What Makes A Great Hiking Trail

Most hikers are out there seeking that next high. We are after the zen that is that perfect un-discovered trail.  We know a good trail when we have hiked it, yet we often don’t stop to think what makes a trail great.  This post offers my opinion on what makes a hiking trail stand out.  

This is perhaps the most important factor in a really enjoyable hike.  It is tough to dislike any hike that shows off natures beauty in a unique and interesting way.  Some areas of Colorado (like the San Juans) offer breath taking scenery on almost every hike.  In many other areas, you have to look a little closer.  I have found that I enjoy some of the front range hikes more on my second or third visit.  Perhaps a different season has increased the beauty of the area. 

I try to subscribe to the philosophy that it is all about the journey, not the destination.  However, it is just more satisfying when the best scenery is at the apex of your hike.  It makes it seem like it was worth putting in the effort, and sticking with it to the finish.   Some of my favorite payoffs are: a stunning summit view, a thundering waterfall, a tranquil alpine lake, or a flower filled meadow.  

Nothing makes the miles tick by like a new discovery around every corner.  This is why I love hikes with lots of variety. Some examples of changes that keep a hike interesting:

  • Breaking out of timberline to alpine tundra
  • Good lookout spots with views as you climb the side of a mountain  
  • Changes in forest types from pine to aspen …
  • Crossing through a nice meadow 
  • A trail that occasionally flirts with a stream or river
  • Wildflowers along the trail,
  • Coming across a mountain goat, marmot, or moose
  • Climbing out of a canyon onto a ridge-line   

For some reason nature’s beauty is more enjoyable if you had to work hard to see it.  As strange as it may seem to the non hiker, the aching feet and sore butt are a sure sign of a great hike. This is always a moving target, as you get in better shape you will constantly seek harder hikes.  

An exciting creek crossing, or a hands on scramble are also add a fun challenge to any hike.  If it is a little bit scary, and a lot hard, you will probably be glad you did it when it is over.  “The Challenge” is why climbing Colorado’s 14ers is so popular. 

Solitude is abundant in the wilderness, it is the reason why many of us are drawn to the wild.  However, when it comes to great hikes solitude can be hard to find.  When we find a really great hike, we want to tell the world about our discovery.  Some of us blog about it, some tell their friends, and others write guide books.  In any case, the word gets out about the really good trails.  Thankfully this does not mean that your desire for solitude is for not.  You can still find great trails that also offer solitude. You are just going to have to work a little harder, and do it differently than everybody else.  Here are my tips for reducing your company while hiking outstanding trails.  

  • Not all great trails are popular.  If it is in every guide book, and listed on tripadvisor it may be a great trail, but everyone else will be out hiking on it.   There are many really good trails that few people know about.  The internet, and local sports shops are great resources to find these hidden gems.  
  • Try a different season.  Many people have not yet discovered how great it is to hike in the other three seasons. This is especially true for lower altitude trails. You will avoid the 90 degree heat, and see much fewer people if you go in the off season.  Plus you get a different perspective.  The same hike is often completely different in each season.  
  • Get up early on a weekday.  Weekend warriors clog the trails on Saturday and Sunday.  If you want to be alone get up really early on a Wednesday and do the hike.  I often hike before work in the popular Roxburough state park in Denver.  I may run into one other person on the whole hike.  On a Saturday afternoon you can’t even find a parking place.  Early morning is also the best time to see wildlife, and offers some the best light for taking photographs.  
  • Another great way to get solitude is to go farther. This means driving far away from big cities, and popular tourist destinations. Once at the trail head hiking more miles than the average person.  This extra work will payoff with the peace and quiet you desire.  

A Few Examples of a Great Hike
Coming up with a great example is tough. There are so many outstanding hikes in Colorado.  This hike to Ice Lake Basin in the San Juans is a good example of a great hike.

The Colorado Trail has it all, and is unarguably a GREAT trail.  However, at 500 miles long the great is mixed with the mediocre. 

This relatively unknown hike to Browns Creek Waterfall in Salida is another good example  

If you have a better example please share it in the comments.  I would love to go hike it and judge for myself. 


FIbark Festival and Browns Creek Hike (Salida, CO)

June 2011 We went to Salida Colorado for a whitewater festival called FIBARK  (First in Boating the Arkansas).   I found this festival when looking for 5Ks to run in this summer.  

