On the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park are the first of many dams across the Colorado River forming several lakes around Granby, Colorado. Arapaho National Recreation Area contains five reservoirs, the largest of which is Lake Granby (but not including Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake). Also nearby, Monarch Lake is the starting point for multiple trails into the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Despite its proximity to the Denver metropolitan area, this untamed country is home to a variety of wildlife including moose, martens, and mountain lions, as well as the river otter and ouzel (or dipper) we saw during our January visit.
Lake Granby, Monarch Lake, Meadow Creek Reservoir, Roaring Fork Falls, Willow Creek Reservoir, High Lonesome Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
The largest reservoir in Arapaho National Recreation Area is Lake Granby, an area popular with snowmobilers and ice fisherman in the winter. Summer is also a good time to visit when the lakes are unfrozen and available for boating, swimming, and other water sports. That’s when backpackers on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail prefer to come through here.
Snowshoers looking for some quiet can drive to the eastern end of Lake Granby and hike a mile to Monarch Lake on a road that is closed during the winter months. Throughout the year, Monarch Lake is the starting point for multiple trails that climb into the high elevations of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, plus the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
Under a blanket of snow, there is a majestic view from Monarch Lake looking at the Arapaho Creek Valley.
During the summer, day-use fees apply at portions of Arapaho National Recreation Area, like Monarch Lake and boat launches.
The road back to Monarch Lake and many others are closed seasonally due to heavy snow accumulations.
Campgrounds on the lakes fill up in the summer and even the dirt roads around the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park can be jam-packed with dispersed campers.
Arapaho National Forest is managed jointly with Roosevelt National Forest and Pawnee National Grassland in northern Colorado. Easily accessible from Interstate 70 west of Denver, the National Forest is best known for its many ski resorts. Mt. Evans Highway and Guanella Pass Scenic Byway provide access to the high country in the summer when a rainbow of wildflowers bloom, both above and below treeline.
Arapaho National Recreation Area, Mt. Evans, St. Mary’s Glacier, Guanella Pass Scenic Byway, Devil’s Thumb Lake, Berthoud Falls, Ute Peak, Boardwalk Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
Located just west of Denver, the Mount Evans Highway (the highest fully-paved road in North America) provides access to the rarely-seen world above 14,000 feet in elevation. Online reservations are now required before you show up, so be sure to click to include a stop at Mt. Goliath Research Natural Area, which provides an interpretive hike through a forest of long-lived Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine trees. Keep your eyes sharp for bighorn sheep and mountain goats along the road once you hit the switchbacks around Summit Lake. While the Crest House is no longer in business near the summit, you can still park there and walk the remaining one-hundred feet to the top of the 14,264-foot peak for unsurpassed views.
The easiest way to access the aptly-named Never Summer Wilderness is from the Kawuneeche Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park. You can backpack the 18-mile loop of Baker Gulch to Bowen Gulch in either direction, but keep an eye out for moose as we saw six along the way! High elevation dwellers like yellow-bellied marmots and pikas were also abundant along the trail, which enters Routt National Forest on the west side of Fairview Mountain.
Moose and elk can be found throughout the National Forest, but are often easiest to locate around the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats are known to approach cars on the paved road to the top of Mt. Evans. During our January visit to Arapaho National Recreation Area we spotted a river otter and ouzel (or dipper, a swimming songbird) in one of the few sections of unfrozen creek.
North of the ski resort town of Winter Park is Fraser Experimental Forest, managed by the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. In winter, roads within Fraser Experimental Forest are closed and turn into routes for cross-country skiers and snowshoers with no entry fee charged.
A $15 fee is charged per vehicle (online reservation required before arrival, $2 fee even if you use your America the Beautiful pass) to drive the one-way Mt. Evans Highway during its short open season. Also during the summer, day-use fees apply at Fraser Experimental Forest and Arapaho National Recreation Area.
The road to the top of Mt. Evans is paved the whole way, but there are plenty of rough dirt roads to explore throughout Arapaho National Forest. The road back to Monarch Lake is closed seasonally in Arapaho National Recreation Area.
Campgrounds fill up in the summer and even the dirt roads around the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park can be jam-packed with dispersed campers. There are some scenic campgrounds around Fraser Experimental Forest near Winter Park, Colorado.
