In Colorado’s outdoors, it’s always good to have a plan. But at Waterton Canyon, you don’t necessarily need one, and that’s what makes the recreation area so popular for Denverites and tourists alike. However short on time, one can lace up the running shoes or hop on a bike and snag satisfying exercise and scenery. Others enter the South Platte River-carved canyon with waders and fly rods. A wide, dirt road parallels the stream — a busy thoroughfare indeed, suitable for families with strollers, too.

Denver Water trucks also occasionally join the road, which spans a mostly flat 6 1/2 miles to the Strontia Springs Dam. The end sight is the cascade falling 243 feet to a hard-to-access reservoir. But even if you have to turn back before then — we did on this trip, due to weather — you’ll still be spoiled by glorious granite and refreshing stops along the river. You might even be treated, as we were, with bighorn sheep.

From the parking lot, signs ask travelers to respect the animals ahead and keep their distance. There’s also a water fill-up station you’ll want to take advantage of, especially if your distance is uncertain.

Northeast of Colorado Springs, the wild and historic canyon out of nowhere

The farther you go, the more dramatic the views: awe-inspiring outcrops and foothills seen rolling between the canyon mouth. Along the stream, cottonwood stands alternate with grasses and willows, green patches with footpaths broken by anglers bound for their favorite spots.

To be sure, adventurers come with plans to Waterton Canyon. This is Denver’s portal to the Colorado Trail, winding here 486 miles to Durango. Others backpack on the road to reach the Indian Creek trail system on U.S. Forest Service land. Others set a course for Roxborough State Park, the paradise of red rocks.

Trip log: 4 miles (out and back), 367 feet elevation gain

Difficulty: Easy

Getting there: Off Colorado 470, exit for Wadsworth Boulevard, following Colorado 121 south past Chatfield Reservoir. Turn left onto Waterton Road to the parking lot.

FYI: Hiking, biking, horseback riding. No dogs. Open half- hour before sunrise to half-hour after sunset. More information: denverwater.org/recreation/waterton-canyon-strontia-springs-resevoir

SETH BOSTER, THE GAZETTE

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