As a local of over 11 years, I know a thing or two about hiking in Colorado. New hikers and travelers alike flock to Colorado for its famed hiking trails and endless mountain beauty. However, every year, people’s Colorado hikes go horribly wrong. Un-informed visitors and locals alike get caught in bad weather, get lost, and worse.
About this Guide to Hiking in Colorado
This in-depth, local guide covers how to plan a Colorado hike, what to pack for a high altitude hike, local knowledge about hiking a Colorado 14er, and plenty of helpful resources so you can head out into the wild with some peace of mind.
Here’s what I’ll give you the local, expert advice on:
- How to find hikes in Colorado
- When to go hiking in Colorado
- Hiking safely in Colorado
- Adjusting to Altitude
- Colorado hiking tips
- The most scenic places to hike in Colorado
How to Plan a Colorado Hike
Before your boots hit the trail, it’s extremely important to have some type of plan when it comes to hiking in Colorado. First, you need to decide where you want to go.
Colorado is a huge state and there are an overwhelming amount of hiking areas. Keep in mind that most hikes require traveling into rugged mountain terrain, so the time it takes to hop from place to place is often involved and over hilly, windy roads.
The second hot-ticket item is safety. Every year people get stranded in bad weather, get hurt, or get lost hiking in Colorado. Most of the time, if the hiking party had been a bit better informed, the incident could have been avoided. We’ll touch on safety tips in a second.
How to Find the Best Hikes in Colorado
Over the years, I’ve amassed a mega-list of amazing hiking trails in Colorado (more on that in a minute). It took years of combing trails, misadventures, and more to discover the hidden hiking gems in Colorado. If you’re just looking for hikes, I’ve written an excellent resource on how to find hikes near you. However, there are a few tried-and-true local resources for the best hiking trips in Colorado that you should know about:
- AllTrails.com gives great, accurate info on distance, conditions, regulations, elevations, and will even load directions for you.
- 14ers.com gives excellent photos, maps, and descriptions of Colorado’s famed 14,000-foot peaks. If you go to the main menu and hit conditions > peak conditions, you can see up-to-date info on what the peaks look like. There’s even an area for trailhead conditions.
- Facebook Groups. A few of my favs are Women Who Hike Colorado and the Outdoor Women’s Alliance Colorado Grassroots Team, and Colorado 13ers (trigger warning: The Colorado 14ers Facebook group is very popular, but filled with awful people who make fun of newbies and treat women like second-class citizens. Avoid that group).
- Colorado hiking blogs like this one! (Couldn’t resist the shameless plug!)
Must-See Hiking Areas in Colorado
If you’re having trouble narrowing down your hiking options in Colorado, there are a few areas worth checking out. Each of these hiking areas offers up something a little different.
- Aspen and the Maroon Bells Area: Bougey town with iconic Colorado views.
- Hiking near Breckenridge: More affordable with plenty of Colorado 13ers and alpine lake hikes. Easier access near Denver.
- Hiking in Evergreen and the Front Range: A great option if you’re visiting and there’s still lots of snow at higher elevations.
- Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. RMNP is a hiker’s paradise. Some of the best trails in the state can be found in the park. However, keep in mind it gets crowded here, so hit the trail early to avoid the crowds.
- The Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado: Amazing, quiet hiking trails, although it’s a bit more remote.
- Hiking near Grand Junction, Colorado: Sandstone monuments (such as Colorado National Monument), and desert pine forests. A real treat and best visited in the winter months.
- Hiking Near Denver. Denver actually has some pretty fantastic trails, especially if you’re not interested in going up high in altitude. Of course, there’s plenty of high altitude hiking within 2 hours of Denver.
When to Hike in Colorado
Every May and June I get bombarded by folks looking for incredible mountain hiking trails in Colorado. It pains me when I have to deliver the news that the high-altitude trails still have snow. Here in the mountain state of Colorado, it isn’t uncommon for trails in the high alpine to be snowy until July!
The best time for wildflowers and summery mountain beauty is between July and August. However, you’ll have to contend with the monsoon season.
Late August through mid-September tend to be dry, brown but rain-free.
Mid-September through mid-October is Aspen season (my fav). Expect snowy trails and winter access (read: closed roads) from Late October until Mid May. The snow starts to melt and become safer in mid-May through the end of June, but expect to need special snow gear for higher altitude areas.
How Many Days Should I Spend Hiking in Colorado?
You could spend a lifetime wandering down hiking trails in Colorado. In order to judge how much time you’ll want to spend hiking, think about the following:
- How intense do you want your hike to be? There are a lot of things to do besides hike. So think about what other activities you might be interested in.
- Remember that you’ll be hiking at altitude. Altitude hikes are tough simply because there’s less air to breathe. Lots of people are taken back by the altitude – even in the lower elevation areas such as Denver. Plan plenty of rest days so you don’t burn out.
