Best Hikes in Pike and San Isabel National Forests (CO)

Overview

Pike and San Isabel National Forests are located in central Colorado, south of Denver and west of Colorado Springs. The two national forests are managed together in addition to administering the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands. In total, the supervisor’s office oversees nearly 3 million acres, between the prairies of western Kansas and some of Colorado’s highest mountain peaks along the Continental Divide. These sprawling forests and grasslands are an eight hour drive from boundary to boundary. This landscape offers a variety of ecosystems rich in history, geology, scenery, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.

The Pike and San Isabel National Forests contain 23 of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners (14,000’+ peaks). Over 385,000 acres of wilderness, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Colorado Trail, and Santa Fe National Historic Trail are special areas worth exploring. In addition, see below for more of the best hikes in Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Garden of the Gods, though not located within the forests’ boundaries, is a must visit if you are near Colorado Springs! Official Website.

StateColorado
Nearest Metro AreaColorado Springs, CO
Area Size2,778,094 acres
EstablishedFebruary 11, 1892
Hiking Trails1,750 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Hikes in Pike and San Isabel National Forests

(*** = Best Hikes in Pike and San Isabel National Forests)

Barr Trail #620 to Pikes Peak*** – 26.0 miles out and back

Barr Trail gains over 7,000′ in elevation on its way up to the summit of Pikes Peak. At present, over 150,000 visitors per year are estimated to climb the peak on the Barr Trail. Barr Camp, about halfway up the trail, makes for a popular overnight camping spot. However, if you plan to make it to the top and back in 1 day you will need to begin early in the morning. Pikes Peak has been a landmark since before recorded history. It was named for Zebulon Pike who described the Peak in 1806 while exploring in the area to the south. At the altitude of 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak is the 31st highest peak in Colorado. Of all the best hikes in Pike and San Isabel National Forests, this is easily the most popular and most recommended to visitors.

Browns Creek Trail – 5.6 miles out and back

The Browns Creek trail offers beautiful scenery with changing vistas and vegetation. The trail follows the stream and small waterfalls can be found along the way. The lower portion of the trail begins in primarily a Ponderosa pine environment and further moves into spruce/fir forest. A little under 3 miles from the trailhead you will reach the gorgeous Browns Creek Waterfall which makes for a good spot to take a break before returning to your car. At higher elevations the trail travels through pristine meadows that end at Brown’s Lake. Finally, great views of Mount Antero can be seen as you approach the trailhead.

Crags Trail #664*** – 5.2 miles out and back

This trail leads to “The Crags”, a group of rock pinnacle formations. Good for family hikes as the trail is not too steep or long and the views from the top are beautiful. Further, there are great views of Pikes Peak along the way!

‘DeCaLiBron’*** – 7.6 mile loop

The ‘DeCaLiBron’ loop is a challenging but manageable day-hike to 4 fourteeners in the Pike National Forest: Mt. Democrat, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Bross. Prepare to be above 13,000′ for the majority of the day; altitude sickness can definitely come into play here if you aren’t used to it.

Begin the climb at the Kite Lake parking area and follow the route clockwise. The ascent to Democrat can be difficult as you will climb over 2000′ in less than 2 miles. However, apart from a short climb to the summit of Cameron, the trail follows the ridgeline the majority of the way. Coming back down to the trailhead from Bross can be punishing without trek poles. Couple that with the fact that the wind is usually brutal at such high elevations until you are below the treeline! Certainly add this one to your bucket list and make sure you give it a go if you’re ever in the area. 

Horse Thief Falls Trail #704 to Pancake Rocks – 6.7 miles out and back

This trail passes through the old Horsethief Park area and culminates at an interesting rock outcropping known as “Pancake Rocks”. Horsethief Falls are an especially nice family-friendly stop in the spring or after a rain. If you’re looking to extend the hike for a more challenging route, certainly consider making it a loop and heading up to Sentinel Point on an unmaintained trail.