Byers Peak Wilderness
Eagles Nest Wilderness (also in White River National Forest)
Indian Peaks Wilderness (also in Roosevelt National Forest)
Mt. Evans Wilderness (also in Pike National Forest)
Never Summer Wilderness (also in Routt National Forest)
Partially surrounded by Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (run by the Bureau of Land Management), Hovenweep National Monument occupies a remote area on the southern Utah-Colorado border. Established in 1923, it is composed of six units, the largest of which has a National Park Service (NPS) visitor center on the rim of Little Ruin Canyon, the location of the variable architectural styles of Square Tower Group.
At Square Tower Group a two-mile loop hike takes visitors past an impressive collection of structures that date back to the 1200s, the same period that Ancestral Puebloans inhabited nearby Mesa Verde National Park. The variety of building styles in this narrow canyon is remarkable, from Square Tower and Hovenweep Castle to Twin Towers and the unique Eroded Boulder House. There is almost no shade to be found on the sagebrush plain of Cajon Mesa, so visiting in the heat of summer may not be as enjoyable. The good news is that it makes for boundless vistas, especially to the south where Sleeping Ute Mountain looms.
The loop trail at Square Tower Group is paved and wheelchair accessible to the first overlook at Stronghold Point, but then gets much rougher over its two miles, especially at the end where it drops into Little Ruin Canyon. A four-mile one-way trail connects this area to the Holly Group of ruins.
Little Ruin Canyon has one of the highest density collections of ruins anywhere in the southwest U.S., including the cool Eroded Boulder House, a part of the Square Tower Group.
Despite its remote location, roads are paved to Square Tower Group, but accessing most of the other units requires driving or hiking rough dirt roads. Further east in Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, visitors can drive well-maintained roads to the Escalante Ruins and Lowry Pueblo, as well as the two trailheads for Sand Canyon.
The NPS runs a 30-site campground (for a fee) at its visitor center near Square Tower Group. Dispersed camping is allowed in many parts of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
On November 29, 1864, in the middle of the Civil War, a tragedy played out on this spot where Chief Black Kettle and 700 other American Indians were peacefully spending the winter in accordance with the 1861 Treaty of Fort Wise. A surprise attack led by Colonel John Chivington killed between 165 and 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho, primarily women, children, and the elderly. The site is held sacred by the Cheyenne and Arapaho, so is only viewable from an overlook above the cottonwood-lined creek. It serves as an important reminder of the terrible acts people can undertake when they dehumanize their fellow men.
Memorial, trail, overlook
Authorized in 2000 upon the discovery of two grisly letters describing the gruesome event, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site opened to the public in 2007. It is located in a remote section of the eastern Colorado plains, down a long dirt road, but it does have a small visitor center in a trailer staffed by the National Park Service (NPS). Near the parking lot you will find posted the letters written by Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer, whose units refused to fire during the massacre. Be warned that the description of the mutilation of the bodies is painful to read and not suitable for children.
There is a 0.8-mile self-guided walking trail with a few interpretive signs. There is also a 600-mile Sand Creek Massacre Trail designated on highways between here and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
We took this photo from the overlook of the 1864 Cheyenne and Arapaho camp in November nearly 153 years after the massacre.
Yucca House National Monument was established in 1919 outside Cortez, Colorado. It is not far from Mesa Verde National Park, which has information about the National Monument at its visitor center on Highway 160. The 34-acre site protects an unexcavated pueblo abandoned around 1300, so there is very little to see above ground. The fact that there is public access at all is thanks to the ranching family that allows visitors to park in what is basically their driveway.
Unexcavated pueblo, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument visitor center
Unless you aim to visit every unit in the National Park Service (NPS) system, you are better off spending your time taking an extra tour or hike at Mesa Verde National Park. There are no facilities and there is not much to see at Yucca House, but there are many interesting Ancestral Puebloan ruins within nearby Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, which is run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They have a large visitor center in Dolores, Colorado where you can get directions to archaeological sites, such as Painted Hand Pueblo.
Sand Canyon Trail lies within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and its southern trailhead is located just off paved County Road G. The trail provides access to numerous archaeological sites; just remember to leave everything where you found it.
The most interesting unexcavated pueblo we have visited is Posi-Ouinge, which is accessible by a short trail from Ojo Caliente Hot Springs Resort in New Mexico. The ground there is littered with thousands of pot shards, many with painted designs still visible.