I wanted a good night sleep before the race, so we decided to stay at a B&B instead of camping.  We selected the Mountain Goat Lodge  just north of Salida.  It was a really nice Bed and Breakfast.  The owner Gina keeps a bunch of goats and chickens on the property, which provides some entertainment.  She also allows dogs, which is what really sold us on the place.  The property itself is not all that pretty, but it has some really nice views of the surrounding mountains.


Saturday morning was an early one.  We left the blinds and windows open to get some fresh air, so we awoke with the sun.   We got ready and headed to town for the 7:30 AM race registration.   Overall the race went well. My goal was to break 30 minutes which meant I had to push myself really hard.  I was running an app on my iphone that allowed me to monitor my pace, so I knew I was running fast enough I should be able to break 30 minutes.  As the finish line came into sight I spotted Angela.   She was yelling and motioning for me to hurry up.  I was exhausted and already running as fast as I could, but I tried to push it just a little bit harder.  I crossed the finish line in 29:56 just barely meeting my goal.  I sat down in the grass and rested as other contestants came in.   The 10K winner crossed the finish line just 4 minutes after me! I can’t imagine running twice as fast as I just did.


After some relaxation and a shower back at the B&B, we headed for FIBARK down at the riverfront.  The festival was in full swing. There was music, food, beer, and lots of fun to be had.  We found a clear spot on the Arkansas River and watched the free style kayak, and stand up paddling competitions.   We met up with our friends Jon and Kassy around 3, and did some window-shopping in downtown Salida. 

The highlight of the festival is the Hooligan Race.  In this event contestants dress up in costumes, and ride their crazy homemade contraptions through the rapids.  Much to the delight of the crowd, many of the boats end up coming apart in the rapids.   In between waves of hooligans we had a great time people watching.   Overall this was a really fun event!!



Sunday morning we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the B&B. Since Gina has goats, she offers some goat related breakfast items.  I enjoyed a goat’s milk latte, and some goat yogurt with strawberries.  

After breakfast we packed up the car, and headed up 285 to do some hiking.  Our goal for the morning was to hike up to a waterfall off browns creek.   This turned out to be a really outstanding hike.  There was good scenery the whole way up, and the falls were spectacular.  I would highly recommend the hike.  I put together a guide over at everytrail.com


Browns Creek Waterfall at EveryTrail | Download Guide to your iPhone or Android

EveryTrail – Find the best Hiking in Colorado


Getting Started Backpacking (Basic Gear) Part 1

So you have decided you want to try an overnight trip in the outdoors.  What kind of gear are you going to need, and how much will it set you back?  This article should help get you set up with the basic gear.  First of all I would start with reading this REI article on backpacking for beginners.  

You will want to start with the 10 Essentials (which you should already be carrying on every hike).  on top of that you will will want to add the following. 

Nothing beats sleeping under the stars, however, you don’t want to be caught out in a downpour with no shelter.  So you will need to bring some kind of shelter.  Your dads old canvas tent may keep you warm when you are car camping, but it is much to heavy to cary on your back.  You should look for a tent that weighs no more than 5lbs packed.  Many people choose to bring an ultralight tarp weighing only a few ounces and use their hiking poles, and rope to support it.  There are many good used tents available, craigs list, ebay, and rei garage sales are all good places to start looking. 


  • If you are buying used make sure and inspect the tent carefully for holes.  You can repair small holes later.  Also make sure the tent has stakes, poles, rainfly, and guy wires included. Inspect all of these to make sure they are in good condition.  
  • If you are going solo and want to be ultralight there are hammock / shelter combinations that are cost effective and a very light way to travel.  However they do require trees which may not be available everywhere you want to camp. 
  • You may want to consider buying one size up on your tent.  For example if you are buying a tent for two people consider getting a 3 person tent.  This will give you a place to store your gear, or room for your dog.  Most good tents do have vestibules that will allow you to store some gear.  
  • If you will be camping at altitude or in the spring / fall make sure you get a 3 season tent.
  • Don’t buy a really cheep tent new.  It may seem ok at fist but it will likely not last very long. Worst of all it may come apart in a storm.  One of the best ways to determine the quality of a tent is to check out reviews online. Make sure the review is of the exact brand / model you are considering.  Here are some points you should look for regarding quality. 
    • Aluminum poles are stronger and last longer than fiberglass
    • Ensure the rainfly covers all the way to the ground and has guy wires to tie your tent down in high wind 
    • Ensure the zippers operate easily and seem well constructed this is often one of the first areas to break on a cheap tent 
    • Ensure the floor is made of a high denier fabric and has taped seams to prevent leaking. 