Lakes of the Clouds Trail – 10.3 miles out and back

Starting from the Gibson Creek Trailhead, the Lakes of the Clouds trail follows Swift Creek for about four miles to the lowest lake. Another access (favored by horse back riders) is the Short Creek trail. This trailhead is about another mile north of Swift Creek as you follow the Rainbow trail. This trail has a lot less rocks and is a longer but gentler climb than the Swift Creek trail. The lowest lake is about 4 miles from the trailhead at the Rainbow Trail and Swift Creek. The trail is easy for hiking, and 4.2 miles in length.  These trails are in the Sangre de Christo Wilderness area.

Mount Massive Trail*** – 13.6 miles out and back

At 14,421 feet, Mount Massive is the second highest peak in Colorado at just 12 feet behind its southern neighbor, Mt. Elbert. Its name comes from its elongated shape: it has five summits, all above 14,000 feet, and a summit ridge over 3 miles long, resulting in more area above 14,000 feet than any other mountains in the 48 contiguous states, narrowly edging out Mt. Rainier. It is located in the Sawatch Range as it cut through the Mount Massive Wilderness. This peak takes an average hiker 4 to 6 hours to the top. 

From the trailhead, hike north for 3 miles along the Colorado Trail to the junction at 11,250 feet. Mount Massive trail climbs steeply west to timberline, then continues west through willows and rolling tundra into the cirque between the main summit of Massive and 14,132 foot South Massive. Follow the trail to the prominent saddle and the ridge north to the summit. Finally, on the descent, return all the way to the prominent saddle and descend the established route. Above all, start early and try to be off the summit by early afternoon as thunderstorms are common in the summer months. There is a shorter 6.8 mile roundtrip hike starting from the Halfmoon Creek Trailhead but the route is extremely steep!

Mount Sherman Trail via Fourmile Creek – 5.0 miles out and back

Mount Sherman, in the middle of the north to south-trending Mosquito Range, is a rounded 14,036 foot high peak. This mountain, usually considered one of the easiest of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners, is an excellent climb for beginning mountaineers, but basic mountaineer rules still apply. Sherman, Colorado’s 46th highest peak, is a fast hike for a reasonably fit person since it is possible to park as high as 12,000 feet, leaving only a couple thousand feet of elevation gain to the summit and a round-trip hike of just over five miles. Like all the Fourteeners though, Mount Sherman needs to be treated with respect. Thunderstorms brew over the Sawatch Range to the west and move in quickly. It always seems windy on Sherman’s upper ridge and summit though. It’s necessary to get an early start, carry rain gear, and keep an eye on the weather for thunderstorms.

North Mount Ebert Trail*** – 8.6 miles out and back

At 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado and the second highest peak in the lower 48 states coming in just 63 feet below the tallest peak, Mount Whitney. From the trailhead near the Elbert Creek Campground, follow the Colorado Trail South. Then veer right at the junction of the Colorado Trail and the Mount Elbert Trail.  Follow the trail to the summit. This trailhead is very heavily used on weekends and moderately/heavily used on weekdays during the summer and fall, and lightly used during spring and winter. During the winter, road access to this trailhead is restricted to snowmobiles, hikers, and skiers. Full size vehicles do not have access to this trailhead during summer months.

Saint Mary’s Falls Trail #624 – 6.3 miles out and back

This trail follows Buffalo Canyon Creek through mature aspen stands and mixed pine and spruce forests until it reaches St. Mary’s Falls. To ones right are the falls which cascade down a granite wall 250-300 feet. To ones left is a very nice view of Colorado Springs with the Broadmoor Hotel in the foreground. Trout may be seen in the creek. To reach the trailhead, you’ll have to park your car in the lot at the intersection of Gold Camp Rd, N Cheyenne Canyon Rd, and High Drive about 1.5 miles from the trail.

Timberline Lake Trail – 5.6 miles out and back

This trail accesses the beautiful Timberline Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness. It is open to foot traffic only. Timberline Lake Trailhead is located at the western end of Turquoise Lake, just northwest of the May Queen Campground. The trail enters the Holy Cross Wilderness soon after intersecting with the Colorado Trail. The gentle incline to the lake makes this a great family-friendly option!

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