Wayfarers and trek enthusiasts find hidden gems throughout Southern Colorado
Colorado and hiking and nearly synonymous words, bringing to mind the idea of mountains, hidden lakes and evergreen forests that are more common in the state's northern climates.
However, Southern Colorado's more desert-like atmosphere also offers its fair share of trails that are worth heading off the beaten path to explore.
For fitness buffs or experienced hikers, a good place to start is Cheyenne Mountain State Park near Colorado Springs.
Bill Vogrin, spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, suggested that visitors seeking an all-day hike that would afford a good view of not just Colorado Springs but also a unique view of the mountains towering over the city check out the Dixon Trail.
Head to the mountains and see Colorado Springs and even Lake Pueblo
The 15- to 17-mile trek takes explorers through the entire Cheyenne Mountain park's trail system. The park first opened to visitors in 2018, and the Dixon Trail is marked for advanced or extreme-level explorers. However, not all of the park's trails are as extreme, Vogrin said, noting easier portions are clearly marked at the bottom of the trail system.
The Dixon Trail takes hikers up a 3,500-foot elevation from start to finish, affording summiteers of the mountain a view from Robber's Roost of the city, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), Fort Carson and even as far as Lake Pueblo, if the weather is clear.
Near where the Dixon Trail intersects with Top of the Mountain trails, hikers will be able to see the remains of a T-33 training plane, its crash dating to 1957.
Vogrin said that anyone seeking to explore the trail but not interested in scaling the mountain could also travel to just the 2.5-mile mark on the trail, where a hitching post and rock bench seat have been installed for a turnaround point.
Great Sand Dunes National Park offers a different type of hike
If planned trails aren't the right move, maybe the shifting sands of the Great Sand Dunes National Park is a good option for travelers.
Located near Alamosa on the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the 30 square miles of dune fields have no trails: wind shifts the sand too much for any trails to be installed.
Dunes come with unique challenges and safety precautions that must be taken by visitors. While high elevation will cool the air of the sand dunes no matter the season, the afternoon sunshine can cause sand temperatures to reach 150 degrees or higher, and draw thunderstorms.
The best time to hike the dunes for these reasons is early morning or in the evening.
The dunes aren't all sand, however. Especially in early spring, the Medano Creek offers visitors chances to wade, float and surf (depending on the seasonal conditions) at the base of the dunes.
Hikers seeking to scale a dune will find no trails, but are instead given directions on how to properly scale the dunes.
The largest of the park's dunes is Star Dune, located about two miles from the Medano Creek bed and rising 750 feet at the base of the Mountains. Don't be fooled by the seemingly low peak: the dune takes hikers who are acclimated to the altitude about six hours to complete, due to it being about an 8-mile round trip.
The trek to the top is simply any ridge that's handy which can be followed to the summit.
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Escape the heat in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
If the dunes are too dry, maybe a nearby attraction in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would be a better paced adventure.
Zapata Falls Campground sits at 9,000 feet at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo and is also the site of a trailhead to visit the falls. This hike is about 5.3 miles and requires wading through the stream and narrow caves to view the falls.
The mountains the trail is set in were carved by glacial ice, and the Zapata Falls are located deep inside a crevasse created by the ice. The 30-foot falls offer a cool respite in the summer, and icy sculptures each winter.
The climb can be risky, due to slick boulders and the need to wade in the river to reach the falls themselves.
The trail can also be taken higher into the mountains for a more strenuous (but less wet) hike. The extra distance means a total elevation change of about 3,000 feet, so acclimation to the altitude may be necessary.
However, the effort pays off as several old miners' cabins can be found on the trail, in addition to a view of the alpine lake above the tree line.
Southeastern Colorado offers flatter hiking challenges, geological sights
Not all of Southeastern Colorado's trails are difficult to navigate, although length is one aspect the trails do not lack.
The Comanche National Grassland offers geological scenery and at one point the trail was a spur of the Sante Fe Trail, and stage coach road and ruins can still be found.
Located in Baca, Las Animas and Otero Counties, the area was once the home of Native Americans, and some of the petroglyphs the people used to decorate the canyon walls are still visible — although the fragile images have been harmed through vandalism.
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The soft sandstone found in the area has been worn away by the Purgatoire River, but some of the area has visible dinosaur tracks from millions of years ago.
The Picketwire Canyonlands tracksite near La Junta is one of the largest in North America, with tours of the area offered by the U.S. Forest Service if visitors want further context to the tracks.
However, reaching the tracks is a trek in and of itself. An 11-mile round-trip hike is necessary to reach the prints, as visitors must access the area through the Withers Canyon Trailhead.
Chieftain reporter Heather Willard can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @HeatherDWrites.