Hiking in Arapaho National Forest, Colorado, U.S.A
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
One area in Colorado that you can hike in without driving far is Arapaho National Forest. In this forest are six officially designated wilderness areas - Byers Peak Wilderness, Indian Peaks Wilderness, James Peak Wilderness, Mount Evans Wilderness, Never Summer Wilderness and Vasquez Peak Wilderness. The area provides outdoor adventures all year-round. Whatever your preference is, there is plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to pursue such as hunting and camping, off-roading, winter sports and of course, hiking.
Arapaho National Forest was established on July 1, 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. It consists of 723,744 acres largely encompassing Grand and Clear Creek Counties. It actually extends over into neighboring counties so some trails cross county lines. Arapaho National Forest includes the high Rockies and river valleys, parts of the Colorado River and the South Platte River. It straddles the Continental Divide as well.
- HIKING -
There are many trails that we hike in Arapaho National Forest. We only do day hikes and each of these trails varies from moderate to hard. Some might find the trails easy but not for others so it depends on your hiking capabilities and acclimatization. Some of the trails here start at high elevation so you have to consider if you are a "flatlander", or not used to thin air. Acclimating yourself first will prevent you from getting sick and will give you a much better hiking experience. Here are some of the best trails to hike.
BUTLER GULCH TRAIL – 6 miles round trip
This trail, located in Clear Creek County, is popular for winter sports – snowshoers, back country skiers and cross country skiers – but in summer this is one of our favorite trails for wildflowers. Besides that, the view itself is worth hiking here.
TO GET HERE
From Denver to the trail is a little over an hour drive via I-70 W. Take Exit 232 (US-40 W) through Empire. Turn left to Jones Pass/Henderson Mine (County Road 202) then follow the road for 2.6 miles, the trailhead is on the left.
The trail follows an old mining road. You will be in the shadow of the trees most of the way and there are some steep trail segments and soggy crossings but once you reach above tree line the view opens up. But before that, about 1.5 miles from the beginning of the trail, you will pass a cascading waterfall.
Above tree line is where you will find meadows full of wildflowers, right alongside the steepest part of the trail. We spend more of our time here than anywhere else on the trail I think. How could you not? Butler Gulch is home to over 100 species of wildflowers. A paradise for wildflower lovers.
Note: You will find the names of some of these wildflowers on this link https://www.vienrguenther.com/wildflowers
Below the ridge of the Continental Divide are some rusted remnants (old machinery) of an old mine. This area is the abandoned Jean Mine which once produced lead. It's now part of the landscape and quite interesting to hang out there for a few minutes looking at the machinery. Hermann sure loves to sit on this old rusted vehicle every time we come up here.
The trail does not end at the mine - it continues up to the ridge where you can see an even more spectacular view. They call this whole trail "lollipop loop trail" because of the shape looking down from above.
NOTE: If you want to hike the Butler Gulch/Lollipop Loop Trail you have to start early so you won't get caught in an afternoon thunderstorm, which is very common in Colorado.
HERMAN GULCH TRAIL – 7.5 miles round-trip
The Herman Gulch Trail is rated as a moderate hike, but that depends on who’s hiking. The wildflowers here are also incredibly stunning, if you happen to hike here at the right time. There is a lake at the end of the trail, though not quite as spectacular compared to others. Since this is a popular trail, expect to be leap-frogging with other hikers throughout.
TO GET HERE
From Denver to the trailhead is about 50 miles, or about a one-hour drive. From I-70 westbound, take exit 218. You will see the parking lot even from the highway. This is a popular trail so it’s better to come early. Although the parking lot can accommodate plenty of cars, it fills up in no time.
Hiking here, there are a couple of steep ascents among the trees - one at the beginning of the trail and then a final ascent to the lake. This trail offers plenty of photo opportunities. There are meadows covered with wildflowers, but the best ones begin above tree line just before arriving at the lake. Our hikes there take longer than usual when the wildflowers are at their peak, so we try to start early.
Before the final ascent to the lake, there is a trail to the right that connects to Continental Divide Loop Trail. Its main trailhead i at Jones Pass Road, but you can follow this trail from here if you are into a long hiking expedition.
The last leg of the trail to the lake is the steepest part. But we linger by the meadows here to enjoy all the wildflowers along this section of the trail, so we don't really notice how steep it is. The meadows here are full of colorful wildflowers, that's why we always have our camera hanging from our necks. We don't want to miss the opportunity to get the best photos yet.
Herman Lake (11,979 feet) sits at the basin of Pettingell Peak (13,553 feet). Hikers tend to congregate by this lake but you can get away from the crowd. The area is wide open as you can see on the picture and you have your choice of spots to eat lunch or just relax and enjoy the view before heading back down.
SECOND CREEK TRAIL TO TWIN CONES – 4.6 to 6 miles round-trip
This is another popular trail rated as moderate. It's a short hike but has steep trail segments. You also have to consider the elevation so it might feel like the hike is longer than it actually is. Hiking here depends on how far you want to go, up to the hut (only about a mile from the trailhead) or all the way to the Twin Cones.
