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Hidden Gems

The rush to Colorado’s state parks has slowed. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the 42 preserves saw 19.5 million visitors in 2020, followed by a new record in 2021, closer to 20 million. Last year, the agency reported a drop to 18.2 million. Land managers elsewhere have noted what they call a return to pre-pandemic levels. Even if you were part of that rush to the state parks, here are some you might have missed. (Pro tip: You can automatically buy a Colorado State Parks pass when you renew your car registration in the state.)

Castlewood Canyon, Franktown

Castlewood Canyon proves there’s more than meets the eye on Colorado’s eastern plains. Case in point, this sprawling geologic gash off Colorado 83 near Franktown. Historic remains of a dam—the break responsible for Denver’s devastating floods in 1933—are still viewed from the trails. We recommend the Inner Canyon Loop—but watch out for rattlesnakes. Also several rock climbing routes range from 5.8 to 5.12b in difficulty; some are restricted for raptor nesting in early summer.

Mueller, Divide

Despite its proximity to Front Range populations, Colorado Parks and Wildlife calls this one of its “hidden gems.” Mueller State Park hides out in Teller County, a varied expanse of meadows, forests, and rugged ridges overlooking Pikes Peak. The opportunities here are similar as those in Golden Gate Canyon State Park: hiking, camping, wildlife-watching. But the crowds are smaller. Last year, CPW recorded 124,326 visitors to Mueller, compared with Golden Gate’s 1.3 million.

Lathrop, Walsenberg
While Lake Pueblo remains Colorado’s busiest state park, this aquatic escape to the south near Walsenburg doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. Colorado’s first state park, Lathrop boasts two lakes for anglers and all types of boaters. There’s also a swim zone, a paved loop for cyclists and a nine-hole golf course.

You can also consider the short hike on Hogback Trail, leading to an iconic view of the Spanish Peaks.

Sylvan Lake, Eagle

Near Eagle, don’t be fooled by the exit signs for the lake off Interstate 70. To reach it, you’ve got a ways still to go on a rough dirt track. Here’s your reward, though: Sylvan means “a peaceful, wooded place.” The small lake is only half the appeal. The surrounding White River National Forest awaits.

Mancos, Mancos
Deep in southwest Colorado, Mancos is another remote-beyond-remote—and, therefore, least-visited state park. And, yet, it feels so quintessential Colorado: a quiet, wakeless body of water under the San Juan Mountains; singletrack trails for hiking and biking; and camping with a side of glamping. Take your pick from tent sites and yurts.

—Seth Boster

Castlewood Canyon State Park

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