NOTE: This article appeared in the April 27 edition of the Arizona Daily Sun. I haven’t had a chance to write for a while, and since this was jammed into a busy week, it’s going to double as my Monday post! Yay, repurposing!
As soon as the road heading into Eldorado Canyon turns from concrete to dirt, you know you’re in for a treat.
A two-lane highway becomes a homely dirt road at the entrance to the small town of Eldorado Springs, where speed limit signs implore drivers to slow down. Small houses dot both sides of the narrow road and the nearby creek can be heard in the background.
Up ahead is a view of what’s to come — the canyon walls take up an increasing amount of the horizon as you head toward the park’s front gate.
Once inside, you have two options: park by the ranger station, where two beginner-friendly trails branch out, or drive another mile down the dirt road to the visitor’s center. Our group spent the better part of five hours exploring the first half of the park until a storm rolled through the area, cutting our day short before we had the chance to venture farther up the road.
Eldorado Canyon offers trails for hikers of all skill levels. Near the ranger station, the Streamside Trail is a graded, half-mile trip parallel to the water — and as an added bonus, it’s wheelchair-accessible. On the opposite side is the Fowler Trail, a 0.7-mile that’s perfect for nature lovers.
Streamside features plenty of photo opportunities of the flowing water, but there are other attractions as well. The path begins on a rustic bridge directly over the stream, then runs by a cavernous rock opening that is popular with climbers and kids alike. From there, the trail heads alongside the cliff face, but the more adventurous members of your group can climb the rocky, 45-degree hill for a great view of the canyon opening.
Fowler travels along the other side of the canyon wall, where you’ll have a chance to observe the rock climbers (there were at least a dozen scattered around the park when we were there). The trail also hosts a series of signs with information on local wildlife, and there are supplemental brochures available if you want even more info.
There are two other main trails at Eldorado Canyon that we didn’t get a chance to experience, and both start closer to the visitor’s center. Rattlesnake Gulch is a 3.6-mile path that increases in elevation by 1,200 feet as it climbs up a series of switchbacks and then wraps around the historic Crags Hotel, which was built in 1908 but burned down less than a decade later. The aptly-named Eldorado Canyon Trail is 3.5 miles one-way and connects to the Walker Ranch Loop and open space area — the combination of both results in a 14-mile monstrosity that may be suitable for the go-getters in your group.
After enjoying the many scenic stops of the Streamside Trail, we headed a little farther up the dirt road toward a group of picnic tables just a few feet from the banks of the water. The tables are available on a first-come, first-served basis and offer a great place to eat lunch while listening to the river’s unwavering flow.
The real highlight of the area, however, is the small path that leads down toward the water. From there, you can get up close and personal with the stream, lying on boulders to work on your tan or skipping across them to reach the other side. Our group spent at least an hour just enjoying the tranquility, and marveled at how much water was flowing through the canyon compared to other Colorado — and Flagstaff — locations.
There are plenty of other options around Eldorado Canyon, including horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing and a bevy of rock climbing spots. One caveat: The park fills up quickly on summer weekends, and once the parking lot reaches capacity, newcomers are only admitted once another vehicle leaves. I’d recommend getting there earlier in the day — or, if you can swing it, stop by on a weekday and enjoy missing the crowds entirely.
Eldorado Canyon features a sampling of everything Colorado has to offer. If you manage the long trip from Flagstaff for a weekend in the Denver area, it’s definitely worth the 45-minute trek to stop by.
IF YOU GO …
Eldorado Canyon State Park
From Denver, take Highway 93 north to Highway 170, then head west for about three miles. The highway eventually changes from two paved lanes to one narrow dirt road as you enter the town of Eldorado Springs. The entrance to the park is another half-mile ahead, with the visitor’s center just a little farther up the road.
A one-day vehicle pass costs $8, or individuals can walk in for $3.