Outdoor Activities

Underrated Colorado State Parks You Need To Explore

Colorado State Parks are seeing record numbers of visitors this year because everyone wants to get outside and explore. And we are here for it. What has also come from this surge of State Park visitors is increased congestion, overcrowding, and questionable trail etiquette — especially for Colorado State Parks near Denver.

Colorado has 41 diverse State Parks which offer everything from hiking to fishing to horseback riding to spending the weekend in a yurt. We wanted to see what lesser-known Colorado State Parks had to offer so we can practice social distancing as well as discover new places. 

In this article, expect to learn what makes Eleven Mile, Lory, Mancos, Ridgway, Stagecoach, and Sylvan Lake State Parks incredible. Remember when adventuring to minimize your environmental impact.

Eleven Mile State Park

A stunning, 3,400-acre reservoir surrounded by wetlands and grasslands among rolling hills set the scene for a breathtaking view for adventure-seekers.

Why You’ll Like It

Backcountry Camping

There are 14 backcountry camping sites in a secluded, wooden peninsula for campers seeking to get away from the crowds and are willing to hike ½ miles to ¾ mile to the sites. You can view the backcountry campground map to find your spot.

Fishing

This is likely one of the only State Parks in Colorado you can go bowfishing (using specialized archery equipment to shoot fish). You can fish for brown, cutthroat, cutbow, and rainbow trout as well as northern pike. This lake is also one of the very few with Kokanee salmon, although snagging for Kokanee salmon is prohibited.

They also have fishing tournaments which you can find on the CPW Calendar and ice fishing all winter long once the ice cap forms over the lake.

Wildlife

You can find a variety of wildlife at Eleven Mile State Park. There are three rare bird species that are known to have been spotted there such as the bald eagle, American peregrine falcon, and white pelican.

You may also see mule deer, pronghorn antelope, porcupine, badger, black bear, and elk.

When To Go

While this is a year-round state park, we suggest visiting during the Fall or Winter. Eleven Mile Reservoir is known for all its fish and when the crowds hunker down at home, you can enjoy a peaceful trip on the water.

Before You Go

The Park shuts off all the water on September 30th each year which means you won’t have access to showers, flush toilets, or the laundry facilities. The Park also noted that they have dangerous levels of Toxic Algae as of 9/28/2020 and to make sure your body does not contact the water.

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, dogs are allowed but must be leashed.

Nearby Towns:

Lake George, Florissant, Hartsel

Eleven Mile Website

Lory State Park

While most recreationists will be visiting Horsetooth Reservoir, just 12 miles west of Fort Collins, you’ll find the 2,492-acre Lory State Park that expands across prairie grasslands, mountains, and woodlands.

Why You’ll Like It

Backcountry Camping

If you’re looking to stay close to town but want to get away from the crowds, you can choose from 6 backcountry campsites at Lory (that you must reserve). It’s a one-hour hike from the nearest parking lot which means you’ll have to carry everything with you to your campsite — even water since this is a primitive campground.

Biking

Lory has 21+ miles of biking trails that will suit all levels of bike riders from the beginner to the advanced. The park also offers a year-round mountain bike park with dirt jumps and a pump track.

Water Sports

Canoeists, kayakers, and rafters can enjoy their activities at Satanka Cove at Horsetooth Dam which borders Lory State Park. You can also fish as Lory provides access to Horsetooth Reservoir’s Quarry, Orchard, North and South Eltuck, Soldier and Satanka Coves for fishing. Remember that Colorado State Parks pass and Colorado State fishing license is required.

Hiking

There are roughly 26 miles of hiking trails throughout the park. The most popular (and most populated) trail is Arthur’s Rock Trail. Hikers are treated to stunning views at the top of this very short hike. Instead, try the Howard and Westridge Loop Trail. It’s a 7.6-mile, moderately trafficked trail that is just as stunning.

Horseback Riding

Lory’s 21+ miles of horseback trails range from easy valley trails to advanced trails like Howard, Mill Creek Link, and Timber.