TO GET HERE
From Denver to the trailhead is a little over one hour via I-70. Take Exit 232 (US-40 W) through Empire and follow the switchback road over Berthoud Pass. From the top of Berthoud Pass it is about 3 miles. Slow down or you might miss the trail, it’s on the left just beside the road.
You might just want to end your hike at the Broome Hut, a mountain hut owned and operated by the Grand Huts Association, but the best part of the trail is way beyond the hut. It has a steep ascent but once you reach the top, boy! the wide vista across the open meadows is incredible. The mountain landscape is fantastic - you will be glad you made the effort.
There are two summit cones you can climb on this trail, the North Cone and South Cone - that's why this trail is called Twin Cones. Both of these cones have stunning 360 degree views of the Colorado Rockies at the top. Take note, it's good to have a jacket to put on while up there because it can be windy in this exposed area.
On the east side of the North Cone is the the Panoramic Express Ski Lift of the Winter Park Resort. It is one of the highest chair lifts in the world. It is part of the Mary Jane trail and lift complex.
On our way down, while loitering by the stream taking photos of wildflowers, we saw a couple of bull moose. Although they looked at us, they were far enough from the trail that they didn't feel threatened. Hermann was able to take pictures of them by zooming in. We were quite late for the wildflowers, but it was a treat to see these moose.
SILVER DOLLAR AND MURRAY LAKE TRAIL – 7 miles
We hike here in mid-summer for the wildflowers and in autumn for the fall colors. Either times are the best time of year to hike here, but not only that, this trail also offers three beautiful lakes and stunning views.
TO GET HERE
From Denver to the main trail is about 1 hour 15 minutes drive via I-70, the shortest route. Take Exit 228 to Georgetown, driving through town follow the road to Guanella Pass. You will find the sign for the trail on the right with a small parking lot. This is where we park, but there is a bigger parking on the other side of the road. If you want to cut short your hike, follow the Naylor Lake Road to another parking area. It’s less than a mile but you have to have a high clearance vehicle, it’s a rough road.
On the first mile of the hike, you will be in the shadow of the trees. Not much to see among the trees but the view will open soon enough and you will get a glimpse of the first lake - Naylor Lake. You have to veer off the trail a bit to see the lake and you can only look down on it because this is a private lake.
As you get higher, you will get a good view of Naylor Lake. With trees out of the way, you will get a good view of the surrounding terrain also. You will find wildflowers along the trail here as well, but the best ones are above Silver Dollar Lake, going up to Murray Lake.
On the way to Silver Dollar Lake, there is a section on the trail where the snow still lingers late into summer. You have to be careful here since you don't want to slide down into the rocks below.
Not far beyond this is Silver Dollar Lake, so called due to its round shape when looking down at it from above. Most hikers end their hike here, but they are missing the best views of all on this trail. If you continue hiking the trail above Silver Dollar Lake you will experience the best part of this hike.
The trail between Silver Dollar Lake and Murray Lake is quite steep. But higher up, look back and you will see a beautiful view of Naylor Lake and Silver Dollar Lake. The view alone is worth the extra mile to the upper lake. Not only that, along this steep trail is where you will find the best wildflowers on this hike. The slopes are covered with different varieties and colors, so that we tend to spend some time here before continuing on to Murray Lake. The abundance of wildflowers varies every year though, depending on the weather conditions and how much snow the mountains got in the past winter. I' would say that the best time is late July to early August.
I can't say which is my favorite aspect of this hike, the wildflowers or the view. I would say both. This area is completely transformed by the seasons, and autumn offers a very different experience for hikers.
Hiking here in Autumn, you will find that the colorful wildflowers covering the meadows are gone, and the green foliage has turned to gold and rust. It's a wonderful and different landscape all together. There are less crowds at this time of year as well. In any season, you will get a great view towards across toward Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt.
WATROUS GULCH TRAIL – 5.6 to 6.5 miles
This trail is rated as difficult. At the beginning of the trail you will hear the highway noise for a mile or so but once you get higher the traffic noise fades away. The trail is quite steep most of the way and not a lot of shade so it can be quite hot with the sun beating down on you. Bring plenty of water! That can add to the weight you have to carry I know, but if you have a filter with you then you can always get a refill by the stream like we do.
TO GET HERE
The trailhead of this trail is the same as the Herman Gulch Trail, just right along I-70, heading west. It's about a one-hour drive from Denver. Follow the Herman Gulch Trail for about two tenths of a mile, then take the trail to the right heading east. The trail then heads north all the way to below Woods Mountain. AT this point the trail is not too well-defined, but you are not likely to get lost here - you can go just about anywhere.
What can I say, I ran out of words to express how beautiful this part of Arapaho National Forest is, Watrous Gulch included. Although there is no lake or waterfall on this trail, the stunning views alone are enough to satisfy your cravings in communing with nature. Just look at the picture below.
The trail ends at the base of Woods Mountain (12,940 feet). We took a loop around to get back to the main trail but you don't have to. Hermann has climbed Woods Mountain and nearby Mount Parnassus (13,574 feet) several times, but not me and I don't intend to. I'm content to be among the wildflowers and the incredible views of the Colorado mountains.