Topher Downham has some particular rules for hiking trails. He likes the feel of fine gravel and he prefers that the grade doesn’t get steeper than 8.3 percent. Most importantly, he avoids trails that tilt.
“When you get too much cross-slope, your wheelchair wants to go down and off a cliff, which isn’t good,” explained Downham, the outreach coordinator for the city of Boulder’s open space mountain parks program.
These details are an important part of his job: Working from a cramped booth at Chautauqua State Park, Downham helps people of varying physical ability find the perfect trail.
This guide will be worth reading no matter how mobile you might be. We’ve culled suggestions from local adaptive athletes that include some fantastic hikes and advice that will help you get outside with your friends and family. These suggestions should be helpful for people using walkers, people with young children, people using wheelchairs and more.
Of course, “accessible” isn’t a universal definition, as abilities differ. It may be best to call ahead and ask for more specifics about each trail.
30 minutes from Denver: The South Boulder Creek Trail runs through the rolling open space southeast of the city. Daily parking is $5.
“It’s really cool, because there’s quite a few trees,” Downham said. That’s important for people who can’t tolerate excessive heat. “It’s right next to a stream, so you have that water trickling by, and in the distance you can see the Flatirons and the Front Range,” he added.
Several miles of multi-use trail is accessible from the Cherryvale trailhead at 66 South Cherryvale Road.
45 minutes from Denver: The Wonderland Lake trail runs 1.5 miles around a lake in North Boulder that largely consists of crusher fine material.
“It’s on the very edge of the city. You kind of hike up into the foothills a little bit and then go around Wonderland Lake itself,” said David Klingensmith, a 32-year-old who hikes with a manual wheelchair and treasures good views.
45 minutes from Denver: Eldorado Canyon features two impressive, accessible trails. Downham is partial to the Fowler Trail that totals 0.9 miles each way, mostly over service roads, winding along the canyon contours. Be aware that there is a section of rocky single track after about 1.3 miles, per ProTrails.
“The Fowler Trail’s really amazing because you actually hike — you’re up above on a cliff,” Downham said.
“You can see the other cliff wall and a lot of raptors. It’s a five-foot-wide trail that has about a 5 percent slope going up, and not much of a cross-slope. A real firm trail, real easy to do. It’s beautiful.”
Downham also recommends the Streamside trail that totals 0.5 miles in each direction. The Eldorado parking lot fills on most weekends and holidays from May through September. Daily admission is $8.
The Ute Trail runs for about 1.1 miles roundtrip near the summit of Flagstaff Mountain southwest of Boulder. It’s described as single-track and it has “more of a mountain feel to it,” as it winds through ponderosa pines, but it’s not particularly steep, Downham said.
“It’s pretty much amazing — a great place to get away,” he said.
Closer to Denver:
20 minutes from Denver: Bear Creek Lake Park sits on the southwest end of Lakewood. The trails to Bear Creek Reservoir are fairly accessible, Downham said, and the lake itself offers plenty of on-the-water recreation options. Vehicle entrance fees are $10 in general and $5 for older people and people with disabilities.
30 minutes from Denver: Barr Lake State Park near Brighton features a nine-mile perimeter around the lake. It’s not officially compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but its combination of hard-pack and fine gravel “shouldn’t pose a problem,” except with snow and mud, according to Accessible Nature. The park also includes more than a mile of boardwalk and an accessible wildlife observation blind.
25 minutes from Denver: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal’s Lake Mary loop runs about 0.6 miles on boardwalks. “It’s pretty flat, but it’s got a nice little spot away from the urban development in the area,” Klingensmith said. The trailhead is near the Egli Heritage Garden off Wildlife Drive.
45 minutes from Denver: Castlewood Canyon State Park is on the far southeastern edge of the metro, near Castle Rock. Its Canyon View Nature Trail is ADA accessible and paved for its full 1.2 miles, running from one parking lot to another. The trail is accessible from the east parking lot, just off CO -83.
40 minutes from Denver: Chatfield State Park on the southwestern edge of the metro includes close to 12 miles of paved, ADA compliant trails.
In the mountains:
One hour from Denver: Staunton State Park, southwest of Conifer on U.S. 285, has a very rare mobility option: People with disabilities can borrow an “action track chair,” basically a wheelchair with tank treads that can do some serious climbing.
“The chair allows access to gorgeous park features, including high grassy meadows, a wide variety of fauna, geological and water features and spectacular views of Pikes Peak, Lions Head and Mount Rosalie.,” according to the state website.
1.5 hours from Denver: Wilderness on Wheels near Kenosha Pass is well-loved and widely known. Its main feature is a boardwalk that winds up for a mile, passing through woods and wetland tundra at 9,000 feet above sea level.
Accessible camping sites, huts and cabins also are available. Tent sites and huts are free, while the cabins start at $55 a night. Wilderness on Wheels is about an hour and 40 minutes from Denver on U.S. 285.
“It’s really pretty on top,” Downham said. “There are a lot of stops and pretty places you can pull out.” WoW opens on Memorial Day each year and closes in October. Klingensmith cautions that the boardwalk is an accessible but difficult climb due to how much it climbs.
In Rocky Mountain National Park, the Sprague Lake trail runs a half-mile along the edge of the lake, with great views of the Continental Divide and an accessible backcountry camping site.
“You can hike up there with your gear and set up camp,” Downham said.
Lily Lake also offers an accessible, flat trail around a lovely lake. “It has some very good views of Estes Cone and the Longs’ Peak area,” Klingensmith said. “The immediate area around the lake is pretty open, but it’s surrounded by forests and mountainside all around.” The Lily Lake trailhead is just off CO-7 en route to Estes Park.
How to find more trails:
A little bit of Google-fu will go a long way in finding accessible trails.
First, try looking for “accessible trails” pages on individual agencies’ sites. For example, Downham has put together a fantastic guide to accessible trails in Boulder.
Rocky Mountain National Park lists five accessible trails. There’s also The Disabled Traveler’s Companion site for the park.
One suggestion: Since abilities and trail conditions vary widely, it may be a good idea to check multiple sources.
“I’ve had several occasions where people say or claim that an area’s accessible, but when I get there it’s kind of questionable,” Klingensmith cautioned.
If you want to add a comment and a photo of your favorite accessible trail, just email me.