Hiking in Arapaho National Forest, Colorado, U.S.A
Updated: Sep 3
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.