Five great hikes just five minutes off I-70

By Cecilia La France, 

Break up the Colorado mountain road time while heading to or from Denver this summer.  The Colorado mountains are breathtaking from the road, but are truly experienced when foot meets the trail and the pine fresh air fills the lungs.  Here are five beautiful hikes easily accessible from I70 between Denver and Grand Junction.  All of them are in-and-out hikes, accommodating to restricted time and energy available at each stop.

Beaver Brook Trail, up to 10 miles one-way, Exit 253 near Genesee

Beaver Brook Trail starts off downhill and is sheltered for the majority of its length by tree cover.  At its start, hikers have the option of following the Braille Nature Center Trail, which is nicely marked with guidelines and interpretive signage.  The Caesar Chavez trail option will connect back with the Beaver Brook main trail, but winds along the brook first.  After about a mile and a half, the route climbs and provides great outcrop areas for scenery.  The Gudy Gaskill loop offers addition mileage and views of Clear Creek.  Those hikers that make it past the 8 mile range will have some boulder stepping and maneuvering before they reach the Windy Saddle at the end of the hike.  Take exit 253, turn north on Genesee Dr. and turn right on Stapleton Rd.  Follow it 1.3 miles ahead as it turns to gravel and leads to parking areas.

Mt. Parnassus/Watrous Gulch, 4 miles one-way, Exit 218

Turn right and pull into the parking lot on the north side of I-70 that serves both Herman Gulch and Watrous Gulch.  When the trail splits early on, take the Watrous Gulch route.  Within a mile, the noise of I-70 fades and a well-maintained trail leads through the wooded cover.  This trail offers great variety because within a couple of miles, the tundra changes to tree line and above.  The trail fades as the creek turns west.  In order to continue to Mt. Parnassus to the east, hikers are off-trail through a grassy climb dotted with wildflowers.  This is the most strenuous part of the hike.  At the rewarding summit, 13,574 ft., several mountain ranges, ski resorts, and some of Colorado’s highest peaks can be seen on a clear day.

Lily Pad Lake, 1.2 miles one-way, Exit 203, Kid-friendly

For a quick lake trail, Lily Pad Lake can be accessed from a side trail of the Meadow Creek Trail.  Take the Frisco Hwy 9 exit and follow the trail sign on the roundabout on the north side of the interstate.  Within half a mile is a parking lot.  The well-maintained trail gains some elevation within the first half mile, but levels out for a short time at the Lily Pad Lake Trail juncture.  Several switchbacks and a stream crossing lead up to an open ridge area with great views of Lake Dillon and the mountains to the south.  Buffalo Mountain serves as the backdrop to the lake and is reflected on its surface on a calm day.  The trail continues another 3 miles through the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness.  See Summit County for information.

Pitkin Lake, 4.4 miles one-way, Exit 180

While passing or visiting Vail, get out of the crowds by heading into the Gore Range just on the north side of town.  The whole route to Pitkin Lake may take several hours and will test a hiker’s endurance, but the trail is rewarding enough without its end destination.  After taking exit 180, take the frontage road on the north side of I-70 to the east. Continue less than .5 mile to the parking lot.  Pitkin Lake trail climbs quickly through aspens and pines for over a mile, but then changes to moderate hiking through meadows and groves of trees.  The trail leads through the valley of two ridges with spectacular scenery on both sides.  Switchbacks and climbs in the last 1.5 miles eventually carry to Pitkin Lake, a clear mountain lake picturesque against the mountain ridge backdrop.

Hanging Lake, 1.2 miles one-way, Hanging Lake Exit (7 miles east of Glenwood Springs—Eastbound Exit Only), Kid-Friendly

This highly popular hike is worth the crowd.  Ample parking is available and a paved trail leads to the gulch.  From here, it’s over 1,000 feet up trail and rocky steps, across bridges, and to a boardwalk around a pristine lake fed from a waterfall backdrop.  The clear water reveals the trout beneath.  A short trip up around the backside of the lake reveals Sprouting Rock, a waterfall with a hefty shower.  Great views of Glenwood Canyon are spotted throughout the hike.  No dogs or off-trail adventures are allowed, though, due to the preservation efforts of the Forest Service.  See trail information and a linked map at the Forest Service Web site.