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.