Buena Vista is located 2.5 hours outside of Denver near the Collegiate Peaks. It is a mecca for the outdoors and popular among hikers trying to bag 14ers. While Colorado’s famous 14ers are magnificent, there are plenty of wonderful trails in the area for those who want an easier feat.
Below are a few hikes near Buena Vista with lovely scenery. All directions to these hikes may be found on AllTrails.
Narrow Gauge Trail 1432 (Easy – 4.5 miles)
The Narrow Gauge Trail 1432 was a such pleasant surprise. Having hiked the entire Colorado Trail and having visited Buena Vista a handful of times, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this historic railroad path. This part of Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad traveled high in the cliffs overlooking Chalk Creek.
The 4.5-mile roundtrip hike, only 20 minutes from Buena Vista, is located in the San Isabel National Forest. It is very easy, provides lovely views, and is a great acclimation outing for flatlanders as it only gains 442 feet.
Ptarmigan Lake Trail (Moderate – 6 Miles)
Ptarmigan Lake Trail is a very popular 6-mile, out-and-back trail located just 15 miles outside of Buena Vista. The hike begins at a small dirt parking lot with a pit toilet and climbs through an evergreen forest. The path crosses a few open boulder fields, but mostly ascends beneath the shade of the trees until it reaches a few ponds tucked within the willows.
At this point, the trail splits in several directions as hikers and fishermen enjoy the water. The main path veers to the right and continues through the golden willows which contrast beautifully with the aqua Ptarmigan Lakes in the fall. Most people stop at the big lake or continue over the ridge for a view of the valley on the other side.
When continuing toward the valley, don’t miss the smaller, prettier lake to the left and consider climbing the faint trail up the peak on the left before crossing into the aforementioned valley. It provides views of Ptarmigan Lakes and the other ponds on the trail.
Hartenstein Lake Trail (Moderate – 5.8 Miles)
Hartenstein Lake is accessible via the Denny Creek Trail which shares the trailhead with Yale, a 14er. As a result, it is best to hike this trail on weekdays and off-season. The hike is located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, less than 20 minutes from Buena Vista.
The steep and rocky path passes through a lovely grove of aspen which change colors in mid-September, crosses some log bridges, and reaches a fantastic overlook. The overlook might have been my favorite part of the hike, as the greenish brown lake is protected by a buggy bog. While the lake may have been slightly anti-climatic, this 5.8-mile round-trip trail will get the heart rate up for a nice outdoor workout.
Lost Lake Trail (Easy – 2.6 Miles)
The Lost Lake Trail is aptly named. The unmarked trailhead is located across the highway from a two-car pullout about 18 miles outside of Buena Vista. The trail climbs 465 feet through intermittent meadows and forests. It can be very muddy which requires some detours. It stays snowy longer than the aforementioned trails, so it is better hiked later in the season. The lake is absolutely gorgeous, thus there are big rewards for the short 2.6-mile jaunt.
Bartlett Gulch Loop Trail (Moderate – 3.9 miles)
The Bartlett Gulch Loop Trail is located in Twin Lakes, approximately 25 miles from Buena Vista. Though a bit farther in distance, most of the drive is on mountain highways, so it only takes 30 minutes to reach the easily accessible trailhead.
The loop shares the South Elbert Trailhead, a 14er, thus this is another hike to take on the weekday or in the fall season. Half of the hike follows a dirt road, but on a weekday morning there is little camping traffic. The road climbs through a giant aspen grove with intermittent views of colorful mountain sides, Twin Lakes, and some beaver ponds.
The second half of the trail descend through the forest and intermittent aspen groves along the South Elbert Trail and a portion of the Colorado Trail. Toward the end, the hike leaves the shade of the tree and enters the exposed sage brush hillside. Go early and enjoy the magnificent fall colors in mid-September.
Iron Chest Mine (Hard – 5.2 Miles)
While in Buena Vista, I consistently found myself heading toward the ghost town of St. Elmo. There are many hiking trails in the area. While some allow motorcycles and side-by-sides, the traffic is minimal to non-existent on early morning weekdays after Labor Day. Of the three trails I hiked in mid-September to take in the fall colors, I only shared a road with two side-by-sides upon my return once. Getting to the these trails along a bumpy dirt road is somewhat tedious in a Sprinter (and even more so in 2WD car), but it can be done carefully.
The easiest trail to reach is Iron Chest Mine, though the 5.2 mile hike is the hardest. It climbs up an extremely rocky road. The first part of the road is more like a boulder field, but it eventually turns into a rocky road lined by intermittent evergreens, aspens, and open views. The opposing mountainside features a kaleidoscope of colors with the red, orange, yellow, and green aspen.
As the road ascends, nearby springs drain onto the path, creating a light stream. In late September, the water was easy to avoid, but know there will always be a wet section toward the top. Perhaps those springs were one reason for establishing a mine up there. I can’t imagine trouncing over all those boulders with mules and ore carts.
At any rate, the mines and tailings, mining equipment and miner cabins at the top were quite fascinating. It is easy to spend and an hour up there while having a snack and wandering around. For a longer hike, the trail may be extended.
Hancock Lakes (Moderate – 8.7 Miles)
Farther up the road to the historic ghost town of Hancock, is the trail to Hancock Lakes. The 8.7 mile roundtrip hike follows a rocky road for 1.5 miles. Anyone with a jeep could shave this part off. Then it is a short hike along a single track trail in the tundra to the lower and upper lakes. Many people stop at Hancock Lakes, but climbing up and over the pass is very rewarding.
The trail drops down into the valley with several lakes. This is a great place for a snack break. The trail may be extended through an evergreen forest to a parking lot, but in my opinion the expansive views of lakes in the high alpine valleys of tundra is the best part. Save you energy to return back over the pass, especially if walking the rocky road.
Alpine Tunnel Trail to Williams Pass (Moderate – 9.5 Miles)
The final hike I took in this area was the Alpine Tunnel Trail to Williams Pass. The Alpine Tunnel Trail follows along the old Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad. The hike features nice views of the valley dotted with fall color.
The tunnel has been demolished, thus the hike turns into a single track which climbs up and over the ridge. The descent leads to the historic Alpine Station which is in the process of being restored. The old railroad tracks and remnants of buildings is a perfect place to stop for a snack before continuing the 9.5 mile loop.
The hike descends to the old toll road over Williams Pass where hikers make a sharp left turn to climb over the pass and back to the Alpine Tunnel Trail. Much of the ascent follows a spring soaked road. Consequently, you have to rock hop a bit to keep your shoes dry. While roads are not my favorite, there are nice views despite an unfortunate amount of beetle kill, the historic site is really cool, and frankly aside from the steep single-track most of this hike is very easy, relatively speaking.
If you find yourself in Buena Vista, but hiking isn’t your thing, check out my post Things to Do in Buena Vista.