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5 hiking trails near Colorado Springs where you can escape big crowds

May 21, 2015 Updated: May 21, 2015 at 8:42 am
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photo - The first reservoir from the 6 mile Ice Cave Creek Trail is pictured on Monday, September 22, 2014. The Colorado Mountain Club has completed a new 3,000-foot trail along Ice Cave Creek. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
The first reservoir from the 6 mile Ice Cave Creek Trail is pictured on Monday, September 22, 2014. The Colorado Mountain Club has completed a new 3,000-foot trail along Ice Cave Creek. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

The Pikes Peak region is blessed with its share of singletrack chestnuts - trails that never get old, no matter how many times we tread them.

But there's no reason to get stuck in a rut.

Any day now the rain will relent. When it does, The Gazette proposes five lesser-traveled Front Range hikes to help break in your callouses for the season, and to whet your appetite until the big mountains thaw.

Here, you'll find a mix of family-friendly expeditions and a few suggested side trips that will challenge experts.

So wait for the first blush of blue skies, then set off. Just remember to pack those rain coats.

Palmer Lake Reservoirs

Difficulty: Moderate

Length: 3-4 miles

Just up the road from Colorado Springs, the town of Palmer Lake has transformed its municipal reservoirs into a scenic refuge for anglers, hikers and cyclists.

The upper reservoir, with its dramatic rock wall, is about 1.5 miles up a steep dirt road. It's an excellent destination for a picnic or a family outing.

Visitors equipped with Pocket Pals Rampart Range Wildlands Trail Map Nos. 13 and 14 - together with a compass - are free to hike trails to the north of the reservoir and explore to their heart's content. Ice Cave Creek Trail, for example, leads to a network of social trails that cross creeks and wind through mossy canyons into stands of aspen. For a monster day - upward of 16 miles on steep, uneven terrain - consider following the maps to reach the site of the Sidney Harrison Memorial, commemorating a 1952 plane crash that killed pilot and sole occupant Harrison, a veteran of World War II and the war in Korea. The wreckage remains exposed to the elements, giving this daylong journey a somber feel. Bicycles are permitted - cyclists call this one Airplane Loop - but be prepared to log taxing climbs. Please note the Pikes Peak Atlas does not include trails north of the reservoirs.

To get there: Take exit 161 off Interstate 25 and drive west on Colorado 105 to reach Palmer Lake. For the most direct route to the trailhead, turn left on Glenway Street and head straight until reaching the end of the road. The trailhead is marked clearly.

Lovell Gulch Trail

Difficulty: Moderate

Length: 5 miles

Instead of another trip to Rampart Reservoir, consider this shorter alternative, which is no less beloved by locals.

After starting out on the edge of a residential neighborhood on the northern edge of Woodland Park, the trail crosses a stream and winds through dark forests and sunny meadows.

The first mile is nearly level. After the stream crossing, head left at the fork and begin climbing on a 3.75-mile loop that returns to the same junction. At the top of the ridge, you'll find yourself just below Rampart Range Road.

Lovell Gulch is frequented by hikers, cyclists and equestrians, so be ready for company and remember trail etiquette: If you're hiking or biking, yield to horses.

To get there: Take U.S. 24 west to Woodland Park; turn right on Baldwin Street before the McDonald's. Go about 2.2 miles - Baldwin eventually turns into Rampart Range Road - and look for a sign marking the trailhead near the city maintenance facility on the left side of the road. Parking is available, but the lot occasionally gets crowded.

Blackmer Loop

Difficulty: Moderate

Length: About 4.5 miles

Maybe it's the $7 day use fee, but Cheyenne Mountain State Park is surprisingly free of crowds on weekends. Those who don't visit are missing out.

For cyclists and hikers, this mountainside trail offers an excellent introduction to Cheyenne Mountain's dense forests and shaded groves, where turkeys, birds and deer rustle in the scrub oak.

Park in the day use area and pick up the trailhead to the west, near a covered pavilion containing a trail map. Climb Coyote Run to the north and veer south at the first intersection, continuing downhill on Coyote Run. Descend to Zook Loop and stay right, to the west, to begin a counterclockwise climb up Blackmer.

