Rife with trails, the mountains surrounding the Upper Arkansas Valley offer an abundance of hiking opportunities for every ability level.
Hikers in the heart of Colorado encounter unparalleled scenery, majestic wildlife and natural serenity free from the distractions of electronic life. While the region enjoys the Continental Divide and Colorado’s highest peaks, many of the best hikes have nothing to do with summiting a 14,000-foot peak — “bagging a fourteener.”
The many rewards of mountain hiking come with certain risks — the more remote the trail and the higher the elevation, the greater the risk. Following a few basic guidelines can minimize risk and help ensure a positive hiking experience. For starters, don’t hike alone, and make sure someone knows where you are hiking and when you expect to return.
The weather changes quickly, and lightning, rain, snow and wind can all create life-threatening conditions, especially above treeline. So check the weather forecast often and always wear moisture-wicking clothing next to your skin, not cotton. Proper clothing is just one element of essential hiking gear, so be sure to check out the Hikers’ List of Essential Gear.
Upper Arkansas Trails
The valley encompasses so many trails that describing them all would fill this entire magazine. So we’ve listed a few of our favorite beginner to intermediate hikes near Salida, Buena Vista and Leadville. For more challenging hikes, see the fourteeners article.
Arkansas Hills Trail System
These multi-use trails are the closest to Salida. From the F Street Bridge you can see the Frontside Trail zigzag across Tenderfoot Mountain. Frontside leads to the rest of the trail system, which stays relatively snow-free during the winter. See salidamountaintrails.org for maps and information.
Over a hundred years old and a hundred miles long, the Rainbow allows motorcycles, but it offshoots into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness to access alpine lakes and fourteeners where mechanized travel is prohibited. From Salida, drive 5.4 miles east of Colo. 291 on U.S. 50. Turn right on CR 101, which becomes CR 49 in Fremont County. Continue for 3 miles to the trailhead, which is accessible from May-October. Dogs are allowed on this trail.
Monarch Crest Trail
Monarch Crest is a 21.2-mile out-and-back multi-use trail at treeline that features beautiful wildflowers and is rated as moderate. The trail is accessible from May-October and connects to several other trails. From Poncha Springs drive 18 miles west. The trail starts at 11,312-foot Monarch Pass on U.S. 50 with parking on the left.
Buena Vista Trails
Barbara Whipple Trail
The Barbara Whipple is considered a moderate hike that offers spectacular views of the Sawatch Range to the west. It includes a number of paths climbing and meandering up the hill to CR 304, once the track bed for the Midland Railroad. At the traffic light, travel east on Main Street to the end. Park in the large dirt parking lot and begin your hike at the bridge over the Arkansas River.
Lost Lake is a beginner-friendly hike with beautiful views and gorgeous wildflowers. At 2.6 miles round-trip, this hike is great for young children or for those who aren’t acclimated to the elevation. It typically takes 30-45 minutes one way. From the traffic light head west on Main Street/CR 306 for 18.1 miles toward Cottonwood Pass. The trailhead will be on your left, and a small parking area is on the right side of the road.
Browns Creek Trail
Browns Creek creates a large waterfall between Mount White and Jones Peak, an ideal spot for a picnic. The hike in is 2.5 miles through mountain forest. From Buena Vista, travel south on U.S. 285 and make a right on CR 270. At the second intersection, stay left on CR 272. Take CR 272 for another 1.2 miles. The trailhead and parking area are on the right.
Mineral Belt Trail
This 11.6-mile, paved ADA-accessible trail offers unsurpassed views of the Sawatch and Mosquito ranges, along with glimpses of significant historic sites. The trail loops the city of Leadville, traveling through aspen groves, conifer forests and wildflower meadows. From downtown Leadville, head south on U.S. 24. Turn right on McWethy Drive then turn left onto Elm Street. The trail and parking will be on the right.
Native Lake Trail
This moderate out-and-back trail offers spectacular mountain views and alpine scenery on an 8-mile round-trip hike. From downtown Leadville, follow U.S. 24 south to mile marker 177 and turn right onto McWethy Drive/CR 4, across from the entrance to Colorado Mountain College. Follow CR 4 to Turquoise Lake and continue across the dam. Turn left onto Forest Road 105/Hagerman Pass Road. Follow this road for 3.5 miles to the trailhead for Native Lake. The trail begins to the south of this parking area.