Cost: You should expect to pay at least $80 for a good used tent.  If you are buying a new high end tent you should expect to spend $300.  


Sleeping Gear
Now that you are protected from the wind and rain you need to get something to keep you warm and comfy at night.   If you are planning at high altitude it can get quite cold when the sun goes down. At 10,000 temperatures below freezing are common even in the summertime.  With the proper gear you will sleep like a baby in this crisp air.  

Sleeping Bag
The first sleeping item to consider is a sleeping bag. You may already own, or be tempted to purchase, a square car camping bag.  Technically you can bring this bag backpacking, however, this style of bag is usually quite bulky / heavy. Backpacking bags are typically a mummy style bag which provides the best insulation to weight ratio.  You should look for a bag that weighs between 2-3lbs. Make sure you get one that is rated for the coldest temperature you expect to camp in.  I think it is easier to open and vent a bag to make it cooler so I tend to be conservative and buy a bag that is rated to 15-20 degrees celsius. Obviously if you are camping only in low altitudes in the summer you don’t want to waste money or weight on a bag rated this cold. 


  • Go for a mummy style bag even if it seems constricting at first. 
  • Get in the bag in the store and make sure it fits you well.  
  • I would not purchase a two person bag as my only sleeping bag. This basically limits you from ever going without your parter.  
  • Down provides better insulation to weight ratio, and compresses better than synthetic material.  The downside is that it does not insulate when it is wet, and it  

Sleeping Pad 

 Optional Items 

Backpacking the Pecos Wilderness (La Vega)

This Memorial Day weekend we met our friends Erik and Steph to do some backpacking in New Mexico’s Pecos wilderness area.  Erik discovered the area after moving to New Mexico a few years ago, and was excited to show us some of the alpine beauty this state had to offer.  We were originally planning to overnight at a high alpine lake (Lake Katherine), however, we decided it was just to early in the season to camp this high. So we instead targeted La Vega Meadow with a day hike to summit Santa Fe Baldy.  We decided to spend the night in Santa Fe Friday night so we could get an early start Saturday morning.

If you don’t want to read all the details of the trip I would suggest you start with the Video

You can view an interactive map of the trip at Every Trail.  
Or download the GPX file(with routes and lots of useful waypoints)

Lets start off with a quick map of the trip.


Day 1– Ski Santa Fe -> La Vega Meadow.  

We got up early, grabbed breakfast and started the 45-minute drive up Hyde Park Road.   The trail head for Winsor Trail (#254) is at the upper parking lot of Ski Santa Fe (google map).   We took advantage of the last toilet we would see for a few days, and then shouldered our heavy packs.   The trail doesn’t waste anytime; it is steep right off the trailhead.  You climb 600 feet in the first .5 miles of the trail.  You will give most of this back over the next couple of miles.  At around ½ mile in you hit the boundary of the Pecos Wilderness.  We stopped here to sign in.  After entering the wilderness you drop downhill to the Rio Nambe.  I hate loosing elevation close to a trailhead because you know you will have to climb back out when you are tired.  2.4 miles after leaving the trailhead you will hit the intersection with trail Upper Nambe Trail (#101).  This trail serves as a shortcut, and is the most direct route to La Vega.  The trail gently looses elevation and eventually meets up with the Rio Nambe.   You cross the Rio Nambe via a log bridge. This spring had unusually low runoff.  I would bet this crossing could be problematic this time of year.  At around 3 miles we hit the Rio Nambe Trail #160.  (This trail also intersects Winsor trail).  Not to long after joining 160 you will come to a little hill and a clearing in the trees.  As the trail breaks through the trees you are treated to a beautiful view of La Vega Meadow.   

La Vega  (“The Meadow”) is a beautiful high alpine meadow.  It is said to be one of the nicest meadows in the Sangre De Cristos.  Unfortunately we were to early for the wildflower show that paints the meadow from mid June – mid August.  Judging by the amount of aspen around the meadow, fall must be something to see in the area as well.  Providing a nice backdrop to the meadow is tomorrow’s target,  Santa Fe Baldy with its mustache of spruce trees stretching across its bare face.   

