6 Best Day Hikes Within 2 Hours of Denver

Home to 800 miles of the Continental Divide Trail and all 486 miles of the Colorado Trail, the Centennial State is an outdoors haven, a mecca of trail systems that take hikers deep into the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado boasts many varying biomes across the state, offering unique opportunities to explore sparse alpine tundras, arid high deserts, dense forests, and lush meadows. 

With an overwhelming amount of trails at your fingertips, it can be difficult to discern which are truly the best. While this list is by no means exhaustive (see: guidebooks with hundreds of pages on the best hikes in the state), here are six of the best day hikes close to the Mile High City.

Best Day Hikes Within 2 Hours of Denver

1. Lookout Mountain Trail via Windy Saddle Trailhead

Location: Golden
Length: 3 miles
Denver Drive Time: 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

Trail Need-to-Know

The Lookout Mountain Trail offers hikers a quick escape from the city with vast views of historic Golden and beyond into Denver and the surrounding foothills. This trail is perfect for those looking for a short but rewarding hike close to town.

Starting from the Windy Saddle Trailhead, the trail winds through mixed forests and open meadows, offering intermittent shade and exposed sections with panoramic vistas. The trail is well-maintained and features a moderate incline, making it accessible for most hikers.

As you ascend, you’ll be treated to sweeping views of the Front Range and the plains beyond. Keep an eye out for local wildlife, including deer, hawks, and a variety of songbirds. The trail leads you to the summit of Lookout Mountain, where you’ll find the Lookout Mountain Nature Center and Preserve. Accompanying the Nature Center are spectacular 360-degree views of the Coors Brewery and the quaint town of Golden far below.

The Nature Center at the top offers educational exhibits about the local ecosystem. Nearby picnic areas provide a great spot to relax and enjoy a packed lunch with a view. For history buffs, a short detour will take you to the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave.

Parking

Parking is available at the Windy Saddle Trailhead, but it can fill up quickly, especially on weekends and holidays. The lot itself is fairly small, so arriving early is advisable to secure a spot. 

2. Garden of the Gods Park

Location: Colorado Springs
Distance: Various, up to 21 miles of trails
Denver drive time: 1.5 hours
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Trail Need-to-Know

Garden of the Gods Park is a natural wonder that offers a diverse range of hiking opportunities amidst striking red rock formations. Just a short day trip from Denver, this iconic geological wonder is perfect for hikers of all skill levels, featuring a 21-mile network of well-maintained trails.

The Perkins Central Garden Trail is a popular choice for an easy hike, providing a 1.5-mile loop through the heart of the park’s most impressive formations. Revel in numerous opportunities to marvel at the towering sandstone rocks, some of which reach heights of up to 300 feet. Search for well-known formations like Kissing Camels and Balanced Rock.

Garden of the Gods Park is open year-round, and the Visitor & Nature Center offers educational exhibits and guided tours to enhance your visit. The park’s trails are well-marked, and maps are available at the visitor center to help you plan your hike.

Parking

Parking is available at several lots throughout the park. Restrooms and picnic areas are available at various points throughout, making it a convenient destination for an all-day adventure.

3. Silver Dollar and Murray Lake Trail

Location: Georgetown, off Guanella Pass
Distance: 4 – 7 miles, dependent on parking & endpoint*
Denver Drive Time: 1 hour
Difficulty: Moderate

The climb on the way up to Murray Lake, with sweeping views of Silver Dollar Lake and Naylor Lake below amidst a field of wildflowers.

Trail Need-to-Know

Hit not one, not two, but three lakes on this short, scenic trail. Plus, if you time it right, you may even catch a vibrant meadow of wildflowers in late summer (late July to August, depending on the season), illuminating the hillsides with stunning hues of red, yellow, and purple. 

The trail starts on a steady incline, passing Naylor Lake down below, offering a bountiful reward of views for your efforts. While you only get aerial views of Naylor as the shoreline is on private property, two more alpine lakes await you.

As you continue to climb, you’ll be grateful to reach Silver Dollar Lake, a crystalline alpine lake nestled in the valley, named for its round silhouette when looking from above. While it’s tempting to end your day here (after all, the views and wildflowers are in abundance), the best is still yet to come. 

I hiked this trail in late July and saw plenty of fresh wildflowers popping up along the trail between Silver Dollar and Murray.

The final push to Murray Lake is steep and difficult, but it’s well worth the effort. At the top of this half-mile ascent, you’ll find the solitude of Murray Lake, another shimmering alpine lake above treeline.

Soak in views of towering Square Top Mountain, and look down upon Silver Dollar and Naylor lakes below. Just an hour from the hustle and bustle of Denver, it can feel like you’re far more remote in this heavenly alpine environment. 

Parking

*There are two parking areas at the Silver Dollar Trailhead. The lower lot is an unmarked large, paved pullout on the side of the road, with a small dirt lot on the other side. Parking at the lower lot will add 1.4 miles of round-trip hiking and is best for low-clearance or 2WD vehicles. For those with high-clearance, AWD/4WD vehicles, a steep dirt road will bring you to the upper trailhead.

Furthermore, journeying the optional extra half mile from Silver Dollar to Murray Lake will add a mile round-trip to your hike.

