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What You Need to Know About Hiking on Colorado’s Western Slope

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Cover Image: The author's kids and their cousin hike the Lizard Head Trail in the San Juan Mountains. All images: Kristen Lummis.

If you don’t know much about hiking Colorado’s Western Slope, you’re not alone.

Known primarily for famous year-round resorts like Steamboat, Aspen, Vail and Telluride, the Western Slope is diverse and unique with alpine peaks galore, stunning red rock canyons and surprisingly lush river valleys.

While it’s impossible to do this enormous region credit in one short post, I hope this overview will inspire you to find a Western Colorado trail upon which to set your boots.

Where It All Starts

For an overview of the Western Slope, it’s best to start at the top with the Continental Divide Trail. A 3,100-mile route linking Mexico to Canada, there are 650 miles of CDT in Colorado.

About 200 miles of the Colorado portion are concurrent with the Colorado Trail, a 500-mile trail from Denver to Durango.

Get Off of I-70 

If you’ve only visited the Western Slope at 85 mph on I-70, it’s time to get off the interstate and slow your pace to hiking speed.

Hanging Lake trail in Glenwood Canyon is short and steep, just a mile each way. Quite popular in summer, it’s mostly overlooked during winter.  Don your sturdiest hiking boots, bring some sticks and enjoy the hike alongside frosty Dead Horse Creek. 

Fourteen miles north of I 70, you’ll find Rifle Falls State Park. The trails here are short, but rewarding. Follow the Bobcat Trail to the Rifle Falls State Fish Hatchery, or hike to the base of a triple waterfall on the Coyote Trail. The Coyote Trail continues above the falls, with access to limestone caves and their resident bats. Bring a flashlight.

For longer, backcountry trails, check out Rifle Mountain Park

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Kristen hikes the Liberty Cap Trail in the Colorado National Monument.

Twenty miles from Utah, between Fruita and the Colorado National Monument, you’ll find Devil’s Canyon. The D3 trail is a 6.4-mile loop that rises steadily from scrubland looping back through the red canyons and pinyon-juniper forest of Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness.

Rattlesnake Canyon. Just west of Devil’s Canyon, the Pollack Bench trailhead is the starting point for a 15.5-mile uphill loop to Rattlesnake Canyon and a cluster of seven sandstone arches. It’s a beautiful, surprisingly remote adventure.

Our Richest Patrimony

On June 20, 1923, Dr. John Wesley Hill spoke these famous words at the annual reopening of Yellowstone National Park.

“National Parks are our richest patrimony. They constitute a heritage which must be preserved inviolate by the American people.”

Colorado’s Western Slope is blessed with National Parks and Monuments with trails ranging from ADA-accessible to primitive.

Hike and climb amongst spectacular canyons at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Colorado National Monument.

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The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Colorado National Monument.

Or discover ancient homelands at Mesa Verde National Park, Chimney Rock National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument.

Of these, Hovenweep National Monument is our favorite. The Square Tower Group trail winds amongst archaeological sites dating from AD 1230-1275. There are also trails to outlying sites.

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Kristen's sons at Hovenweep

Back In Time

Go back even further in time to the age of reptilian giants at Dinosaur National Monument.

Inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall you’ll find 1,500 bones encased in rock. Just outside the hall is the trailhead for the three-mile round-trip Fossil Discovery Trail, where you’ll explore three distinct formations with three different types of fossils (clam, fish scales and dinosaurs).

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Dinosaur National Monument.

The Dinosaur backcountry is open to adventurers with off-trail hiking skills and Leave-No-Trace ethics. Especially rewarding are the trails near the Green and Yampa rivers.

 Fourteener Fun

If the National Parks are our richest patrimony, Colorado’s 14’ers are our Crown Jewels.

While you’ll find clusters of 14’ers on the Front Range and within other Colorado mountain ranges, our favorites (especially for new peak baggers) are the San Juan Range peaks surrounding lovely Lake City, Colorado.

 Start with Handies Peak, at 14,048 feet. Accessed from the southwest, the 5.75-mile trail is basically a walk up. Other peaks in the area include Sunshine and Redcloud, both Class 2.

Enjoy! 

Oboz Trail Ambassador Kristen Lummis is from Grand Junction, Colorado. At age nine Kristen found crystals on a hike in Utah’s La Sal Mountains. She’s been hooked on hiking ever since. Kristen is as avid a skier as she is a hiker and being a mom, she strives to be prepared for every emergency. She’s actually used the space blanket she carries in her pack. Find her (@braveskimom) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her website.


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