4th of July trail west of Nederland Colorado, one of several gateways to alpine terrain less than two hours from Denver. Image by Zach Dischner.
WITHIN A FEW MONTHS of moving to the Front Range, I realized the topography was so insane, the exploration options so varied, you could spend a lifetime just exploring a 20-mile radius from Nederland, or Boulder, or Ft. Collins — whatever little town you were based from.
I can’t think of a single other area with so many wilderness corridors accessible directly via walking / cycling distance and also public transport options, and at the same time with such a strong local micro and craft brewery community.
With the GABF coming up in October (tickets go on sale Aug. 2), and lots of visitors planning to hit these areas, here are 10 side trip suggestions from Matador.
1. Fall foliage driving, hiking in the Indian Peaks
Visitors to the Front Range shouldn’t leave until they’ve at least gotten out of “the flats.” A key location to do this is Nederland. Head west from Boulder up Canyon Blvd (Hwy 119) and take your time up the canyon, remembering that the gorge is home to mule deer, elk, mountain lion, bobcat, class V+ whitewater, and some classic trad lines. There’s a good stopping point halfway up at Boulder Falls.
Once you climb the 3,000 feet up to Nederland, don’t be surprised if it feels like a different season.
In town you have a multitude of options. If you want lunch, the Wild Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery has solid beers and food. Stop at the the Mountain People’s Co-op next door for trail snacks, particularly their gut-grenade muffins.
From here jump on Hwy 72 (the Peak to Peak) either heading south towards Rollinsville / James Peak Wilderness, or north, where in the first 5 miles or so you’ll pass numerous stands of aspens that are typically reaching peak color in Oct. Note that virtually every county road / public pulloff in this area has hiking trails.
2. Eldorado Canyon fishing / exploring
It’s worth bringing your flyrod if you’re coming out to GABF. Fall is optimal timing. A solid early morning mission would be Eldorado Canyon. The early morning conditions here — dawn light shooting across the plains and filtering into the steep-walled canyons formed by South Boulder Creek — are intense.
The lower section of the creek is the easiest to access / fish. Try the dams / waterfall sections, or if you’re seeking more challenging terrain / solitude, work your way through the middle section, where you’ll have to do a lot of rock scrambling, but find yourself immersed in spots that feel like true backcountry even though you’re just a short ride from Boulder or Denver.
3. Gold Hill day hiking
If you don’t have an entire day for a side trip, but still want to get up a little in elevation, there are some easy 2-3 hour loops (including stops / hiking) from Boulder to Gold Hill. One option is to head up through North Boulder to Lefthand Canyon via Lick Skillet Road, which is supposedly the steepest county road in the US.
A second option is to take Fourmile Canyon Rd. just a few miles up Boulder Canyon. This leads you through the areas burned in the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire (you can get a sense here of how fire is a natural part of this ecosystem).
Either one will lead you to Gold Hill, a very picturesque town — the site of the first major gold rush in Colorado. Stop in at the Gold Hill general store.
4. Rocky Mountain N.P. wildlife viewing
From Estes Park, you’re literally at the doorstep of Rocky Mountain N.P. It’s absolutely worth the 20-minute drive up 36 into the park (as well as a single day admission) even if you’re only planning to spend an afternoon up there.
You’re almost guaranteed to see elk herds at the park entrance. It’s mesmerizing to study these creatures slowly grazing across the land, especially in the fall when the bull elks are bugling.
5. Foothills cycling and beer drinking
There’s a reason why so many ultra-elite cyclists and runners live and train in Boulder. The ascents up Lefthand and Boulder Canyon, plus the elevations (8,300-9,200ft) once you’ve ascended, are stout.
For visitors just wanting some fun and mellow spins though open country, though, an easy ride would be a quarter century out and back starting in North Boulder (you could fuel up in the morning at Amante Coffee, 4580 Broadway), then following Foothills Parkway (36) north to Lyons.
A definite stop in Lyons is the Oskar Blues brewery, maker of Dale’s Pale Ale and Old Chub. If you still have legs after reaching Lyons, continue north as 36 begins climbing up into the North St. Vrain gorge. In summer months there is a sweet class III – IV paddling run here.
6. High elevation hiking in Eldora
For those captivated by the Front Range — that imposing band of mountains always framing the western horizon from the plains — and ready to get up on top of it, one very accessible spot is up past the town of Eldora.
Continue west on Hwy 111 past the town until it turns into a dirt road. If you’d like a shorter, easier day, park at the Hessie trailhead turnoff (you’ll see cars parked along the left side of the road). Hessie is a moderate to easy 3-mile hike that takes you to Lost Lake, probably the easiest to access tarn, or glacial lake, in the Front Range.
For those wanting to truly get above treeline, continue past the cutoff for Hessie. The road changes names to the 4th of July Road, and ends at the 4th of July trailhead. In less than a mile you’ll have climbed to over 10,500ft and will be crossing big open slopes with southerly views of Mount Neva. Within another 2 miles you’ll attain the ridge and be truly up “at elevation.”
7. Hot springs soaking and “Oh My God” road driving
Idaho Springs is the closest hot springs to the Front Range, just 40 minutes up Clear Creek canyon from Denver, which itself is a scenic drive. Once in Idaho Springs, you can soak (the springs itself has a very beer friendly / family vibe compared to other springs in CO), and spend lunchtime checking out the local scene, including notable Tommyknocker Brewery.
There’s also an insanely beautiful drive here: from Idaho Springs, take Virginia Canyon Road to Central City, which is doable in a regular vehicle. There are panoramic vistas and lots of old mining debris.
8. Dinosaur track scrambling
An easy drive from Boulder or Denver, Red Rocks and Dinosaur Park are two of the most fun and interesting places to explore in “the flats.” Dinosaur Ridge is a 1.5-mile trail that passes hundreds of dinosaur tracks, a quarry of dinosaur bones, and spectacular places to scramble in and around the “hogbacks,” a unique geologic feature of the area. Easy hiking.
Nearby Red Rocks is also worth checking out, not just for its iconic ampitheatre, but the otherworldly outcroppings and rock formations.
If you’d like to make a day out of this, a dinner spot would be back in Golden (just 20 minutes north), where you have local beer options at Hops.
9. Poudre River canyoning
Among the places most deserving of a visit during GABF is Colorado’s beloved New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins. Coordinate your visit here so you have time not just for the brewery / restaurant (and public bike path along the Cache La Poudre River), but a visit up into the watershed, the source for these brews, and essentially the lifeblood of Ft. Collins itself.
Follow 287 north out of town, then take 14 west through Poudre Canyon. There are literally dozens of spots in the canyon to pull off and hike, ride your bike, and / or paddle. Unfortunately, Colorado’s paddling window is very short (typically just May, June, July), but if heavy rainfall events occur, there may still be options in October. Otherwise, bring your boogie board, 5-mil wetsuit, PFD, helmet, knee and elbow-pads, throwrope, and make your way down the Poudre canyoning style.
Or just bring your waders and flyrod and fish it.
10. Backcountry hiking
If you’re basing out of Boulder and want to fully get into the backcountry, a great access point is Brainard Lake / Lefthand Reservoir. Begin by taking Lefthand Canyon up to Ward. Stop for breakfast at Marrocco’s.
Once through Ward, cross the Peak to Peak, then take an immediate left onto Brainard Lake Road and continue winding up another mile. Once you reach the park entrance, you can either continue on to Brainard Lake area (with backcountry hiking options as big as you want to go), or if you have a 4WD, and Lefthand Reservoir Road is still open, you can take Lefthand up an additional 2 miles to the reservoir and one of the most spectacular views and backcountry access points in the Front Range.