On a sizzling day in Denver, the snow-topped Rockies to the west ― if you can see them at all ― can seem unbearably distant. Though the mountains may beckon, you don't have to head all the way to the high country to escape the summer heat. Just an hour or so from downtown, you'll find icy streams, sheer-walled cliffs, and the sweet song of the canyon wren. A trio of shady canyons that cut into the Front Range offer a welcome escape from a sweltering day in the city.
Each canyon has its own special character and is worth taking a day to explore. Big Thompson Canyon makes a refreshing summer drive, with stops for hiking, fishing, or picnicking, and is the only one with camping. Eldorado Canyon is a mecca for rock climbers. And Waterton Canyon is ideal for fly-fishing and biking.
Whichever canyon you choose, you'll want to pack a picnic, water, and a pair of binoculars for watching birds (golden eagles, canyon wrens), wildlife, or perhaps even a few daring climbers.
Drive up Big Thompson Canyon
Just west of Loveland, 53 miles north of Denver, you get your first hint of how exciting this drive is going to be as U.S. 34 twists and climbs into the Narrows ― towering rock formations that are nearly vertical, seeming to loom over the road. Pause at one of the pullouts and you'll get a sense of the geologic powers that shaped the canyon. Then look up along the slopes ― you might spot bighorn sheep.
Before leaving Loveland, make a brief stop at the Trail Ridge Winery, where you can sip one of its well-made Lembergers or Merlots and pick up a bottle for a picnic. Just a few miles into the canyon, you'll see a handful of fruit stands to stop at, or visit the Colorado Cherry Company, home of Monrico's Black Bing Cherry Cider and purveyor of cherry pies.
From its headwaters high in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Big Thompson River flows east through the town of Estes Park and, in a wild and frothy rush, into a spectacular gorge before reaching Loveland and the plains beyond. The scenic 30-mile drive west on U.S. 34 to Estes Park follows the wild river for much of the way.
In Viestenz-Smith Mountain Park, you won't find much hiking, but the park is a cool oasis for picnicking under the pines or wetting a line for rainbow and brown trout. Stretch out on the grass and gaze into the pines for a glimpse of hairy woodpeckers or flickers. When you're ready to stretch your legs, get back on the highway and continue west, watching for parking at the signed Round Mountain Trailhead. From here you can take the steep 3/4-mile Foothills Nature Trail to a canyon overlook.
The road twists and climbs steadily, cutting steeply into the mountains. A large yellow highway sign warns: "in case of flooding, climb to safety." It's a reminder that in 1976, the canyon was the scene of the tragic Big Thompson Flood, which killed 145 people after a night of torrential rain ― and also a reminder that campers here should always keep an eye on the weather.
By the time the canyon opens up outside Estes Park, you'll be ready to get out of the car, and the busy summer resort town offers plenty of restaurants and diversions.
Rock climb in Eldorado Canyon
From the parking area at the visitor center in Eldorado Canyon State Park, southwest of Boulder, it's a gentle stroll up the Fowler Trail to the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, but soon the route begins to switchback up the forested slope. Halfway up the 4-mile hike, most visitors need a pause to catch their breath. But here you don't mind the climb, since there's an awesome view to distract you ― a wide sweep of the roughly 280-acre canyon in this park.
Looking east, out the canyon mouth, you'll catch a glimpse of the plains shimmering in the summer heat. Far below, the silver ribbon of South Boulder Creek hits a bend and whips into a white froth. And right across the canyon, you're likely to see rock climbers spidering up Redgarden Wall and the West Ridge. They're easy to spot along a cleft in the rock, which glows rust red in the slanting light.
For local climbers, the park is the Holy Grail, mecca, and nirvana rolled into one ― all because of the rock. The Fountain Formation sandstone here is more like granite than the soft sandstone in other Front Range canyons. Even nonclimbers can enjoy the experience: Try your hand at bouldering on the lower walls, take a hike, or just watch the pros picking their way up some 500 routes on the steep walls.
After a rest, continue up Rattlesnake Gulch Trail to the original site of an elegant clifftop resort called the Crags Hotel, built in 1908 and destroyed by fire in 1912. Trailside signs tell of its construction (a tram ran from this point straight down to the canyon floor) and heady days of society parties. Take time to drink in the panorama. From here, you can continue upward to a grand overlook of the Continental Divide, or head downhill to soak your toes in the chilly creek and enjoy a picnic by the water, as Denver families have done for years.
Bike and hike up Waterton Canyon
The trail into Waterton Canyon doesn't look like much at first ― a wide, level old road angling past the remains of Denver's first water-treatment plant. Then you pass a grove of cottonwood trees alive with birds, go around a bend, and enter a narrower part of the canyon. The low murmur of the river becomes louder, and rounding one more curve you see the clear, cold waters of the South Platte River.
As it courses through Denver, the river is like a gentle old dog ― very tame and fairly slow. But up in the foothills, just southwest of downtown, the South Platte is a lively puppy. Steep-sided Waterton Canyon has been carved by the frothy whitewater of the river, which is only partially slowed by upstream dams. And though the city has grown almost up to the entrance of this canyon, Waterton is still wild enough to be home to bighorn sheep and golden eagles.
The wide, 6 1/4-mile controlled-access road, a former rail route, is level enough for easy hiking or biking, making this canyon family-friendly. For hikers, the picnic tables just past the Marston Diversion Dam are a good turn-around point for an easy 6 1/2-mile round trip from the entrance to the canyon. Mountain bikers can head deeper into the canyon, past the impressive bulwark of the 243-foot Strontia Springs Dam. It's about 6 1/4 miles to the top of the canyon, from where the Colorado Trail continues west 470 miles to Durango. Note that dogs are not allowed in the canyon; be sure to bring drinking water.
Every twist of the trail offers a surprise ― the flash of a deer scampering into the woods, a great blue heron fishing in the shallows, the trill of an unseen canyon wren. In fact, on most days you're sure to see another common canyon denizen ― the angler/cyclist, noted by the fishing rod strapped to the bike or poking out of a day pack. Pedaling for miles to fish remote, more pristine waters, they know how to get the most out of a visit to Waterton Canyon.
Big Thompson Canyon. The entrance is on U.S. 34 just west of Loveland. For maps and information on fishing and hiking, call the Roosevelt National Forest (970/498-2770). Colorado Cherry Company (10 1/4 miles west of Lake Loveland; 1024 Big Thompson Canyon Rd./U.S. 34; 888/526-6535); Trail Ridge Winery (4113 W. Eisenhower Blvd./U.S. 34, Loveland; 970/635-0949); Viestenz-Smith Mountain Park (4 miles west of the Dam Store at the entrance to Big Thompson Canyon; www.ci.loveland.co.us or 970/962-2727).
Eldorado Canyon State Park. The park is about 8 miles southwest of Boulder. Take State 93 south from Boulder, turn right on State 170, and continue about 4 miles to the park entrance. $6 per vehicle. 9 Kneale Rd., Eldorado Springs; http://parks.state.co.us or 303/494-3943.
Waterton Canyon Recreation Area. From State 470 in Littleton, take Wadsworth Blvd. (State 121) south, following signs about 4 miles to Waterton Canyon. Call Denver Water (303/979-4129) for a brochure. You can also stop in at the South Platte Visitor Information Center (9307 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Littleton; 303/979-4120). For area wildlife information, call the Pike National Forest/South Platte Ranger District (303/275-5610).