Best Hikes in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests (CO)

Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests Overview

Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests are located in north-central Colorado within an easy drive of Denver. The forests are managed jointly along with the Pawnee National Grassland out of Fort Collins, CO. Situated primely in the Rocky Mountains, the best hikes in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, described below, are quintessential Colorado hikes. Although busy on summer weekends, the trails here can provide a nice reprieve from the crowds that you will find in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests rank towards the top of the most visited national forests in the US and the hikes below are by no means all the only trails that visitors are limited to. Make sure to do plenty of research before arriving and know the routes that you will be taking!

Nearest Metro AreaDenver, CO
Area Size1,730,603 acres
EstablishedMay 22, 1902
Hiking Trails1,360 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests

(*** = Best Hikes in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests)

Byers Peak Trail #12*** – 8.6 miles out and back
Byers Peak, Photo by Jeffrey Beall

This trail is an excellent day hike with its major attraction being the panoramic views atop Byers Peak. The trail starts at the gate and follows the road to the trailhead of the single track hiking trail. This section of the trail can be used by both hikers and mountain bikers. At the single track hiking trailhead, there is a spot to leave mountain bikes. From here to the top of Byers Peak, the trail is approximately 1.8 miles and is steep, with some bouldering required. The steep sub-alpine slopes do not provide any camping and hikers should be prepared for a stiff wind at tree line that generally blows atop the mountain. There is good fishing in the few small lakes just below Byers Peak although they require some strenuous cross-country hiking. Remnants of snow fields usually remain along the trail until the first or second week of July.

Cascade Creek Trail #1 to Crater Lake*** – 14.2 miles out and back
Lone Eagle Peak, Photo by Bob Denaro

Cascade Creek Trail is the most popular trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness (IPW), especially on weekends and holidays. The trail is fairly flat the first 1.5 miles before reaching the Arapaho-Cascade Trail junction. Many campsites are available along its entire length and fishing is good in all the creeks. 4.5 miles along the trail is Cascade Falls. The last 2.5 miles of the trail is the hardest. There are approximately 27 switchbacks along this last portion and can be especially hard with a heavy pack, but the view on top is one of the best in the IPW. This trail makes for an excellent longer day trip or relatively easy overnight backpack. The tranquil Mirror and Crater Lakes mark the end, sporting 12 designated campsites and stunning views of Lone Eagle Peak.

Chicago Lakes Trail #52*** – 12.2 miles out and back
Chicago Lakes, Photo by US Department of Agriculture

Leaving from Echo Lake, the trail goes downhill for the first mile. Here Chicago Creek is dammed to form the Idaho Springs Reservoir. This will be the easy part of the hike for the trail then climbs upward the remaining three miles. You will pass through an old burn area where in 1978, 400 acres burned in the Reservoir Fire. Abundant wildflowers stand out against the burned trees. Darting back into the trees, the first Chicago Lake sits at the treeline. The trail to the second lake, above treeline, is difficult to follow at times and is very steep. Both lakes offer excellent views of surrounding peaks. For a longer hike you can continue hiking south to Summit Lake and on up to the summit of Mount Evans.

Chief Mountain Trail #58 – 3.0 miles out and back

Passing through a spruce and fir forest, you soon reach the treeline in just a short distance. Here, the alpine tundra begins. The last stretch of the trail offers an overlook of the Bear Creek Basin, including Mount Evans, Mount Goliath, Rogers Peak and Roslin Peak. The trail is fairly steep early on but more gradual as you go up with the help of multiple switchbacks. The summit provides some of the best views of all the hikes in Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests.

Grays Peak National Recreation Trail #54*** – 9.3 miles out and back
Grays Peak Trail
Grays Peak Trail, Photo by Martin Stiburek

Hiking high above treeline, Grays Peak National Recreation Trail offers hikers the opportunity to summit two 14,000′ mountains (Grays and Torreys) in one day. Grays and Torreys Peak are the two highest points on the Continental Divide. Always be prepared for sudden weather changes and start hiking early in the morning to avoid afternoon lightning storms. Total elevation gain is approximately 3500′.

Herman Gulch Trail #98 – 6.7 miles out and back
Herman Gulch
Herman Gulch, Photo by Danielle Brigida

Starting on an old sawmill road, this trail emerges out of the forested trees within a mile of traveling. The subalpine flowers add beauty to an otherwise rocky terrain. Towards the top of the trail, rock cairns lead the way to Herman Lake. This trail is a section of the Continental Divide Trail. With the Pettingell Peak as its backdrop, the views across Herman Lake are unobstructed and stunning, allowing for further exploration. 