Rock Climbing

Out of our list of lesser-known Colorado State Parks, Lory State Park is the only one of two that offer rock climbing. Arthur’s Rock is the most popular spot for climbing but you can visit Mountain Project to find all the different routes you can climb.

Wildlife

Most notably, you’ll find over 175 species of migratory and resident birds in Lory like the canyon wren, yellow-breasted chat, western tanager, and broad-tailed hummingbird. You’re also likely to see mule deer, coyote, raccoon, striped skunk, Abert’s squirrel, cottontail rabbit, porcupine, ground squirrel, and red fox. There have been some sightings of black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, elk, and white-tailed deer.

When To Go

Lory State Park offers something for everyone. It’s most popular in the spring, summer, and fall. Because visitors to Horsetooth Reservoir have to pass through Lory State Park, it makes it that much more popular during the warmer months.

If you want to avoid crowds during the summer, go during the week. If you can’t go during the week, wait until Fall or Winter to visit the park. 

Before You Go

As we mentioned earlier, backcountry camping requires a reservation now so before you pack up your car, reserve your spot.

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, but they must be leashed.

Nearby Towns

Fort Collins

Lory Website

Mancos State Park

Mancos is perfect for the year-round adventure seeker. This Colorado State Park has something for everyone throughout the year. In the spring, summer, and fall, canoeists and kayakers can enjoy Jackson Gulch Reservoir. During the winter, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and ice fishers can experience the park when it’s coated in a dusting of white and spend the night in a heated yurt. Mancus State Park is also a great camping headquarters for adventurers visiting Mesa Verde National Park, the San Juan Skyway, or Durango.

Why You’ll Like It

Hiking and Biking

While there is only a 5.5-mile system of trails waving throughout Mancos, the trail system connects with the Durango-to-Denver Colorado Trail for those who want more of an endurance adventure.

Water Sports

Jackson Gulch Reservoir, a 217-acre lake, is a great place for kayakers, canoeists, and sailboats.

Yurts

Mancos provides two yurts to visitors as an alternative to RV and tent camping. Yurts are round tents on a wooden frame with circular skylights and windows. They are available year-round and on a first-come, first-served basis for up to two nights at a time.

Camping

There are 32 campsites in Mancos State Park which all require reservations and are situated along a Ponderosa pine forest on the south side of the reservoir.

Fishing

Quality year-round fishing is available for various species of trout and yellow perch.

Snowshoeing

With year-round yurt availability and plowed campsites, visitors can snowshoe the 5.5-miles of non-motorized trails and head back to the yurt to warm up afterward.

Wildlife

During the fall, winter, and early spring, park visitors can spot mule deer, Merriams turkey, foxes, coyotes, Abert’s squirrels, and an occasional elk. During the summer, bears have also been sighted.

When To Go

While Mancos offers something year-round for any adventurer, we think visiting during the Winter will not only provide an adventure-filled weekend but a socially-distanced one at that.

Before You Go

Even though Mancos State Park’s campground and yurts are open year-round, you still need to reserve spots. 

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, but they must be leashed.

Nearby Towns

Durango, Telluride, Cortez

Mancos Website

Ridgway State Park

Known as “The Switzerland of America,” Ridgway is only 15 miles from Ouray and is surrounded by towering mountain scenery. Outdoor enthusiasts will be ecstatic to visit Ridgway State Park with its stunning views, year-round activities, and diverse wildlife.

Why You’ll Like It

Hiking and Biking

From open grasslands to juniper forests and along rivers, there are over 14 miles of marked and well-maintained trails to discover. If that’s not enough, you can meander east of highway 550 for an additional 10 miles of single-track that connects with BLM property.

Birding

There are over 140 species of migratory and resident birds at Ridgway State Park. You’ll spot waterfowl and shorebirds like Goldeneyes and Hooded Mergansers. In the winter, you’ll likely see Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls. During the summer, you’ll spot Golden Eagles and Black-chinned Hummingbirds.

Cabins and Yurts

There are three yurts that are available year-round which is a great opportunity for winter camping (plus, they offer discounts starting November 1st). Each Yurt provides heat, electricity, microwave, fridge, and sleeps up to six. You’ll find water hydrants outside along with flush and vault restrooms. Showers are only available during the summer.

