[Eldorado Canyon sunrise. Photo: Max and Dee Bernt] When strolling down 16th Street Mall or sitting in Coors Field, it may feel like you’re quite a distance from nature, but there are several Colorado state parks within an easy drive from downtown Denver. At these local gems you can soak in the outdoors that make Colorado famous.
If you’ve ever wondered where you can relax on a sandy beach or head out for a stunning hike without driving for hours then look no further. Here’s our list of must see state parks within quick day-trip distance from Denver. All can be completed within around sixty minutes of Denver. They appear below in no particular order.
Castlewood Canyon State Park
Just west of Castle Rock, about 45 minutes southeast of downtown Denver, sits Castlewood Canyon State Park. It’s a somewhat out-of-place sanctuary of pristine forests and sixty foot canyon walls surrounded by what can only be described as a fairly nondescript landscape outside of the park. The park features a network of fairly manageable trails, which showcase the natural scenery created by Cherry Creek flowing through the canyon.
The trails also provide hikers access to the ruins of the Lucas homestead, which dates back to the late 19th century and originally belonged to some of the first settlers in the area, as well as ruins of the Castlewood Dam. The dam itself has an interesting and troubled history as it served the area from the late 19th century to 1933, when it suddenly gave and sent a fifteen foot surge of water toward Denver. The surge ultimately flooded the city’s fire and police stations, jail, and Union Station.
Beyond the hikes and history lessons the park has to share, the canyon walls and surrounding boulders provide some of the best, and most convenient, climbing and boulder spots near the city.
Roxborough State Park
Just beyond the suburbs to the southwest of Denver, about 40 minutes from downtown, is Roxborough State Park. In the early 1900’s the owner of the land that now makes up the park, Henry S. Persse, intended to develop the land into a private resort complex, complete with a large hotel and golf course.
One look around at the breathtaking rock formations jetting out through the land and it’s easy to imagine visitors streaming in to visit Mr. Persse’s resort. Luckily for Denver’s hikers the development never came to fruition and the land was preserved for the public to enjoy.
Today what draws visitors to the property is the stunning landscape and an extensive network of trails, ranging from around a quarter of a mile to over eight miles. As a nod to the history of the park the Fountain Valley trail leads hikers to Mr. Persse’s former homestead, which still sits toward to north end of the property.
Cherry Creek State Park
Just south of the intersection of Parker Road and I-225 in Aurora, about a 20 minute drive from downtown, is one of the largest and best known state parks near Denver, Cherry Creek State Park. The park is comprised of over 4,400 acres including thousands of acres of rolling grasslands and woods. Its centerpiece is an 880 acre reservoir, which supplies the city of Denver water and year round recreation. There is also a separated 100 acre section designated as an off-leash dog park.
The park offers nearly three dozen miles of trails to keep hikers and cyclists busy, but also facilitates scores of other activities that most other state parks do not. Beyond what was already mentioned the park features a shooting/archery range, an airfield for remote controlled planes, and an on-site stable where you can rent a horse or arrange a hayride. Camping is open year round here.
The reservoir within the park features a sandy beach and unlike other state parks swimming is permitted, making the park a fantastic alternative to crowded neighborhood pools. For those looking to explore the reservoir from the comfort of a watercraft, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, motorboats, and sailboats are all available for rental.
Chatfield State Park
Situated right where Denver’s southwestern most suburbs nestle up to the foothills, and just north of Roxborough State Park, is Chatfield State Park. The main attraction at the park is the 1,400+ acre Chatfield Reservoir that makes the park a hot spot for boating, fishing, and swimming. The views of the mountains just to the west make the trails and picnic sites that encircle the reservoir a great option for easier scenic hikes.
Chatfield State Park, like Cherry Creek on the east side of town, offers relatively unique activities as it also features an airfield for remote controlled planes and an on-site horse stable. The relatively flat and open land around the park also makes Chatfield a hot bed for hot air balloon rides, which allow passengers sweeping views of not only the park and the mountains to the west, but also Denver and the surrounding towns to the east.
This Littleton recreation spot offers year round camping opportunities. Locals also love its massive 100+ acre off-leash dog park.
Barr Lake State Park
Around 30 minutes from downtown Denver, sitting among what is largely agricultural fields to the northeast of town, you can find Barr Lake State Park. The park is centered around Barr Lake, a 1,900 acre reservoir.
While the northern half of the lake is open to fishing and smaller watercraft (meaning sailboats, hand-propelled boats, and motorboats with engines 10-horsepower and smaller,) the southern half of the lake is designated as a nature preserve, making the main attractions at the park bird watching and the stunning views of Longs Peak and the surrounding mountains on the horizon over the lake.
Picturesque boardwalks and gazebos extend into the lake and provide perches for viewing the 350+ species of birds that have been identified in the park. Winter visitors to the park also often see bald eagles as several nest in the area during the colder months. Hikers and runners can also take advantage of a 9 mile trail encircling the lake for a more intimate park experience.