Hessie Trail to Lost Lake – 4.4 miles out and back
lost lake
Lost Lake, Photo by laurascudder

From Hessie Trailhead, cross the footbridge following Devils Thumb Trail #902 which climbs steeply for about a half-mile on an old road. Do not take the Devils Thumb Bypass which turns right (north) in 0.8 miles just before the bridge. This trail does not pass the Lost Lake Trail junction. Instead, cross the bridge and stay on the main Devils Thumb Trail. It is 1.1 miles from the trailhead to the Lost Lake Trail junction. Turn left (south) following signs for Lost Lake Trail #813. The lake is up another half mile on a good trail. Hessie Trailhead provides access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Devils Thumb, Lost Lake, King Lake, Woodland Lake and Diamond Lake trails making it a great starting point for a backpacking trek. This trailhead is extremely popular during the summer months and parking is limited.

Maxwell Falls Lower Trail #111 – 4.6 mile loop

One of the easiest trails in the district, Maxwell Falls is a very enjoyable hike. It follows Maxwell Creek, and the waterfalls are at their best in the spring when the snow runoff is plentiful. The trail travels through a heavy conifer forest so it will be shaded most of the way. Take Cliff Loop Trail on your way back to the trailhead.

Mount Bierstadt Trail #711 – 7.5 miles out and back
The Summit Ridge of Mount Bierstadt
The Summit Ridge of Mount Bierstadt, Photo by James Tiffin Jr.

From the parking areas, the trail descends gently toward Scott Gomer Creek. This first part of the trail passes through a prime example of willow carr (a wetland willow thicket), providing prime white-tailed ptarmigan habitat. At 11,470 feet, the trail crosses Scott Gomer Creek and begins its ascent toward the summit. From the creek, the trail climbs gradually up through the willows, then up onto the broad northwest shoulder. Nearing the summit, the trail grows steeper and less well defined on the rocky ridge. Pick your route to stay on the rocks and avoid the vegetation growing in the pockets in between.

Pawnee Pass Trail #907 + Isabelle Glacier Trail #908*** – 8.9 mile loop
Isabelle Glacier, Photo by US Department of Agriculture

The first quarter mile of the Pawnee Pass Trail to Long Lake is a very heavily used trail. The trail enters the Indian Peaks Wilderness shortly after leaving the trailhead, and continues along Long Lake as a wide and fairly flat trail. West of Long Lake, Jean Lunning Trail  intersects on the left, looping back toward the trailhead. The Pawnee Pass Trail continues up the valley at a gentle grade through wooded terrain. It makes a short climb to Lake Isabelle, which sits just below the treeline.

At Lake Isabelle, follow the Isabelle Glacier Trail #908 as it forks left from the Pawnee Pass Trail. The Isabelle Glacier Trail continues along the north side of Lake Isabelle to Isabelle Glacier, the source of the South Saint Vrain Creek. The Isabelle Glacier Trail ends finally beside Isabelle Glacier in a very steep-walled cirque basin framed by Shoshone, Apache, and Navajo Peaks. Best completed from July – September after most of the snow has melted from the trail. If you wish to add some miles and elevation to your trek, Pawnee Pass Trail continues past the junction with Isabelle Glacier Trail up to Pawnee Pass (12,541′) and provides outstanding views of the surrounding wilderness.

Silver Dollar Lake Trail #79 – 4.2 miles out and back
Naylor Lake
Naylor Lake, Photo by Kylie Czajkowski

This is a short hike yet the thin air and occasional steepness may be challenging. The trail leads to three lakes that are above treeline. The first lake, Naylor Lake, is on private property. You may look, but please do not trespass. The second lake is Silver Dollar Lake and is for public use. After Silver Dollar Lake, the trail continues for another 1/2 mile up a fairly steep incline to Murray Lake providing great views of the surrounding peaks.

St. Mary’s Glacier Trail #87 – 1.8 miles out and back
St Mary's Glacier
St. Mary’s Glacier, Photo by Glenn Harper

This is a rocky trail for the first half of the hike but the views are gorgeous and well worth the effort. Starting from the parking area ($5 charge), head north to the east side of St. Mary’s Lake before continuing on to the glacier. With careful footing, hike up the glacier for a ways and take in the beautiful view of the lake below before returning to the trailhead. Given its close proximity to Denver, the parking fills up rather quickly on the weekends. Arrive early to beat the crowds.

Featured Image: Lake Isabelle, Roosevelt National Forest, Photo by Don Becker

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