Off the Beaten Path

Hiking trails are plentiful in Northern Colorado, as are people. Here are a few trails that the masses haven’t yet discovered.

One thing that makes living in Northern Colorado special is the abundance of natural areas. As our region continues to grow, those who love to hike are finding trailhead parking lots like Interstate 25 at rush hour—full.

We asked area experts for suggestions on avoiding the crowds. They provided guidance on days and times to avoid heavy use, websites and social media channels that provide trail conditions, trailhead cameras to check parking availability, and lesser-known areas to explore.


Before You Go

Some popular spots may not be an option, especially on weekends. Favorites such as Horsetooth Mountain Park, Devil’s Backbone and Coyote Ridge can get crowded and may turn away cars from their parking lots. For trail conditions and information on closures and bird nesting, visit and and for mountain bike trails. You can also find which trails allow dogs.


Soapstone Prairie

Soapstone is still a bit of a secret. That’s in part because it’s relatively new (2019 will be its tenth anniversary), and it’s 25 miles north of Fort Collins. With more than 40 miles of trails through shortgrass prairie and rolling foothills, it offers fabulous views. It’s great for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. It even offers a quarter-mile paved wheelchair accessible trail to the Lindemeyer Overlook.

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area includes former ranchland that the City of Fort Collins purchased in 2004, and opened to the public in 2009. A herd of bison can be found on the site. Courtesy of City of Fort Collins


“It has something for everyone, is fairly under-utilized, a little further out, and somewhat undiscovered,” says Zoë Shark, community relations manager for the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department. “The bison, with four new babies this year, are fun to see; but with more than 1,000 acres to roam, there’s no guarantee you’ll spot them.”

Getting there: Take Terry Lake Road (State Highway 1) north to County Road 15. Go left toward Waverly. Turn north at Rawhide Flats Road and look for the entrance.


Rabbitbrush stands in stark contrast to the terrain at Red Mountain, north of Fort Collins. Photo by Chris Thomas

Red Mountain Open Space

This 15,000-acre area, immediately west of Soapstone, is “a hidden gem,” says Teddy Parker-Renga, community relations specialist with Larimer County Natural Resources. It features more than 15 miles of family-friendly multi-use trails, wildlife, wildflowers and Stan Creek, fed by a spring. If you’re feeling adventurous and want a longer hike, access trails in two adjacent protected areas, the 55,000-acre Laramie Foothills Mountains to Plains Project. Parker-Renga recommends heading north to the top of Cheyenne Rim. You’ll see people, but it can feel like you have the place to yourself when other places are packed. Find the trailhead off County Road 21, 25 miles north of Fort Collins.

Eagle’s Nest Open Space

Parker-Renga also recommends this 755-acre area, off Redfeather Lakes Road south of Livermore. Five miles of trails on two loops are open to hikers and equestrians, but not mountain bikes. “It’s awesome,” he raved. “You get great views of the mountains, high peaks and dramatic foothills. There’s good fishing on the north fork of the Poudre. The wildflowers are amazing, and there’s good birding. If you look east with a spotting scope or binoculars, you’ll see a golden eagle’s nest near the top of Eagle’s Nest Rock.” Dogs are allowed.


Close to Fort Collins

Shark recommended the Cathy Fromme Prairie just south of town and Running Deer Natural Area to the east.
Access Cathy Fromme’s paved Fossil Creek Trail from Shields Street south of Harmony on the east end, which often fills up, or Seneca to the west. The 2.4-mile trail is peaceful and open when other areas are closed due to moisture/mud. It has great vistas and connects to the Spring Creek Trail, which goes northwest to Spring Canyon Park and Pineridge Natural Area.

