Best Hikes With Kids in Northern Colorado


Thanks for checking back in for Hiking Month.  Today we have Kate from Colocalders sharing with us our first Colorado installment of our series (there will be a few).  She and her husband are avid climbers who are doing a great job of getting their family (and friends) outside.  Her motto is “life is adventure” and she does a great job of living that statement!  Thanks Kate!

Northern Colorado is an amazing place for hiking and exploring. Once you move outside the 30 mile radius around the populous regions of Boulder and Denver, you can find amazing, quiet, wilderness. And the best part is that many of these trails are well built and well maintained, and make a great day of adventure for everybody in your family.

When Jessica asked me to pick out my five favorite hikes (for kids and adults), I knew it was not going to be an easy task. Between Boulder and the Wyoming border lay hundreds of square miles of prairie wildflowers, foothill views, red sandstone rocks, and craggy peaks. I don’t really know if these are my top five of all time, but they are five great hikes – and the good news is that (as of this writing) none of these trails were impacted by the High Park wildfire. So if you find yourself with a spare sunny day, and are looking for a piece of beautiful northern Colorado landscape to share with your kiddos, definitely check out these trails!

 

The Devil’s Backbone

Spring winds and clouds over the Devil’s Backbone

Info at the Larimer County Website
The long ridge of craggy sandstone that is the namesake for this park is actually part of a 200 mile long geologic feature that runs the length of the northern Front Range. And the trailhead at the Devil’s Backbone is the southern entry point for an 86 mile long trail system that runs all the way north to Lory State Park.


An early hike with the kiddo along the Devil’s Backbone

I would not suggest subjecting your children to all 86 miles, but the Devil’s Backbone area has a really nice three mile loop starting at the parking area. This loop includes a self-guided nature trail, so you and your kids can learn about the wildlife and plant life found among these stunning sandstone cliffs. The parking lot has restrooms and drinking fountains, a small picnic area, and a grove of beautiful old cottonwood trees.

The last time we did this hike we saw prairie dogs, hunting falcons and a VERY large (but not dangerous) Bull snake, all in the first 100ft. And since that day, it’s been one of my favorite family friendly hikes.

Horsetooth Falls

Horsetooth Falls is very pretty in the spring (April/May)

Info at the Larimer County Website
Horsetooth rock is a visible landmark and practically the city symbol for Fort Collins. Hiking (or biking) to the top of that rock is a 5 mile adventure that I recommend for any fit adult. But for kids, there are actually much better hikes in Horsetooth Mountain park. The hike to Horsetooth Falls, at just over a mile long (2.25 miles round trip) is a great one for little legs.

 

A nice, easy trail to Horsetooth Falls

This trail starts at the same parking area as others in the park, so you will still have to pay the $6/vehicle entry fee. But if you head to the waterfall, you trade a 1000ft climb for a relatively flat trail that explores a granite canyon filled with wildflowers and little creeks. The best time of year for this trail is spring, when snow melt turns the falls into a beautiful stream of foamy white water. But another great time to explore this trail is in the early winter, when the drip-drip-drip of water over the cliff line builds a huge and beautiful ice castle below the falls.

Bent Rock Trail

Info at the Larimer County Website
Red Mountain open space is one of the newest acquisitions for Larimer County, and probably one of the least visited. This is really amazing, because the huge park encompasses 15,000 of the most beautiful acres of Northern Colorado, and is only 25 miles from Fort Collins. Many of the trails are great for mountain biking and horseback riding, but the Bent Rock loop is available to hikers only.

Our kiddo enjoying his snack on the Bent Rock Trail

This 2.2 mile loop runs through some of the most amazing deep red rocks I have ever found in Colorado. When your family hikes this trail, it is like being transported to Moab or Sedona, but with fewer people. The trail heads into a shallow canyon, where a clear creek runs (seasonally) between the deep red rocks. It then slowly climbs the side of a huge red dome of rock, offering beautiful views of the entire valley along the way. At the top you are treated to an amazing geologic formation, where the trail cuts through layers of deep red and bright white sandstone, producing a weird, other-worldly effect.

There is no entry fee for this open space, but trail amenities are limited. There are covered picnic tables and pit toilets at the parking area, but no running water. The park is closed between December 1 and March 1, partly due to extreme weather but also to protect wildlife. Bring your sun hats, lots of water, and heavy boots, and tell your kids to keep their eyes peeled for rattlesnakes that like to sun themselves on rocks along this trail in the spring.

 

Montgomery Pass Trail


Hiking through beautiful old-growth forest to Montgomery Pass

Info at the National Forest Website
If you’re tired of hearing me talk about sandstone and rattlesnakes, here’s a radically different option. The Montgomery Pass trail starts just a little east of Cameron Pass (about 2 hours east of Fort Collins on Hwy 14) and heads into the remote and intensely beautiful mountains of the Rawah Wilderness. And the best part is, your kids can do this too! It is not as easy of a trail as the others described here. In two miles, you will climb almost 1000ft through lodgepole forest to a tundra-covered pass above treeline. But its short length, and large, easy-to-follow trail make it possible for most hikers, especially those who are patient and take breaks as needed.

Amazing views of the Rawah Wilderness from the Montgomery Pass Trail

Unfortunately, the bark beetle is hitting this area pretty hard, and there were several trees down across the trail when we hiked it in July. All of the trees can be hiked around, but they add to the technical difficulty a little bit. Stay aware of where the trail is heading, and look for new paths that circumvent the downed pines. Your reward at the end of the day will be enjoying a fiercely remote and shockingly beautiful mountain landscape with your whole family.

Long Lake Loop

Info at the National Forest Website
This trail is a great one for kids, but a clear example of what wilderness that sits less than 30 mils from Boulder is like. It’s beautiful, dramatic, easy to access, and BUSY! We have really enjoyed hiking around the Brainard Lake Recreation area, which borders the Indian Peaks Wilderness just off Hwy 72. There are tons of hiking options starting from this area, and one of my favorites is a quick loop around Long Lake.

Mountains and rivers on the hike to Long Lake

This loop starts with the Pawnee Pass trail at the Long Lake trailhead, and gently climbs a wide and extremely well-used trail into the Indian Peaks wilderness. This trail is VERY popular in the summer, but for good reason. After only a half mile, you will end up at Long Lake, and the amazing views of the steep glacier-carved Indian Peaks begin. From here, you can hike along the edge of Long Lake, watching fly fishermen and playing in snowdrifts well into mid-summer. After two miles, you’ll hit the Jean Lunning trail, and you can circle back to the trailhead for a gorgeous 4 mile loop.

Or, you can continue another (rather difficult) quarter mile to the clear, sparkly Lake Isabelle. An even more technical, rocky trail leads from here to the Isabelle glacier, which is the source of the water for the South St Vrain Creak. It’s an easy hike to Long Lake, and the trail gets more and more challenging as you go along. But there are few places in northern Colorado that provide such quick access to wilderness, amazing mountain views, and eventually, a true mountain glacier. Choose a sunny day, get to the trailhead early with lots of water, snacks, sunscreen and rain gear, and hike as far as works for your family. You will enjoy the trail no matter your distance traveled.

Kate is a mom first, a perennial graduate student second, and fills the rest of her time with rock climbing, hiking and adventuring. She spends her days alternating between talking about clouds and climate to scientists, and trying to outrun them in the mountains of Northern Colorado. At ColoCalders.Com, she fills out her geek resume with mountain photography, PHP coding, and writing about family shenanigans. 

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