Boyd Lake State Park
About an hour straight north of Denver, and just northwest of charming Loveland is another fantastic option for anyone looking to spend time on the water, Boyd Lake State Park. Originally created by combining two neighboring lakes for irrigation purposes, Boyd Lake, at 1,700 acres, is one of the largest lakes along the northern Front Range. The area around the lake was designated as a wildlife refuge in 1958 and was transitioned to a state maintained recreation area by 1963.
As the name implies, the park centers around Boyd Lake making boating, fishing, and swimming the main attractions at the park. One unique and convenient feature of Boyd Lake State Park is that the trail along the western shore of the reservoir feeds directly into a trail network. This route extends throughout the city of Loveland. The trail access from the park to the town provides a perfect opportunity to explore the city by bike or foot after exploring the lake.
The 148 RV camp sites available at the park make it a fantastic opportunity for weekend getaway while staying close to Denver and having all the conveniences of Loveland right at your doorstep. It also makes a great basecamp for exploring more of the northern front range.
St. Vrain State Park
Located about 40 minutes from downtown Denver and about 6 miles east of Longmont is a small outdoorsman’s retreat nestled between the towns of Colorado’s northern front range. The park, at right around 700 acres, is relatively small when compared to the others, but it uses the space well with 11 fishing ponds, 87 campsites, and a few trails around the lakes. Photographers, birdwatchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts will be awestruck by the sight of Longs Peak in the distance looming over the ponds.
The park’s Firestone location is remarkably convenient from Denver and the ponds are regularly stocked with several species including: bluegill; perch; largemouth bass; catfish; walleye; pike; and rainbow trout. So fishing is excellent year round. The convenience of the park does come at a bit of a cost, however, as a nearby interstate can be heard from certain ponds and camping sites.
It is worth noting that about a third of the land within Saint Vrain State Park is currently “under development” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, so keep an eye on the park in the future for what’s the come!
Staunton State Park
Just west of Conifer and about 45 minutes southwest of downtown Denver sits Colorado’s newest state park, Staunton State Park. The nearly 4,000 acre park features the kind of landscapes Colorado is famous for, including lush grasslands, waterfalls, rocky outcroppings, and soaring peaks.
There are 29 miles of trails in Staunton allowing visitors to explore the varied landscapes as well as the historic saw mill and homesteads sites within the park. Most of the park’s trails are open to hiking, biking and horseback riding. Several of them include overlooks that showcase the nearby valleys and peaks, including Mt. Evans, one of Colorado’s famed 14ers.
For visitors looking for a more adrenaline-inducing experience, over 150 rock climbing routes have been established in Staunton State Park. Whether you’re interested in the views, the hikes, the historical sites, or the climbing, Staunton provides a true glimpse of the Rocky Mountains all within a 45 minutes of downtown Denver on Highway 285.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
Eldorado Canyon State Park, just south of Boulder and about 40 minutes northwest of downtown Denver, is known worldwide for its hundreds of rock climbing routes. They ascend the red sandstone walls of the canyon, but the beauty of the park entices far more visitors than just climbers.
The canyon has a unique history among Colorado’s state parks as it served as a luxury resort for several decades in the early 20th century. In its prime the resort included two hotels, detached guest cabins, ballrooms, stables, multiple swimming pools, and skating rinks. The resort even hosted a young Dwight Eisenhower and his new wife during their honeymoon in 1916.
The state purchased portions of the land in 1978 and has established nearly 20 miles of trails for the public to enjoy throughout the almost 900 acre park. Most of the signs of the previous development have been removed, restoring the canyon to its natural beauty. Although some ruins from one of the hotels still remains near the top of the Rattlesnake Gulch trail making for an interesting destination at the end of the hike. The natural beauty of the canyon itself and the staggering peaks to the west surround visitors throughout the park.
The beauty of South Boulder Creek winding its way through the sheer cliffs of the canyon cannot be overstated. Because of its undeniable beauty and proximity to Denver and Boulder the park regularly reaches its vehicle capacity during summer weekends. But don’t let the capacity issues scare you away, if you plan to visit during a summer weekend simply arrive early and have a backup plan in the event that the park has reached capacity.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
About 45 minutes northwest of downtown Denver on the edge of the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests lays the largest park on our list at nearly 12,000 acres, Golden Gate Canyon State Park. The park boasts a network of nearly 50 miles of hiking trails along with biking and horse trails, fishing ponds, and a few cabins and yurts available for overnight rental.
The size of the park and maintained backcountry campsites allow visitors an experience that simply is not possible in smaller parks: backpacking. Drive-in campsites are available within the park for those who are less inclined to explore the backcountry. Either way, a visit to Golden Gate Canyon State Park is not complete without taking in the views from Panorama Point where you can overlook 100 miles of the Continental Divide to the west.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park offers a taste of a true Colorado experience, a solitude trek into the backcountry, all within less than an hour of bustling downtown Denver.
No matter what kind of outdoor experience you’re seeking there is a Colorado state park that has what you’re looking for, and all within an hour drive of central Denver. And after you’ve discovered Denver’s best parks, consider day tripping to the second most populous city to see its gems. There are five incredible state parks near Colorado Springs. Like the aforementioned Denver parks, these also lie within an hour drive of the city.
More information about all of Colorado’s state parks, and all they have to offer, can be found at cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/Pages/default.aspx.