If there’s an upside to being stuck in traffic on I-70 west of Denver, it’s the scenery. The corridor of rolling mountains that bracket the highway are often overlooked, as many hikers have their sights set on more popular peaks—the heavily hiked fourteeners Grays and Torreys peaks excepted. Four years ago, I began to explore the former region in depth. While I expected to find perhaps a handful of good hikes, the wealth of incredible terrain and pristine wilderness was so bountiful that I turned my experiences into a book, Best Summit Hikes: Denver to Vail.
If you’re up for a big day and want to stay relatively close to the Denver/Boulder metro area, these big hikes and scrambles (never exceeding class 3 in difficulty) will acquaint you with the mountains many have only gazed upon from highway gridlock. Fair warning: they’re are all big undertakings (expect at least six-hour roundtrips, even for strong hikers) and the modest mileage can be deceptive. Start early (3 a.m. is reasonable) as you’ll spend a lot of time above treeline and it is imperative to descend from high ridges when afternoon thunder showers charge in. Bring a friend. A few of these are best done as point-to-points, with relatively close parking areas at either end. Best of all, they all keep you close to the Front Range, so that you can spend more time hiking and less time behind the wheel.
Peak 1 to Peak 6 Traverse
Distance: 10 Miles
This hike and scramble traverses the heart of the Tenmile Range and is a truncated version of the longer, 15.6-mile, point-to-point between Peak 1 and Peak 10 (yes, the same Peak 10 at Breckenridge Ski Area). Best done as a point-to-point starting at the Bike Path Trailhead just off Exit 201, the first portion climbs steeply up to Royal Mountain on a trail then over to 12,805-foot Peak 1. This is where the fun begins! The traverse from Peak 1 to Peak 4 is a scrambler’s dream, with mostly solid class 2/3 rock and many of the easiest routes on the west (right) side of the ridge. Daring scramblers can stay high on the ridge for class 4/low class 5 options, but there are always class 3 bailouts on the west side. Along the way, pass the soaring cliffs of the Dragon formation. After Peak 4, the ridge mellows. The Colorado Trail enters between Peaks 5 and 6. Following it west leads to a nice, casual hike to the Far East Trailhead, where your second vehicle awaits. If you’re up for a loop, take the Colorado Trail to Miners Creek Road to Rainbow Lake and back to the parking area in Frisco (or leave a second vehicle at one of the Miners Creek Rd. parking areas).
Williams Fork Range Traverse
Distance: 13 Miles
This point-to-point starts at the I-70 west tunnel parking lot (just beyond the westbound tunnel exit on the right) and ends at Ptarmigan Peak Trailhead in Silverthorne. Park one car in Silverthorne, then drive back through the tunnel and turn around at Loveland Ski Area and go west through the tunnel once more to reach parking. Most of this hike is off-trail but follows an obvious ridge. Start along the trail north of the parking lot and diverge onto the open, alpine terrain when it switches back east to climb the steep, grassy slopes of 12,757-foot Coon Hill. Traverse northwest to Point 12,411, then west to enjoy a wonderful, rolling class 2 stroll to Point 12,346, Point 12,429 and Point 12,221. Drop down into Ptarmigan Pass and keep pushing to the sixth and final summit of the day, 12,498-foot Ptarmigan Peak. Atop Ptarmigan Peak, a welcome trail leads to the descent. This long hike down to the trailhead follows a well-traveled trail, though be warned: It can get hot in summer and there aren’t a lot of places to get water until you are close to the finish.
Woods Mountain to Herman Gulch
Distance: 9 Miles
This one is a loop, so you’ll start and finish at the Herman Gulch Parking area off exit 218 on I-70. A class 1/2 circuit, the off-trail navigation is relatively easy and it’s a nice outing for adventurous dogs. Start by hiking east up the Watrous Gulch Trail and follow it into Watrous Gulch, where the path eventually dissolves as you approach treeline. From here, it’s an off-trail walk up the slopes of 12,940-foot Woods Mountain. Strong hikers may want to add on the huge, domed summit of 13,574-foot Mount Parnassus to the east before continuing to Woods (the two share a saddle). Head southwest to Point 12,805 (ak.a. “Mount Machebeuf”) and walk the western ridge to the saddle between Point 12,805 and the broad east shoulder of Pettingell Peak. The signed trail back to Herman Gulch materializes here. Follow it back to the parking area.
Loveland Pass to Golden Bear Peak
Distance: 7 Miles
The Loveland Tour starts at the top of Loveland Pass and swings west along the Loveland Ski Area peaks. This is a good one for parking logistics: park one car at the bottom of Loveland Ski Area (in summer, you’re allowed to parking in front of the gate) and one car at the pass. Head west, cruising along the Continental Divide with some steep, class 2+ scrambling on semi-exposed ridges that cross Points 12,585, 12,414, 12,479, 12,752, 12,562, 12701 (Loveland Peak), and finally Point 13,010, known as Golden Bear Peak. The best descent is via the ski area cat roads, legal to hike. You can also leave your second vehicle at the I-70 tunnel west parking, but the problem is, you’ll likely have to drive all the way down the I-70 Silverthorne to turn around and drive back up the pass and through the tunnel to get to Loveland Pass, as the horseshoe turn-around at the tunnel is sometimes closed to non-authorized traffic.
Find more I-70 hikes in EO. Contributing Editor James Dziezynski’s Best Summit Hikes: Denver to Vail, available on Amazon and at Colorado outdoor retail and book stores. Explore 96 summits, all with trailheads within 10 miles of the I-70 corridor between denver and Vail.
Read on to find even more Adventure along I-70.
Frisco to Vail via Eccles Pass / Gore Creek Trail
This point-to-point summits no peaks, but it’s still a great hike (or a good overnight). Start at Frisco’s Meadow Creek Trailhead off the north side of Exit 203. Take the Meadow Creek Trail up and over Eccles Pass and Red Buffalo Pass, then the Gore Creek Trail to the parking area at the end of the Vail Bike Path near the Gore Creek Campground.
Berthoud Pass to St. Mary’s Glacier
This point-to-point starts at Berthoud Pass and ends at the St. Mary’s Glacier Trailhead (paid parking). That makes for a huge day with close to 6,000 feet of elevation gain and several thirteener summits, including James Peak, Mount Bancroft, Parry Peak, Mount Eva, Mount Flora and, as a bonus, 12,493-foot Colorado Mines Peak.
Grays Peak to Argentine Pass
It’s only seven miles, yes, but this loop starting from Horseshoe Basin near Montezuma is burly. It climbs 13,277-foot Ruby Mountain before gaining the class 3 south ridge of 14,270-foot Grays Peak; then traverses east on a class 2+ ridge to 13,850-foot Mount Edwards before descending to Argentine Pass and the western trail back to the parking area in the basin.