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What To Do in National Forests Near Denver

Dec 13th, 2023

Denver is truly an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. The city is close to national parks, national forests, ski resorts, grasslands, wildernesses and so much more, and there really is something for everyone.

Here are the three closest national forests near Denver and, of course, what they offer to visitors!

3 Famous national forests in Colorado 

Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest

Nestled in the heart of north-central Colorado, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest encompasses a staggering 1.5 million acres across five diverse districts with a huge variety of activities to satisfy even the most hardcore adventurer.

Thanks to the forest’s varied elevation, visitors can experience a wide range of climates and environments within the land’s borders. Most of the forest is covered with coniferous forests between 8,000 and 11,000 feet in elevation, topped with subalpine peaks and alpine tundra. Wetlands and grasslands are more abundant in certain lower, flatter elevations, though the deciduous forests and stunning meadows of the foothills make up the majority of mid-elevation land. 

Through all the biomes available to explore, the forest's crown jewel is certainly its extensive network of hiking trails catering to all levels of experience, from well-traveled mountaineers to casual day-trippers. 

For a leisurely stroll through wildflower-blanketed meadows, the Alpine Gardens Loop offers a gentle-yet-breathtaking peek into the area's astounding natural beauty. For those seeking a more exhilarating challenge, the climb to the summit of Mount Blue Sky (the highest point in the forest) rewards them with some unmatched panoramic views of the Rockies. And for those who seek a true wilderness experience, venturing into one of the forest's 10 designated wilderness areas, such as the Indian Peaks Wilderness, allows for unparalleled solitude and connection with nature. It really is a “choose your own adventure” kind of place!

There’s also plenty of water-y activities to do in the forest, thanks to the many rivers, streams, lakes and waterways trickling through the valleys. 

The Cache la Poudre River, Colorado's only Wild and Scenic River, offers whitewater enthusiasts a chance to test their skills on some truly thrilling rapids. For a more serene experience, kayakers and canoeists can navigate the tranquil waters of Grand Lake, the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado. Anglers, too, will find themselves in paradise, casting their lines for a variety of fish species in the pristine lakes and streams. There are plenty of high alpine lakes that are regularly stocked with fish by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency, so make sure to pick a recently-filled one!

Overall, you can’t go wrong here at the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest. The great fishing, hiking, backpacking, rafting, camping and all the other fun activities are well worth the trip up to this sprawling forest!

Pawnee National Grassland

Though very different in, well, every way to its towering Arapaho and Roosevelt neighbor, the Pawnee national Grassland is an absolutely stunning piece of Colorado's landscape.

Don’t let the flat elevation fool you — the grasslands are bursting with life and have one of the best birdwatching locales in the world! You want blankets of bright wildflowers? You got it. Scenic and quiet drives through oceans of grass? One-hundred percent. Towering buttes from ancient landscapes? Uh, yes please. 

You’ll also get a chance to check out some of Colorado’s wildlife that aren’t too easy to spot in the mountains. Coyotes, hawks and prairie dogs make regular appearances, and the recently-reintroduced bison are well worth the trip to see in their natural habitat. 

Check out our full list of things to do at the Pawnee National Grassland and see it for yourself!

Pike and San Isabel National Forest

Spread over a whopping 2.5 million acres south of Denver, the Pike and San Isabel National Forest is bursting with stunning views, gorgeous scenery and unique geological features that make for equally memorable visits. 

Like anywhere in the Rockies, the hiking game here is superb and you just can’t go wrong. Hit the dirt along the Rainbow Falls Trail for a sweet stroll to a waterfall, or conquer the challenging Barr Trail and ascend to the summit of Pikes Peak, Colorado's highest peak outside the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Backpacking enthusiasts can also embark on multi-day adventures, traversing the Continental Divide Trail and immersing themselves in the heart of the true wilderness. 

Want water? Sure thing. Kayak or paddleboard across the pristine waters of Turquoise Lake, a mesmerizing turquoise jewel nestled amidst towering peaks — then, for the adrenaline junkies, the Arkansas River provides world-renowned whitewater rafting where rapids like "The Numbers" and "Bighorn Sheep Canyon" test even the most seasoned paddlers.

Beyond its outdoor recreation activities, the Pike and San Isabel National Forest holds a treasure trove of unique geological and historical features. Check out the captivating formations of the Garden of the Gods, where the towering red rock formations give glimpses into an ancient mountain range that once stood right where the Rockies are today! You can also delve into the rich history of the Cripple Creek Gold Mining District, where remnants of the gold rush era are all that’s left of that shimmering piece of Colorado’s history. Or, marvel at the stunning geological formations of the Florissant Fossil Beds, where petrified trees and prehistoric creatures offer a glimpse into the land’s distant past. 

Another great activity to do here in the Pike and San Isabel National Forest is stargazing. Though not too far from Denver’s sprawling metropolis, the high peaks and towering mountains block out any light pollution and offer an unparalleled view of the starry night sky. Bring a telescope or a set of binoculars, grab a cozy picnic blanket and spend an evening watching the universe pass above the Rockies. 

Pretty neat, if you ask us. 

What do all these forests have in common? Aside from being gorgeous and stunning and beautiful in every way, they’re also free to visit and a perfect way to experience the beauty of Colorado in whatever way you like best! Whether you’re going on a hike, a summit climb, a road trip or a paddle on an alpine lake, you’re sure to find something you like to do in these national forests near our luxury Denver apartments. 


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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/StockSnap

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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