- The weather is fickle in Colorado. We have a saying here, “Don’t like the weather? Wait 15 minutes.” And trust me that’s true. I’ve seen days that start in the 80s only to wake up to 12 inches of snow on the ground the next morning! In order to ensure a successful hiking trip, plan at least a few days to account for any bad weather.
Do I Need to Own or Rent a 4WD Vehicle in Colorado?
Rental car facilities all over Colorado love to try and upsell visitors to a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. If you’ve done a little planning on what areas you plan to visit, you’ll know if you need a high clearance vehicle or not. Resources such as AllTrails.com and Colorado hiking Facebook groups shed light on trail access.
If a description calls for a high clearance vehicle, chances are you’ll at least want an SUV or crossover for the job. However, you can always read comments and see what others have to say. If an access road is called a “Jeep road” then it’s essentially a 4-wheeling trail and you’ll want something duty, like a 4-Runner, Jeep, or truck to do to the job.
Don’t fret – there are plenty of beautiful hiking trails in Colorado that don’t require a small tank to reach. With a little pre-planning research, you’ll be able to find easily-accessed trails for all abilities.
Mountain Hiking Safety
Going into the mountains requires some special knowledge in order to stay safe. Here are a few quick safety tips to keep in mind before you set out on your hike:
- Check the weather. Okay, now check it again. In fact, you want to follow the weather, using a reliable resource like weather.gov (click on the hourly chart towards the bottom of the page). Note things like temperature, wind, and precipitation.
- Start EARLY. Every summer, Colorado experiences a dangerous and violent monsoon season. People die in the high alpine from lightning strikes every year. Again, check the weather and plan to be below treeline (where the trees start to grow) no later than 11 am. This often means you’ll be starting longer, high-alpine hikes like Colorado 14ers before the sun comes up.
- Tell someone where you are going. Don’t forget to check in when you get back. Check out my post on how to create a safety plan for hiking.
- In winter, have a solid understanding of avalanche hazards and safety or stick to flat trails that don’t pass under avalanche terrain. The snowpack in Colorado is dangerous and slides often, without warning.
- Acclimatize safely! Higher elevation equals less oxygen, which does a number on your body. Be sure to protect yourself against altitude sickness (more tips below).
- Track your time. On average, hikers move at roughly 2 miles an hour or 1,000 feet of vertical gain an hour. Plan and time your hikes accordingly (to avoid bad weather), don’t forget to include breaks for snacks and pictures!
Is it Safe to Go Solo Hiking in Colorado?
As a woman and Colorado local, I hike and camp solo regularly. Most of the time, I feel completely safe hiking alone in Colorado. I’ve assembled a list of tips and tricks for solo hikers. My best piece of advice is to go with your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Other quick tips include:
- Telling someone where you are going and when you plan to get back.
- Hiking without earbuds in so you are aware of your surroundings.
- Consider taking a dog with you for added security.
- Don’t tackle anything too challenging for your first solo hike.
Where to Camp for a Colorado Hike
When it comes to hiking trips, I always recommend staying near where you plan to hike. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s an important point. Most people are surprised to find that there is a decent amount of mountain traffic, especially on weekends. So if you decide to base yourself in Denver, expect to sit in large amounts of traffic when commuting to and from your hike.
Colorado is littered with exceptional free camping, campgrounds, and charming mountain towns. Pick a place that’s close to a Colorado hiking spot and really soak in the area. AirBnB’s are a great option since you’ll have access to a kitchen. Otherwise, I suggest camping or even sleeping in your vehicle at a trailhead (always check first).
Check out the step-by-step guide to finding free camping.
What to Pack for a Colorado Hike
When it comes to hiking in the mountains, you’ll want to be prepared for a variety of misadventures. I always recommend that hikers take at least the following:
- Sturdy footwear
- First aid kit with blister protection
- GPS, map, and compass
- The other items on the Ten Essentials list
- A bathroom kit (shovel, TP, hand sanitizer, and baggy to pack out your TP)
- A wind or rain jacket
- Plenty of water
- Thin gloves, beanie, and a fleece layer or puffy jacket (even in the summer)
- Hiking poles (optional but great for hilly terrain)
- Special equipment for any snowy conditions if needed
- Doggy bowl. leash, and poop bags (tie the poop to your backpack and CARRY IT OUT or leave your dog at home).
For more information on hiking gear and what you’ll need, check out these resources:
- Durable, Reliable Women’s Hiking Clothes for Any Budget
- Treat Your Feet: The Ultimate Guide to Hiking Footwear
- Go Like a Pro: The Hassle-Free Way to Pee Outside
- Women’s Hiking Gear Explained: What You REALLY Need to Hike
Hiking Responsibly in Colorado
Hiking and the outdoors have become increasingly popular activities. As a result, more and more people are getting outside, which is exciting, but many people don’t understand Leave No Trace or how to get outside responsibly.
