Denver After Dawn: best state parks
Colorado is blessed with 42 beautiful state parks, and our expert recommends his favorite of the bunch.
Editor’s note: Throughout the spring, RED’s Denver After Dawn series will look at fun morning and daytime activities in and around the Mile High City.
Everyone knows being outdoors is a good thing — and science supports this belief.
“One recent large-scale study found that spending just 120 minutes a week outside in nature really does bring all kinds of positive health outcomes, such as improved breathing and sleep, increased motivation to exercise and improved emotional well-being,” said Erin Seedorf, assistant professor in the Department of Health Professions at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people with better access to green environments, such as parks and trails, tend to be more physically active and healthier.
All of which is great news for Denverites. Colorado has 42 world-class state parks with outstanding recreational resources, and many of them are within a day trip from the Mile High City. And thanks to the new Keep Colorado Wild Pass and Centennial Pass (for low-income residents), you may be able visit these parks at a discounted rate.
RELATED: Denver After Dawn: best scenic views
But which state parks are the best? RED asked Lincoln Davie, Ph.D., assistant professor of Outdoor Recreation in MSU Denver’s School of Hospitality and an avid endurance-sport enthusiast, to name his top six recommendations.
Best state parks near Denver
Just a 20-mile drive south from Denver, this 3,339-acre park boasts beautiful trails and outstanding beauty spots, topped with strikingly dramatic red-rock formations. No wonder it was recognized as a National Natural Landmark more than 40 years ago. And while it’s perfect for hiking and taking in views, Roxborough also hosts the Indian Creek Fifties trail race each October, with options ranging from 5 to 50 miles. This is an excellent race choice, whether you’re a beginner seeking to dip your toes into trail running or a seasoned veteran looking for one more end-of-season test.
This secluded 12,119-acre park about 30 miles west of Denver offers a complete escape from the city grind. Amid some stunning backdrops, you’ll find 35 miles of scenic hiking trails, 19 miles of which are also accessible for mountain biking and horseback riding. The fishing is glorious, and wildlife enthusiasts will appreciate numerous opportunities to observe a rich variety of local species, including moose, golden eagles, beavers, foxes and black bears.
Perfect for a day trip from the city, Eldorado Canyon, near Boulder, offers lots of great recreational activities to suit all ages. Once you’ve taken in the majesty of the towering sandstone rock formations, you can set out along numerous picturesque trails perfect for hiking, trail running and cycling. There’s good fishing in South Boulder Creek and an excellent climbing scene, with more than 500 technical rock-climbing routes along the sheer golden cliffs. However, the jaw-dropping beauty of this park is no secret, so be prepared for summer crowds, especially on weekends and holidays.
A scenic drive through Conifer leads you to Colorado’s newest state park (celebrating its 10th anniversary this month), where you’ll find breathtaking views, diverse wildlife, great fishing and fantastic trails for you and your dog. There are plenty of great routes, whether you’re hiking, biking or horseback riding. Hikers in particular can also witness the drama of Elk Falls, the highest waterfall near Denver. Another big bonus: Staunton offers a fabulous Track-Chair Program, which enables visitors with limited mobility to explore designated trails in the park.
Sprawling over 5,112 acres west of Colorado Springs, this park provides 55 miles of scenic trails set among mountain meadows, aspen woods and conifer forests. While it boasts all the usual features of a thriving state park, such as hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and camping, Mueller is a noted beauty spot and especially revered by photographers seeking nature-based inspiration. The location comprises marvelous Pikes Peak views, a rich variety of plant life and a watchable wildlife area. A giant natural playground, the park is home to elk, black bears, mule deer, hawks and a dizzying selection of small mammals and birds.
Short on time and fancy a quick escape from the city? You could explore some of the Jefferson County Parks, just (barely) west of Denver. These 27 parks right on every Denverite’s doorstep cover 56,000 acres, with a trail system that spans 265 miles. Try White Ranch Park and Apex Park for great mountain biking or take in the mountain and city views while hiking at North Table Mountain Park. Another close option is Green Mountain in Lakewood, a versatile trail-running destination that also connects to Mathews and Winter Park if you’d like an extended run.