other way, and the two way traffic on such a narrow trail made the steep cliffs even worse. My legs were wobbly now too, which also didn’t help.

Rocky incline back to the trailhead and parking lot

Somehow I eventually made it back to the trailhead, and honestly felt better than I would’ve expected after such a long hike. Maybe I should’ve kept going to the last lake! Next time..

This was another classic example of me thinking that the parking lot was full when I arrived, but was then greeted by more people than I could’ve ever imagined. Echo Lake is apparently pretty popular for picnics and fishing, and there were cars all up and down the road when I got back. I was thankful for being able to enjoy the calm of the lake when I was heading up, and was happy to get out of there quickly on my way out, to let someone else have my spot.

Shot of the parking completely full, including along the road

Anytime I see moose, the trail is going to rate at the top of my list, but I truly think this was one of the best trails I’ve been on in Colorado. I would highly recommend it, but just make sure you go to the second lake at least!