Yurt 10 and 14 are handicap accessible, and both yurt 12 and 14 are pet friendly, with an additional per night fee.

Camping

Camping is available and by reservation only. Some Campgrounds will begin to close for the season on October 16th and Nov 1st. Loop A and H are open year-round.

Cross-country Skiing

When conditions allow, there are 3+ miles of packed cross-country trails in addition to the 14 miles of hiking and bike trails. Trails are not groomed during the winter though.

Geocaching

Ridgway State Park has two geocaching sites, which are logged and registered at geocaching.com.

Rock Climbing

The only other Colorado State Park in this list to offer rock climbing is Ridgway. What appears to once be a solitary remnant of a Cimarrons-type volcanic deposit, climbers can explore the west-facing Dakota formation sandstone cliff. The line hangs over the Ridgway Reservoir that provides great views of the water and the Sneffels Range.

The Mountain Project lists areas that offer good potential for highball bouldering.

Whitewater Rafting

Whitewater Rafting is available on the Uncompahgre River south of the park. While no boats are allowed, this is perfect for small rafts and kayaks.

Wildlife

In addition to 140+ species of migratory and resident birds, visitors can spot chipmunk, mink, marmot, rabbit, skunk, elk, bobcat, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, black bear, and moose.

When To Go

You can visit year-round but expect more people during the summer and especially on the weekends or during holidays.

Before You Go

Some visitors have mentioned the proximity of Loop C to Highway 550 which was really noisy. If you do reserve a camping spot, perhaps avoid that area.

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, but they must be leashed.

Nearby Towns:

Ouray, Silverton

Ridgway Website 

Stagecoach State Park

A year-round destination in the lush Yampa Valley, Stagecoach State Park also makes for a great base for visitors to explore the surrounding areas and experience activities like fishing, hiking, and camping.

Why You’ll Like It

Birding

With over 180 species of birds, there are excellent opportunities for bird watching. Some of the birds that frequent Stagecoach include: Eurasian Coots, Bald Eagles, Osprey, White Faced Ibis, American White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, Blue Grouse, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, and a wide variety of songbirds, hawks, and falcons.

Water Sports

The 820-acre reservoir is divided into wakeless and non-wakeless areas which means it’s great for canoeing, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. The park encourages visitors to take advantage of the calm water in Harding and Morrison Coves and the large no-wake area in the western half of the reservoir. The reservoir is closed between November 1 through April 30 so take note if you decide to visit between those dates.

Camping

There are 92 campsites spread through the sagebrush of the Yampa Valley and are available on a limited basis during the winter. Four campsites in the Pinnacle Campground are plowed and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Note: showers, flush bathrooms, the dump station, and water facilities are shutdown during the winter months. Fear not, electricity (30A) is available at the sites throughout the winter.

Cross-country Skiing

The park offers groomed trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Fishing and Ice Fishing

Stagecoach Reservoir is known for its rainbow trouts that average in length from 14-to-18 inches. There is also a strong populate of pike and because of this, wildlife managers encourage anglers to harvest any pike caught. If you catch any pike with orange tags, please report the catch information to the number on the tag.

Hiking

There are several hiking trails for visitors: The Lakeview, Overlook, and Elk Run trails are open to hiking and biking. The Pinnacle Peak trails are open to hiking only. If that’s not enough, you can venture to the Public Lands Access Trail which connects adjacent BLM and National Forest lands and trails.

Wildlife

In addition to the migratory and resident birds you can watch, you’ll also see mule deer, elk, cottontail rabbit, jackrabbit, beaver, red fox, coyote, badger, ground squirrel, and muskrat.

When To Go

Year-round, although it will be busier during the summer and especially weekends and holidays.

Before You Go

Camping is by reservation only (you must make a reservation prior to occupying a campsite). Also, all water facilities (showers, dump stations, and drinking water) are shut down from October 1 to May 15 for the winter season.

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, but they must be leashed.

