Many people think that Denver’s prettiest, closest and most accessible bit of mountain scenery is Waterton Canyon.
This is the start of the famous Colorado Trail, one of the great long-distance hikes (or mountain bike rides) of the Rocky Mountains.
The Colorado Trail runs for 486 miles through six national forests, six wilderness areas and the headwaters of five river systems, before ending in Durango, Colo. You don’t have to do the whole thing at once to have a great time. It’s easy to break it down segment by segment. There are 28 segments in total.
The first 6.5 miles of the trail in Waterton Canyon is a wide, hard-packed dirt road that is closed to cars and follows the South Platte River as it winds through a steep rock canyon. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of the few places along the Front Range that allows only pedestrian/bike access into a canyon. Because the road is traffic free, wide, and almost flat, it’s perfect for families at any level.
You are likely to see bighorn sheep bounding up rock cliffs, drinking at the river, or even walking down the road. Give them a wide berth—they are accustomed to people, but you don’t want to get butted by those horns and, as with all wildlife, they are unpredictable.
You might also see bears. Give them an especially wide berth too. Bears are rare, but the road has been closed at times because of bear sightings.
The river is also open to anglers (buy a license online). Some sections have been damned, offering quiet pools for wily brown trout to lurk; other parts are wild and free-flowing.
At the end of 6.5 miles of road is Strontia Springs Dam. While you can see the dam, the lake behind it is difficult to access. The Colorado Trail continues from there as a difficult single-track mountain biking trail or as a hiking trail.
Strong bikers can pedal all the way from downtown Denver to Waterton Canyon by taking the South Platte River Trail from Confluence Park to Chatfield State Park, then following trails through the park that link to Waterton Canyon. It’s 28 miles one-way, all off-road, with an elevation gain of 709 feet.
Always check the site before heading to the canyon, because it can be closed at any time for wildlife issues. Because of the abundant wildlife along the trail, dogs are not allowed into the canyon. There is ample free parking at the trailhead, located 4.1 miles south of C-470 on Wadsworth Boulevard.