To put it bluntly, your mother doesn’t live here. No one is coming in after you and picking up your cigarette butt, apple core or dog poop. If you can’t get outside and go hiking, stay on the trail, keep your distance from wildlife, follow the rules and regulations of the area you’re visiting, and PACK OUT YOUR TRASH INCLUDING YOUR TOILET PAPER, stay home until you are ready.
It’s okay (and actually pretty darn cool) to be new at this stuff and everyone makes mistakes but please be sure to pack it out and leave it better than you found it. Leave No Trace is not voodoo, it isn’t magic or rocket science. It’s simply a few quick-and-easy rules to abide by. So please, be a steward and act responsibly outside.
It’s cool to be new. Here’s an in-depth look at hiking for beginners.
Tips and Tricks for Dealing with Altitude
So as a Colorado local, I’ve gotten altitude sickness, twice. Trust me, it sucks. You feel like absolute crap and the only way to make the symptoms go away is to simply go down in elevation.
It can strike anyone at any time, unfortunately, there really is no true understanding of who is susceptible to altitude sickness. With that being said there are a few things you can do to prevent altitude sickness:
- Go up in elevation slowly. Take a day to acclimatize before tackling any strenuous activities.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine to keep your body hydrated.
- Drink lots of water and eat garlic-y foods. Hydration is important! Electrolyte drinks can help too.
- If you feel sick, go down.
For more of the best hikes in Colorado, check out these resources:
- The Mega-List of Incredible Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado
- Must-See Hikes Near Denver
- Boulder’s Must-See Hikes
- Your Guide to Colorado’s “Easy” 14ers
- The Best Fall Hikes in Colorado You’ve Never Heard of
Colorado Hiking Permits and Red Tape
As far as permitting goes, there aren’t too many areas that require advance reservations to hike in. The exceptions to this rule are any of Colorado’s National Parks, parts of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and the famous Hanging Lake. It’s always recommended to get your permits far in advance, to make sure you can hike when it works best for you. But cancellations do happen, so perhaps you’ll luck out if you’re a late planner!
Hiking in Colorado is typically dog-friendly, although most trails require that your dog is leashed. Never let Fido chase wildlife, dig holes, or leave a mess on the trail. This means PICKING UP AND PACKING OUT YOUR DOG POOP. Please don’t be that person who leaves a bag on the trail, it’s disgusting and no one is coming by to take care of it for you. Even if you plan on coming back and picking it up, others still have to deal with hiking past it.
Fire bans are quite common in Colorado’s dry climate, especially in the mountains. Failing to follow fire bans comes with a hefty fine, and occasionally jail time, so this is definitely something you’ll want to look into when you’re camping. Typically, you can use Google to get your answer quickly, but when in doubt, call the nearest ranger station.
Be sure to check with the local forest service or ranger district that you plan to travel in for the most up-to-date information regarding trail conditions, road conditions, fire bans, pack animal and dog regulations, as well as permit info.
Your Local Guide to Colorado 14er Hikes
Hiking a Colorado 14er is a bucket list item for many visitors and locals alike. There are 53 official Colorado 14ers or mountains that are over 14,000 feet high in elevation.
Hiking a Colorado 14er is a serious endeavor, even for the expert hiker. Difficulties range from simply trailed walk-ups all the way to technical climbs requiring trad gear and ropes. Be sure to understand what you are getting into and hiking well within your ability for your first Colorado 14er. ALWAYS start early, I’m talking before the sun rises early, to lessen your chance of getting caught in a lightning storm. Check the weather, print off the maps and photos on 14ers.com (paper doesn’t use batteries), and be prepared.
Ready to tackle your first Colorado 14er? Check out these posts:
- Tips and Tricks to ROCK Your First Colorado 14er
- What’s in My Pack? The Complete 14er Packing List
- How to Train for a Big Hike or Backpack
- Mental Tips to Propel You to the Summit
Winter Hiking in Colorado
If you’re visiting Colorado in the winter, there’s still plenty of opportunities to hike. Most hikes will require a bit more preparation and a few extra miles to account for closed roads and snowy trails. Head to the Western Slope (towns like Durango and Grand Junction) if you prefer less snow. Lastly, be sure to understand avalanche hazards and safety before tackling any winter trails in Colorado.
Related: Colorado’s Most Scenic Winter Hikes
For more on winter hiking check out:
- The Basics of Winter Hiking for Not-So-Basic Babes
- Taking Your Dog Snowshoeing
- How Not to Freeze Your Ass off Outside this Winter
- Tips and Tricks for First Time Snowshoers
Planning a hike in Colorado? I want to hear about it! Drop me a line or comment below with your Colorado hiking experience.
Happy trails everyone!