Trails around the Four Corners that will help even the most novice of hikers get outside this fall
Hiking is one of the most approachable outdoor activities for newbies and people of all ages and ability levels. It doesn’t require any extra special skills, just the ability to move your body forward (sometimes backward and sometimes to the side but, mostly forward). The start-up cost is limited, save for gear, snacks and gas to get to the trailhead. Depending on the hike, you don’t even need proper hiking boots — your daily sneakers will do the trick!
Selecting an appropriate and fun hike for a multi-generational hiking group, a group of different abilities or something breezy to cleanse the palate after a long week at work comes down to balancing a few factors. If you take each of these into consideration — dialing up on some, down on others — you can pinpoint the perfect path for your needs. Those factors include: technicality, length, elevation gain, starting altitude and the option to customize the route to fit one’s needs or skill level.
The following hikes are some excellent options for those looking to explore in the Four Corners region and demonstrate the fluctuating intensity of the above factors.
PIEDRA RIVER TRAIL; COLORADO
The Piedra River Trail is a popular hiking spot in the Pagosa Springs area, and it’s easy to see why. The views from the trailhead alone are spectacular! The trail dips down into the canyon to follow the Piedra River for a ways and then opens up into a stunning valley.
The sheer walls of the canyon sport plenty of climbing routes and provide shifting shade as the days and seasons change. Along the river, hikers can find ample spots for picnics, playtime or a rest break. Bring a rod (and fishing license) along for the angler in the group to cast into the river at multiple points throughout the path.
Because the trail drops into the canyon at the beginning, the return trip is where the potential difficulty may be, as you have to climb back out the distance you decide to hike in. Some sections of the trail are interrupted with boulders and roots, so keep an eye out for your footing. Seeing the trail and the views from a new vantage point makes both directions of this hike a pleasure. Also, if you want to make it a point-to-point or easy overnight backpacking trip, you can set up a shuttle at each end of the trail.
In addition, the Ice Caves trail begins at the same trailhead and can be a bonus hike for those who want to explore naturally-occurring caverns with fewer crowds — and who want to do the incline part of the hike first and the decline later.
BISTI BADLANDS TRAIL; NEW MEXICO
The hardest part of the Bisti Badlands might be the drive to get to it. It’s fairly remote and down a long, washboard road but once you get there, the fun begins.
The Bisti Badlands Trail is kind of a choose-your-own-adventure type of trail, in that the path is not marked. Hikers are welcome to guide themselves through the vast badlands in whichever direction or twists and turns they choose. The elevation change is minimal-to-none and the farther you explore into the canyons, the more wild and out-of-this-world the rock formations become. Depending on the route you take yourself on, there won’t be any boulders or canyons to navigate and there certainly aren’t any roots to trip over.
This is a great trail for families with kids who want to explore their own way and make their own route. You can choose to make a loop out of it, follow your footsteps for an out-and-back or create your own unique combination of the two.
Be sure to bring water and sunscreen, as there is no shade available except for a small picnic shelter at the parking lot. The trailhead amenities are limited as well, so be mindful to pack out your trash and any other trash you see.
EAST FORK VIA LAS CONCHAS; NEW MEXICO
This is a quintessential Rocky Mountain hike. The East Fork via Las Conchas Trail starts tucked between a few beautiful rock faces where climbers can often be spotted scrambling up the popular routes. There are tall pine trees, a bubbling creek and a picture-perfect path winding through the woods.
The difficult part of this hike may be the altitude as the trailhead rests around 8,400 feet; but the path itself is level, well-maintained and absolutely stunning. There will be a few roots and rocks to keep an eye out for but these are the exception and not the rule.
If you’re looking for a trail with spots to stop for a picnic or a romp around in the grass, this is an excellent option. There are small boulders for the kids to scramble and the creek is calm and low enough to wade in and enjoy the crisp mountain waters.
Primarily an out-and-back, your group can turn around whenever the time comes. You don’t have to commit to a full loop or making it to a specific spot in order to begin your return trip. Try to arrive early, especially on weekends, as the parking area is limited and fills up quickly.
NORTH FORK MULE CANYON; UTAH
If your party likes history and seeing ancient art and dwellings, this is an excellent hiking option. Not as crowded as some of its neighbors, the North Fork of Mule Canyon often provides a more quiet experience.
Once past the initial shrubbery, the wash is the best path to hike through this canyon, so be aware of the weather before and during your hike to avoid getting caught in a flash flood.
Shortly into the hike as the canyon widens, you’ll be able to find some ancient rock art and throughout the trail you’ll have the opportunity to appreciate cliff dwellings in varying degrees of intactness. Keep your eyes up to spy walls and granaries hidden among the higher cliffs as well!
Mule Canyon is part of a fee site, and for only $2 you can enjoy the desert environment along with its rich history with little company beyond the hiking mates you bring with you. Do not touch, climb on or remove any of the artifacts you see along this trail, leave them behind for others to enjoy and to respect the original inhabitants of the canyon and their ancestors.
Use these principles of researching hikes to start to discover your own trails that meet the needs of your group. Some hikers want longer but more level hikes, some want shorter but steeper, others want a hike that lands somewhere in the middle.
Make sure to keep an eye on the weather and bring plenty of water and snacks to get everyone through the hike happy, healthy and safe. It’s always a good idea to bring a bag for your own trash and extras to pack out any other trash you find along your way.
Minimize time spent off-trail, don’t dig or alter the environment in any way and appreciate the unique beauty of our natural world that you find yourself in.
HOLLY PRIESTLEY is a writer, podcaster, creator and adventurer who lives in her 1997 Ford van with her dog and travels the western United States.