Nearby Towns

Steamboat Springs, Oak Creek

Stagecoach Website

Sylvan Lake State Park

Surrounded by the White River National Forest, visitors will find a peaceful, wooded area that provides stunning scenery and tons of year-round outdoor recreational activities. With a 42-acre lake, canoeists, kayakers, and paddlers won’t find themselves bored. For the land-lovers, there’s hiking, snowshoeing, and camping.

Why You’ll Like It

Cabins and Yurts

There are eight small camper cabins and one large cabin located near the lake available year-round. Additionally, there are three yurts on East Bruch Creek, 9 ½ miles from the lake, that are available from mid-May to mid-November.

Camping

You can camp year-round at Sylvan Lake but you will have to make a reservation prior to arriving through cpwshop.com or by calling 800-244-5613. Winter enthusiasts can reserve cabins year-round to enjoy ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.

Cross-country Skiing and Hiking

There are several trails throughout Sylvan Lake State Park. The 1.5-mile Sylvan Lake Trail provides fishing access and a relaxing walk. The 5.8-mile West Brush Creek Trail connects The Meadows Day Use Area to the campground and lake. Popular trails on the surrounding White River National Forest include: Sneve Gulch, McKenzie Gulch, Nolan Lake, Lake Charles, and Ironedge are all good options.

Fishing and Ice Fishing

Sylvan Lake has plenty of Rainbow and Cutthroat Trout as well as Brook and Brown Trout. From September 1 to November 30, fishing is not allowed between the lake inlet and ½ mile upstream to allow for fish spawning. You can also fish along East and West Brush Creek. Remember that you need to have a fishing license.

Geocaching

Search for their hidden cache around the area and in the town of Eagle. You can find clues posted on geocaching.com.

Ice Skating

You can ice skate on Sylvan Lake but remember to bring your own shovel to clear the snow. If you want to know the current ice conditions before the drive up, call the visitor’s center at 970-328-2021 for current ice conditions and access.

Photography

Photographers are surrounded by East and West Brush Creeks, Sylvan Lake, Red Table Mountain, and abundant wildlife. Note: they don’t allow drones.

Snowmobiling

Snowmobilers can ride park roads to access the surrounding White River National Forest. Make sure you have a current and valid registration (you can also purchase one at the Visitor’s Center).

Snowshoeing

In addition to the hiking trails surrounding Sylvan Lake, visitors can access the White River National Forest trails. You can also borrow a pair of snowshoes from the Visitor Center for free.

Wildlife

Because of the lush forest, visitors can find a variety of mammals, including species of voles and shrews, red fox, marmots, mule deer, and elk. You may also see black bear, pine marten, coyote, porcupine, cottontail rabbit, and beaver.

If you look into the sky or trees, you’ll likely find broad-tailed hummingbirds, mountain bluebirds, Bald eagles, ospreys, and common loons.

When To Go:

Year-round. While it’s likely to be busier during the summer, it still won’t be as busy as the more popular parks.

Before You Go:

There is no cell phone coverage within the Park. The nearest signal is 4 miles south of Eagle. A courtesy phone is located outside the Visitor Center for local calls, long-distance using a prepaid minute card, or to reach 911. Additionally, no WiFi is available.

Dogs Allowed?

Yes, but they must be leashed.

Nearby Towns

Eagle, Vail

Sylvan Lake Website

Full Colorado State Parks List:

Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area

Barr Lake 

Boyd Lake

Castlewood Canyon

Chatfield 

Cherry Creek 

Cheyenne Mountain

Crawford

Eldorado Canyon 

Eleven Mile 

Elkhead Reservoir

Fishers Peak

Golden Gate Canyon  

Harvey Gap

Highline Lake  

Jackson Lake

James M. Robb Colorado River 

John Martin Reservoir 

Lake Pueblo

Lathrop 

Lone Mesa

Lory 

Mancos

Mueller 

Navajo  

North Sterling

Paonia 

Pearl Lake

Ridgway

Rifle Falls 

Rifle Gap  

Roxborough 

Spinney Mountain

St. Vrain 

Stagecoach 

State Forest 

Staunton 

Steamboat Lake  

Sweitzer Lake

Sylvan Lake

Trinidad Lake 

Vega 

Yampa River

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