Hot Spots: Colorado’s Hidden Gems

You know the Colorado thing: Walk in the shadow of the Maroon Bells. Scale the Flatirons. Backpack through Rocky Mountain National Park. Ride the Monarch Crest Trail. Swoosh down the slopes of Telluride or Vail. It’s no wonder that iconic spots like these draw visitors from across the world to our spectacular state, but don’t ever get tired of the same old outdoor jams? Live a little and explore these lesser-known quintessentially Colorado, but lesser-known spots. You may just discover a few more reasons to love where we live.

Staunton State Park

Nestled in verdant forest just a few miles from Conifer, Colorado’s newest state park offers something for everyone (and especially for anglers, climbers and hikers). In 1986, Frances Hornbrook Staunton, the daughter of a couple who homesteaded here, willed the 1,720-acre ranch to the state with the stipulation it be preserved it as a “natural wilderness-type park.” It took decades for her dream to come to fruition, but Staunton finally opened to the public in 2013. You’ll find easy to moderate hiking, biking and horseback trails here that open up to brilliant vistas of the surrounding mountains, rugged crags and Davis Ponds, which are stocked with trout. History lovers will enjoy the preserved cabins on site that led Staunton Ranch to be designated a Rural Historic Landscape on the National Register of Historic Places. Climbers and boulderers can test their abilities on the granite of Staunton Rocks, which boasts over 60 trad, mixed and sport routes ranging in difficulty from 5.3 to 5.12+. And what makes this area particularly unique is that opportunities still abound to score a first ascent on Elk Creek Spires and Lion’s Head.

Picket Wire Canyon

Don’t just think mountains. It’s hard to beat the scenery along this gentle 11-plus-mile hiking and biking route through a circuitous, 350-foot-deep chasm that runs through the southeastern plains. Head back in time when you follow the Purgatoire river past the ruins of an old Mexican mission, Native American rock art and an early 19th century homestead. Then travel even further back: The exposed rock layers of prehistoric sea beds and ancient lakeshores contain the largest dinosaur track site in North America, containing over 1,300 prints in 100 separate trackways spread across a quarter-mile stretch of riverbank. It’s amazing to think that right here, 150 million years ago, the enormous brontosaurus and the smaller allosaurus wandered the muddy shoreline of a lake that vanished eons ago. This spot is so special that Picket Wire is the only portion of the entire National Forest System with a specific mandate for the management and protection of fossil resources. Collecting or damaging artifacts is strictly prohibited.

Aiken Canyon Preserve

Located 16 miles south of Colorado Springs on a parcel of land acquired by The Nature Conservancy, this easy four-mile hiking-only loop meanders through the pinyon-juniper forest and prairie scrub oak, that define the lovely transition zone between the plains and mountains. You can learn a lot here: Interpretive signs highlight important features as you make your way through forest and expansive meadows and past dramatic red spires and outcrops. Aiken’s also home to a treasure trove of plant and animal communities—you can spy over 100 bird species throughout the year. It’s open year-round, dawn to dusk on Saturday, Sunday and Monday only.

Zapata Falls

The next time you head to Great Sand Dunes National Park, stop to check out this nearby wonder. The hike may not be a secret, but the half-mile hike to the secluded falls requires some wading and navigating slippery rocks. That makes for a great adventure any time of year, but especially in summer when you’ll appreciate the cooling effects of the falls well before you reach them. In winter, the 30-foot-tall cascade morphs into any icy columnar sculpture. Though shimmering blue water flows just below the frozen surface, ice climbers have plenty to work with here. But the views from the trailhead alone make this journey worthwhile; look to the north and absorb the grandeur of the dunes set against the base of the rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, or peer west across the expansive San Luis Valley where you’ll see the jagged San Juan Mountains rising like a sheer wall from the valley floor.

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