Running Deer Natural Area in Fort Collins offers two miles of fairly flat trails. Birdwatchers can observe a variety of birds, such as this gold finch. Courtesy of City of Fort Collins


Running Deer is off Prospect Road on the east side of Fort Collins, across from River Bend Ponds, and offers a fairly flat two miles of soft surface trail. “It’s part of the big complex along the Poudre River,” Shark said, “but we just don’t see as many people there.” It features a historic fire cab, the top of a fire lookout tower. It used to be in the national forest to the west of town, and former Mayor Hutchinson spent a summer in it as a fire lookout. There’s a wildlife lookout pavilion, interpretive signs and meadows. There is parking at the welcome center just off I-25 at Prospect.


A historic fire lookout tower provides an excellent vantage point for birdwatching at Running Deer Natural Area. Courtesy of City of Fort Collins


Parker-Renga recommends River Bluffs Open Space in southeast Fort Collins, which has no trails, but is the current northernmost part of the Poudre River Trail, extending toward Greeley and eventually running from Bellvue to Greeley. There’s a bald eagle nest to the north, and you can take the paved trail 21 miles to the southeast to Island Grove Regional Park in Greeley.

Close to Loveland

Two hikes are not as well known: Mariana Butte Trail and Morey Wildlife Reserve. Both are enjoyable and short. Morey is a quiet wildlife reserve along the Big Thompson River. No dogs or bikes are allowed. Birding in spring is usually great, and wildlife and wildflower viewing can also be good.

Mariana Butte Trail is more challenging, with elevation gain and traversing along a hogback, winding through Mariana Butte Golf Course. You get amazing views from the top of the Butte and a beautiful section along the Big Thompson River called the Hidden Hogback Trail.

Poudre Canyon

Reghan Cloudman, public affairs specialist with Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland, advised that the further up Poudre Canyon you go, the fewer people you’re likely to see on the trails. In many areas there is no cell signal, so prepare to be out of reach. Also, ticks are said to be pretty bad this year. Poudre Wilderness Volunteers ( hike the trails and can assist visitors. In summer, people stop at Redfeather Visitor Center or Arrowhead Visitor Center for information and maps.


Poudre Canyon, which begins in northern Rocky Mountain National Park, winds northeast and then east. There is less traffic the further north you go. Courtesy of Ryan Burke Visit Fort Collins

She recommends:

Zimmerman Lake Trail: Special fishing restrictions exist here, which is important to note. This trail follows an old logging road and is used year-round. It is a popular winter snowshoe trail and snow stays around longer than you might expect.

An old logging road surrounds Zimmerman Lake, offering hiking in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service


Beaver Creek Trail: For the more adventurous, this trail leads into the Comanche Peak Wilderness area. This is a longer outing, but not as busy as the most popular trails. There are fishing opportunities here as well.

Mount Margaret Trail: For an easier, family-friendly hike, this is a great spot near Red Feather Lakes. It is more popular but has a nice trailhead and restroom. You travel through meadows and trees and cross a lovely stream.

Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park

Mary Davis, with Estes Valley Recreation and Park District, recommends Crosier Mountain from the trailhead in Glen Haven. In Rocky Mountain National Park, she likes Westcreek Falls, accessed via McGraw Ranch. Less-traveled options in RMNP include Boulderbrook or Storm Pass Trail from Bear Lake Road to Lily Lake. In the Wild Basin area, she notes the Finch Lake Trail seems less traveled, and one of her favorite places to go in Wild Basin is Hunters Creek Drainage, accessed from the Sandbeach Lake Trail.

Davis recommends the book “Rocky Mountain National Park: The Complete Hiking Guide,” by Lisa Foster, and checking in with the Estes Park Mountain Shop.


Going to the Library? Check This Out

Did you know that the Poudre River Public Library District checks out Colorado state park passes, adventure backpacks, birding kits and other useful gadgets to take along on a hike or camping trip? The library’s Gadgets & Things Collection even features items like GoPro cameras and solar lights. To see the offerings, go to



Brad Shannon is an award-winning communications consultant and freelance writer based in Loveland. To comment on this article, send an email to