Cool canyons

Climb, hike, fish, and bike a short drive from overheated Denver

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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.

 

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