Colorado Springs, Colo., is often seen as an urban gateway to some of the best outdoor recreation in the country. In fact, it is the largest city to border a National Forest in the nation. Such proximity to the outdoors, an increasingly vibrant downtown, and a medium-sized airport draws in an estimated 5.2 million overnight visitors annually to Colorado’s second largest city. Most of these visitors who choose to explore the outdoors schedule their days around the iconic, must dos in Colorado Springs hikes: Garden of the Gods, The Incline, and Pikes Peak (by train, car, or the 26 mile there-and-back Barr Trail), among others. Although these attractions are well worth the trip, they are heavily trafficked by recreationists of all abilities and experience. As a three-year resident of Colorado Springs, I have accumulated a list of hiking and mountain biking spots that guarantee the same grandeur as Garden of the Gods without the hordes of tourists. For tips on avoiding the crowds and finding the locals on your first (or next!) trip to this urban-outdoor Mecca, check out these four spots.
Red Rock Open Space
Garden of the Gods Park is generally ranked by travel websites as the number one destination for tourists in Colorado Springs. The giant red rock fins contain a wealth of geologic, ecologic, and cultural history that has helped define what Colorado Springs represents. As a local looking to avoid the crowds but still enjoy the grandeur of this type of geological landmark, I instead venture two miles south of Garden of the Gods to Red Rock Open Space.
The 789-acre city park offers an extensive network of trails open to hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, and in the winter time, cross country skiers. Hikes can range from as short as a half mile to the pavilion and lake, to over five miles into very low traffic areas on the western hillside. For a shorter hike, head to the Quarry for humbling, worms-eye views of the red rock. For those with more time and energy, hike around the Roundup Trail for 180 degree views of Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods, and the eastern plains.
Also known as the Palmer Loop Trail, Section 16 offers hikers and mountain bikers expansive views of Red Rock Open Space and Garden of the Gods. The trail meanders through a variety of micro-ecosystems, from chalky white sandstone and the iconic red rock to small forests of conifer trees. On a weekday, even in the summer, you can hike through Section 16 without seeing more than three groups of hikers and/or bikers. If the hikes at Red Rocks are not long enough, take the Section 16 connector trail for a hike upwards of 10 miles looping through Section 16 and back to the Red Rock parking lot.
After your hike, head down to Manitou Springs for a taste of one of Colorado Springs’ most eclectic and ‘hippy’ neighborhoods.
7 Bridges Trail
The 7 Bridges Trail is a 3.8 mile loop that crosses over (you guessed it) seven bridges. The trail switchbacks through North Cheyenne Canyon and leads visitors to expansive views of Colorado Springs. Visitors will also enjoy an up-close look at the flora and fauna in the mountains surrounding the city. The trail has moderate traffic, especially on weekends, but if you walk past the seventh bridge further into the canyon, traffic drastically decreases. If you’re looking for some scrambling up scree fields and atop rocks, the area past the seventh bridge can serve as a small playground.
Paint Mines Interpretive Park
Most peoples’ vision of eastern Colorado consists of flat plains and miles of wind turbine farms, and rightly so. Until Denver, the midpoint between Utah and Kansas, that vision is mostly true. Hidden among the forest of white wind mills, though, is a true cultural and geological gem: Paint Mines Interpretive Park. About 30 minutes east of downtown Colorado Springs, Paint Mines features colorful clay spires and hoodoos (a column of weathered rock) jutting out of a eroded depression in the plains. The four-mile trail network allows visitors ample opportunities to hike under and scramble atop of red, orange, purple, maroon, and tan rock formations, and imagine what it was like 9,000 years ago for the first humans recorded in this area. Visitors can sometimes find themselves completely alone in this striking park.