Vien R. Guenther
Golden Gate Canyon State Park – Gilpin & Jefferson Counties, Colorado
Updated: Jan 6
Fall is one of the best seasons of the year to explore. The weather is cooler and the autumn colors are amazing. That is, if you know where to look. If you plan on doing some “leaf peeping”, one of the best places to look is in Golden Gate Canyon State Park, the second largest state park in Colorado. To visit this park, you will have to pay $10 car entry fee, but it’s worth the money, not just to see the colors of autumn but the park itself. It has about 12,000 acres with over 35 miles of hiking trails, with panoramic views of Colorado’s prominent peaks from some trails. If you don’t want to hike, the Panorama Point Scenic Overlook is accessible by car where a stunning view spans 100 miles. There are also picnic grounds for day use.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park is one of 41 state parks in Colorado. It gained its status as a park in 1960, the second state park opened in the state. The canyon, where it is located, took its name from the Golden Gate City community (named after Tom Golden), built during the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush. The park retained some of the homesteads from when the land was settled back in the 1800’s as part of the Homestead Act.
TO GET HERE
To get to the park from Denver is about a 45-minute drive via US-6 west and Highway 93 north. Turn left and follow Golden Gate Canyon Road all the way to the park, about 12.5 miles.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park has twelve trails, each named after an animal and marked with its footprint. Take note! The Mountain Lion Trail, I have read, will be renamed “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High Trail”. It was announced on June 8 of 2020. Some of the trails in the park are either multiple use (mountain bikes, horses and hikers), or for hikers only. The trails are interconnected, you can make your own variation - shorter or longer as you wish.
COYOTE & MULE DEER LOOP TRAIL – 8.0 miles
This hike begins at the Bootleg Bottom Picnic Area. If you haven't been on this trail, you will discover soon enough why it was named as such. The Coyote Trail is rated as “Most Difficult”, but that depends on your hiking capabilities of course, while the Mule Deer is rated as "Moderate". The Mule Deer Trail is multi-use so you may meet hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers, while the Coyote Trail is for hikers only.
It's nice to hike here in the fall when Aspen trees change from green to golden. On a sunny day, they are so bright as the sun shines on the leaves, they pop up from the surrounding pine trees. Right at the beginning of the trail, you will find groves of these trees. But wait, there's more, so don't get too excited. You will find groves with orange and reddish colors on some of these trees along the trail.
We began our hike on the Coyote Trail. If your aim is to reach the Panorama Point only, then you can take the Mule Deer Trail to Panorama Point and back. That is an easy hike. However, the Coyote Trail is quite steep at the beginning with much elevation gain as the trail follows around Tremont Mountain. By taking the loop you will find views of the high mountains in the distance, all the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park.
BOOTLEGGERS LOG CABIN
Not far from the beginning of the trail, you will find an old log house used by bootleggers, moonshiners and speakeasies (illegal bars), during the 1920s. It was the result of the 1918 prohibition act (18th Amendment) which mad it illegal to make, import and drink alcoholic beverages.
The Golden Gate country back then was remote, perfect for making whiskey, which they called "Skunk Whiskey" or Squirrel Whiskey" - the smell, or taste" must be awful to have it named after these wild animals. There is an interpretative sign that tells the story on how bootleggers operated with this illegal spirits. It was quite interesting.
Come along and see what it's like along this trail. The Precambrian rocks, the earliest of the geologic ages, found in the park protruding above the trees are very much an interesting sight.
If you time it right, this trail has the most amazing fall colors. It varies from year to year, depending on the weather conditions during the previous spring and summer. Fall can sometimes be drab in Colorado in some years. On this hike, we got lucky, as you can see in the pictures here.
Although there are great views along this whole loop, the highlight of the trail, besides the fall colors, is the Panorama Point. This you can also reach by car via Gap Road if you are not into hiking. It gives a wide open view of the Continental Divide, with some of the highest peaks in Colorado. This is a popular spot, meaning you will meet plenty of people here. In fact, you can have your wedding on this very same spot, by the deck, if you wish - how could you not with a view like this?
By the Bootleg picnic area, you will find groves of aspen trees as well. Picnic tables and grill are available here if you are not hiking. Here, we found an old style water pump. We don't know if it's still in use.
BURRO & MOUNTAIN LION LOOP TRAIL (WINDY PEAK) – 7 miles
This hike begins at Bridge Creek Trailhead. This loop trail is rated as difficult, but as I said time and again, it defends on your hiking capabilities. The signs on this trail are quite a bit confusing sometimes so make sure to bring a map with you. Trails are interconnecting so make sure to check the map as you hike.
A short distance from the parking lot, you will cross Ralston creek. At about a mile is a junction where you can either hike clockwise or counterclockwise, whichever you prefer. On this hike we did a counterclockwise approach. It's rugged terrain with high rock outcroppings. Some might find it challenging.
On this loop, there is a detour to Windy Peak (11,970 feet). Here, you will find a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. Though not as spectacular as some other hiking trails in Colorado, it's a beautiful view.
HISTORIC TALLMAN HOMESTEAD
If you haven't been on this trail, you will be surprised to find an old homestead. It's quite a nice setting actually. This site was once a ranch owned by a Swedish immigrant, Anders Tallman and his wife Christiana. Here, they raised farm animals and grew vegetables with their son and daughter in the 1800's.
The ranch site is in a place referred to as Forgotten Valley due to its remoteness. It became part of the Golden Canyon State Park in 1970. The State Historical Fund spent $100,000 to preserve the buildings, From here, it's a little over a mile back to the trailhead.
BLACK BEAR & HORSESHOE LOOP TRAIL – 6.5 miles
This hike begins at the Black Bear/Horseshoe Loop Trailhead, or at Ralston Roost Trailhead by the Visitor Center. This trail is rated as moderate if you only do the Horseshoe Trail, while Black Bear Trail is rated as most difficult. Both trails are for hikers only and popular among hikers. The trail begins among Aspen trees but then you have a choice if you want to hike clockwise or counterclockwise.
The Black Bear trail follows the uphill ridge and then descends down to Frazer Meadow. From the ridge you will see a good view of the Continental Divide.
As you reach the Frazer Meadow, there is a back country shelter provided for campers. There are four of these in the park and campers without a tent can sleep here - up to six people. It's quite a sturdy Appalachian Trail-style hut.
The park is open year-round. There are camping sites, cabins, yurt and guest houses if you want to stay longer in the park. Winter activities includes tubing, cross-country skiing, camping and ice fishing. No cellphone service here, so you can totally immerse yourself in nature. Dogs are allowed but must be on a 6-foot leash at all times.