Colorado is famous for its dramatic natural world, particularly the immense peak-strewn landscape of Rocky Mountains National Park. But as well as these grand expanses of wilderness, the state is dotted with numerous smaller state parks, easily accessible from major towns and ideal for a day trip or afternoon picnic. Perhaps less spectacular than their national counterparts, these still boast rolling forests, sandstone cliffs, creek-cut canyons and fish-filled lakes, and contain great opportunities for hiking, biking, horse riding and rock climbing.
Castlewood Canyon is a fascinating place to visit for reasons both human and natural. It contains the remains of the Castlewood Canyon Dam, which burst in 1933 and sent a wave of water five meters high crashing through Denver. The canyon is situated at the northern tip of the Black Forest, on the edge of the Palmer Divide, an uplifted ridge running through central Colorado whose elevation causes an increase in precipitation, resulting in the presence of an island of trees (the Black Forest) raised above a sea of dryer grassland. As well as these unique features, a multitude of hiking trails weave through the park’s crags, creeks and foothill forests, and there are some spectacular rock climbing routes up the canyon face.
Situated in the foothills of the Front Range, Mueller State Park is one of the best spaces for wildlife-watching in Colorado. Elk and black bears can be glimpsed among the trees of its coniferous and aspen forests, while kestrels, hawks, eagles, owls and vultures circle in the skies above. This rolling woodland is also superb mountain biking terrain, and there are great opportunities for hunting, hiking and horseback riding through the forest and across the park’s stretches of montane grassland. In winter, sledding, snowshoeing and snow tubing all become popular activities. Visitors can stay in campsites as well as in three furnished log cabins, which are particularly cozy when the surrounding landscape is blanketed with snow.
In the old frontier country of central Colorado, this state park protects one of the most extensive remaining slices of wildness on the Colorado Front Range. 2700 acres encompass a rugged terrain that slopes from the eastern flank of Cheyenne Mountain down to wide open plains, with 20 miles of hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a campsite, and even an archery range situated on shrubland for a real taste of the Old West. Visitors share the park with a large population of wild creatures, including black bears, cougars, coyotes, elk, hawks, golden eagles and rattlesnakes.
This popular and accessible park contains facilities for a wide range of activities within a small and easily navigable space. It centers on Chatfield Reservoir, bunching up a section of the South Platte River, which is great for boating, canoeing, fishing and water skiing. There’s even a marina where you can hook up your boat for a few days. Surrounding the reservoir, rolling out over the Platte River Valley, are a series of picturesque foothills, which can be explored on foot, bike and horseback. And the park also hosts one of the best launching areas for hot-air balloons along Colorado’s Front Range. Four campsites provide visitors with a place to rest their heads in between all these activities.
Cut through with a billion-year-old canyon, Eldorado State Park covers a jagged swathe of the great outdoors a short drive from the city of Boulder. Gold-hued sandstone cliffs frame the canyon, famous across the States for offering over 500 rock climbing routes, with challenges suited to all ability levels. The South Boulder Creek, winding through the canyon, is popular with anglers, and in winter the park’s snow-blanketed trails are ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And if you simply want to take in the dramatic views, then there are 11 miles of easily accessible hiking routes roaming up, around and along the ancient canyon.