La Vega provides at least 5 good camp sites that are spread out enough to provide solitude.  We were there on a busy weekend and only saw three parties come through the meadow.   We selected a site at the very end of the meadow.  The site was well protected from the high winds forecasted for the weekend.   We wasted no time in getting our heavy packs off and setting up our campsite.   After a couple of hours of chores we sat down for a cold lunch.    We spend the remainder of the day exploring the meadow and relaxing around camp. 

We enjoyed conversation and marshmallows around the campfire as we admired the stars in the clear sky.   We headed for bed around 10:30PM.  It was remarkably warm (low 50s) when we went to bed.  The wind kept gusting into camp, which made it hard to sleep.  It would start low in the valley with a sound like an approaching jet.  As it hit the camp the trees would sway and bang against each other, and the rain-fly would make a racket.  So much for restful sleep before our climb.  



Day 2– La Vega Meadow -> Santa Fe Baldy

Due to our poor nights sleep we didn’t get up until after 7AM.  Again it was remarkably warm for this time of year.  I had to take off my fleece shortly after getting up as I was already hot.  We enjoyed breakfast and coffee before getting our gear together for the hike.  After reviewing the map we set off down trail 160 towards Santa Fe Baldy

Santa Fe Baldy is a major peak in the Sangre De Cristo range.  At 12,632 ft there are no higher points south to the New Mexico border, and the peak stands as the highest in the Santa Fe area.  Our plan was to take the Rio Nambe Trail to Windsor and then up to the Skyline trail.  This would make for a round trip of around 8 miles and 2500ft elevation gain.  If it weren’t a holiday weekend we would have moved camp to Puerto Nambe.

Less than a mile into the hike we lost the trail at a river crossing.  We both have Garmens and the map showed a second trail to our north.  We decided to take this route (which doesn’t exist).   So we spent the next 45 minutes bushwhacking our way towards Puerto Nambe.   Finally we broke out into another beautiful meadow called “Puerto Nambe”.  This area is a great choice for camping or taking a lunch break.  At the meadow, Winsor trail hits Skyline #251 which is the route to the top of Baldy.  After leaving the meadow the trail gains 750 ft over 1.3 miles towards a ridge.  You will need to time your hike so that you are back off this ridge before afternoon thunderstorms hit.  So this is a good time to stop, enjoy the view, and evaluate the weather.  In our case we couldn’t even talk in the winds that were howling across this ridge.  It was about 11AM and the winds were forecast to really pick up after noon.  We took shelter behind a tree and talked it over before deciding to continue up the trail.  So we made left turn off the trail (look for the cairn) and simply followed the ridgeline for 1mile 1000ft elevation towards the summit of Santa Fe Baldy.   After ½ mile the winds continued to pick up, and we could see a lot of ice / snow on the trail at the summit.  We decided the smart thing was to turn around 200 vertical feet short of the summit and return to camp.    

We made a hasty retreat down the ridge and back to the protection of the trees below timberline.  We made a quick stop on the ridge to spread some of my brother-in law’s ashes (this was the 4th anniversary of his death).  Soon we were back at Puerto Nambe where we located some shade, and sat down for lunch.  After four hours of hiking it felt great to sit down for a while.  

After lunch we finished hiking back to camp (This time we used a trail).  We arrived back in camp around 3PM, and immediately headed for the stream to soak our tired feet.  We spent the remainder of the day lounging around.    We fired up the stoves and cooked up dinner around 7.  We noticed the wind had changed directions, and it now had a cold bite to it.   We started the campfire before dusk, and headed to bed a little before 10PM.   Our hike and a little calmer winds made for a good nights sleep. 


Day 3– La Vega Meadow -> Ski Santa Fe

The next morning we got up, had breakfast and packed up camp.  We lifted our loads onto our back, and began trudging back down the trail towards Ski Santa Fe.  The hike out was pretty consistent up hill with a few steep places.   We made good time and hit the wilderness boundary in about an hour.   We saw 7-10 parties headed up 254 as we were leaving.  This was by far the most people we saw all weekend.   As we descended the last ½ mile to the parking lot, Steph tripped and scraped up her leg.  Just goes to show how easy it is to get injured when you’re tired and in a hurry on your way home.

We headed toward Santa Fe for some New Mexican lunch and a Margarita before heading for home. 

We noticed a nice looking spa http://www.tenthousandwaves.com/ where you could stop for a soak after your long hike.  We were anxious to get home so we skipped this treat, though I did get an earfull from my wife about not going. 


Here is a video report of the trip.