4. Chasm Lake

Location: Rocky Mountain National Park
Distance: 8.4 miles RT
Denver Drive Time: 1.5 hours from Denver
Difficulty: Moderate

Trail Need-to-Know

An abundance of wildlife, alpine lakes, and rugged trails await in Rocky Mountain National Park, just a short day trip from Denver. One of my all-time favorites is the hike to Chasm Lake, a stunning jewel nestled in the shadow of iconic Longs Peak, a popular 14,000-foot peak and the tallest mountain in the park. 

Start the trail at Longs Peak Trailhead and be prepared to climb steadily throughout. This trail starts with a few miles in a subalpine forest, eventually making its way into the sparse alpine tundra. Cross the Chasm Junction, where the trail splits off to ascend Longs Peak or continue to Chasm Lake. 

This is a great area for wildlife viewing: keep an eye out for marmots and pikas among the rocks above treeline. Follow a well-maintained trail along a gorge with views of Columbine Falls, then do a short scramble (well-marked by cairns) to the basin where Chasm Lake is located. 

Once there, revel in the power of Longs Peak, aptly named the “Diamond,” which towers over this dramatic alpine lake. At sunrise, this vantage point is especially spectacular, as the entirety of Longs Peak is bathed in alpenglow and reflected on the lake’s surface. 

Keep in mind that the majority of this trail is well above treeline, and Colorado is notorious for afternoon thunderstorms. Stay vigilant about the weather and be familiar with lightning risk, especially up high. It’s best to do this hike early in the morning and get below treeline before noon when most storms roll through. 

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Parking

You’ll start at the Longs Peak Trailhead just outside the gates of Rocky Mountain National Park. From Highway 7 in Lyons, turn off for the Longs Peak Ranger Station and continue to a small, paved lot. 

Due to the popularity of this trailhead for climbing Longs Peak, parking is limited. This lot fills up very early on weekends, often as early as 3 or 4 a.m.

5. Bear Peak via Shanahan Ridge

Location: Boulder
Distance: 5 miles RT
Denver Drive Time: 45 minutes
Difficulty: Challenging

The summit of Bear Peak is a jagged ridge with steep drop-offs (not recommended for those afraid of heights, for obvious reasons).

Trail Need-to-Know

Bear Peak offers some of the most spectacular views in the Boulder area and is one of five peaks that make up the Boulder Skyline Traverse, a strenuous 19-mile hike across the tallest summits near the city. The Bear Peak hike starts at the Shanahan Ridge Trailhead and leads through a scenic landscape of rolling meadows and dense forest.

As you ascend, you’ll pass through a variety of ecosystems, from lush forests to rocky outcrops. The trail is steep and challenging, requiring good stamina and preparation, especially for the final scramble to the summit. Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Boulder, the Flatirons, and the surrounding Front Range mountains.

Wildflowers bloom along the trail in late spring and early summer, adding a splash of color to the hike. Wildlife sightings are common in this area, with opportunities to see deer, birds, and the occasional black bear. 

For those wanting to tackle the remaining high peaks of Boulder, you can easily link the neighboring South Boulder Peak, which shares a saddle with Bear, from various other trailheads, or attempt the full Skyline Traverse one-way. This traverse is not for the faint of heart, however. Connect South Boulder, Bear, Green, Flagstaff, and Sanitas for 19 miles and nearly 6,000 feet of elevation gain one-way and a non-stop link of ups and downs (physically and mentally).

Parking

To reach the Shanahan Ridge Trailhead, located just along Lehigh Street south of Boulder, park in this residential neighborhood to access the trail. Be aware of any city signage and respect this residential area.

6. Mirror Lake and Crater Lake via Cascade Creek Trail

Location: Indian Peaks Wilderness
Distance: 14.8 miles RT
Denver Drive Time: 2 to 2+ hours
Difficulty: Challenging

Lone Eagle Peak reflects onto the lake below. Photo: Adam Rinehart (Unsplash)

Trail Need-to-Know

The hike to Mirror Lake and Crater Lake via the Cascade Creek Trail is a stunning journey through the Indian Peaks Wilderness, a region known for its solitude. Offering pristine alpine scenery, waterfalls, and the dramatic backdrop of Lone Eagle Peak, this trail is perfect for experienced hikers looking for a full day of adventure.

The Cascade Creek Trail meanders through dense forests alongside rushing water. The trail continues to climb steadily, with the forest gradually giving way to open meadows and rocky terrain.

As you approach Mirror Lake, the trail becomes steeper and more rugged. But, the breathtaking views of craggy Lone Eagle Peak reflected in the lake’s calm waters make the effort worthwhile.

From Mirror Lake, it’s a short but steep ascent to Crater Lake, where you’ll find some of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the area. The crystal-clear waters of Crater Lake, surrounded by towering peaks and lush greenery, create a magical atmosphere.

This hike is best done in the summer and early fall when the trail is free of snow. Be prepared for changing weather conditions and bring plenty of water and snacks, as this is a remote, strenuous hike.

This area is also a popular spot for backpacking. You can turn this longer day hike into a leisurely weekend overnight if you’re lucky enough to win a highly-coveted permit.

Parking

The Cascade Creek Trailhead has ample parking, but the lot still fills up by morning during peak season. There are restrooms and a logbook past the gated entrance. For those who prefer to turn this day hike into an overnight, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit for the Crater Lake Travel Zone, which is highly competitive to get.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of great hikes in the Denver area (hence why so many nature lovers move to the Mile High City). What are some of your favorites?

Featured image: Ariella Nardizzi photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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