Blackmer is an intermediate route for cyclists, so be ready for a couple of sudden drops and some hard-to-negotiate rock gardens, including the tricky section that begins the loop.

For additional challenge, test your bike handling on Cougar's Shadow, an optional detour at the top of the loop. Hikers will enjoy the shade Blackmer provides when the sun's beating down.

To up the challenge considerably, take Medicine Wheel trail on the way back to Coyote Run. Cyclists will also want to explore the Talon loop on the south side of the network, but be ready for a climb. Within the next few years, this part of the park will reach clear to the summit of Cheyenne Mountain.

To get there: Drive south on Colorado 115. Turn right (west) across from the main entrance to Fort Carson (there's a stoplight). Follow signs to the state park's day-use trailhead parking area. A $7 day pass is required (valid till noon the next day).

Gray Back Peak

Difficulty: Strenuous

Length: 3.5 miles

Crowded out of the Colorado Springs skyline by taller mountains, Gray Back Peak offers a sweeping perspective that belies its modest 9,348-foot elevation.

Here, you can look out onto the lush, wild Emerald Valley, and admire unfamiliar peaks: San Luis Peak, Mount Vigil and Sugarloaf Mountain, among others.

Reaching the summit involves a 3.5-mile roundtrip trek with views of Colorado Springs, the eastern plains and the canyons of Pikes Peak's interior. Visitors are encouraged to take a copy of the Pikes Peak Atlas, which can be purchased at REI and many local bookstores. The trail climbs 750 feet, a stiff effort but nonetheless mild by Pikes Peak's pitiless standards. Steep grades generally keep cyclists away, but for experts willing to dismount and push through portions of the climb, the descent should be a blast, offering bragging rights along with rutted, black diamond-level terrain.

To get there: From the intersection of Penrose Boulevard and Old Stage Road, southwest of The Broadmoor hotel, drive 6.6 miles up Old Stage Road. The washboard dirt road is rough but passable for cars. Turn left on Forest Road 371 at a sign for Emerald Valley Ranch. Drive 0.4 miles, over a small pass where the road drops into Emerald Valley, to an unmarked pull-off on the right. Park there. The trail begins just up the road and on the right, unmarked but well-worn. Take the high fork to the left. The same parking area may be used for a rewarding hike on Pipeline Trail, which follows a crumbling pipeline that once transported water from Penrose-Rosemont Reservoir to The Broadmoor.

Little Scraggy East

Difficult: Moderate

Length: 11 miles

Completed last year, this trail is the latest addition to the expansive Buffalo Creek Recreation Area an hour north of Woodland Park.

Threading terrain reminiscent of the Lost Creek Wilderness - Buffalo Creek's neighbor to the west - Little Scraggy offers boulder-studded views of landscapes still rebounding from a series of wildfires between 1996 and 2002. Lush undergrowth will be a welcome sight for those who live in the shadow of the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

The trail weaves along exposed granite outcroppings, adding technical challenge for those who come for the mountain biking. Hikers will prize the winding tour through stands of conifers with views that peak out onto dramatic peaks.

Little Scraggy was built by volunteers with Colorado Mountain Bike Association, which plans to extend the route in 2016 to encircle Little Scraggy Peak, creating a loop that will be ideal for day hikes. Until then, Little Scraggy East must be enjoyed as an out-and-back. If you're not up for an 11-mile roundtrip hike, consider looping together other trails from the same trailhead.

Mountain bikers looking for a big day will want to seek out Charlie's Cutoff and take it all the way down Sandy Wash for a thrilling descent. Just remember that will leave you poised for an unrelenting, 4.4-mile climb up the deceptively named Nice Kitty. Find a detailed map at frmbp.org/maps.html.

To get there: The Buffalo Creek Recreation Area is roughly an hour north of Woodland Park. Go west on U.S. 24 to Woodland Park, then head north on Colorado 67 and west on Colorado 126. Watch for a sign to the trailhead and parking area on your left. This area has a $6 day use fee.

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