Winter means most Coloradans are headed to the mountains to strap on skis. If you’re still in the mood for outdoor recreation but don’t want the 4 a.m. wake-up call that comes with a mountain trip, head east instead of west to Paint Mines Interpretive Park.
How do I get there?
Paint Mines is a free park about an hour and a half southeast of Denver. The drive is super easy, with just the last road to the park not paved. It’s dirt and a little bumpy but does not require four-wheel drive or high clearance.
Where Do I Go?
The entire trail loop around the park is 3.6 miles, most of which is flat, so even if you get crazy and do the entire loop it’s totally doable for beginners. Don’t be intimidated by the massive hill that is the very first part of the trail, just be prepared emotionally to go uphill both ways (just like your parents did in the snow on the way to school, amirite?)
If you’d like a shorter route, head straight to the geological features for an out-and-back. Trail markers are sparse, but follow the blue icons and head right when given the choice.
You can walk into several areas of hoodoos (the geological features), each with varying degrees of “paint” and all very cool. The further you go, the larger the features get and more vivid the colors are. This entire section is flat, and each hoodoo area is a dead end, so you don’t have to worry about getting in over your head or getting lost. You do have to worry about how many times you can say “hoodoo” without your family wanting to kill you.
The entire loop would also make for a great beginner-friendly trail run – you would be able to see the prehistoric area that I missed on our hike. Since I didn’t go there, I can’t vouch for it, but the woolly mammoth trail marker looked pretty intriguing.
What should I wear?
As usual, plenty of sunscreen and a hat. There’s no shade at Paint Mines, making it the ideal winter hike and probably not a great idea for summer. Plus, in winter you don’t have to worry about rattlesnakes which is, you know, kind of nice.
It’s a bit icy in some of the crevices around the hoodoos at the time of year I hiked it (Christmas), so trail runners or hiking boots are ideal. You can definitely get away with regular sneakers, though. The trails are sandy in some spots, but otherwise not technical at all and very easy to traverse. If it has snowed recently, that sandy trail will be muddy, so just wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty.
Is it crowded?
You probably won’t be totally alone, but it certainly isn’t crowded since you’re over an hour from Denver and the nearby town of Calhan isn’t exactly a booming metropolis. Plus, the prairie gets no love in Colorado! Hopefully, this post changes your feelings about amber waves of grain.
There were four to five other cars in the parking lot on the December Saturday that we went, but we didn’t run into any people after we got away from the entrance. You don’t have to worry about other trail users – bikes and horses aren’t allowed, so it’s just you and other pedestrians. Also, dogs are not allowed.
Anything else I should know?
Calhan is a super tiny town, and Paint Mines is located outside of Calhan. There is one vault toilet and a map at the trailhead, along with a trash and a picnic table (again, no shade).
While you’re in Calhan, hit up Roosters Grille in town for lunch. They have everything and actually do it all pretty well. Also, you can be reminded how ancient the youths think you are when you don’t get carded by the 14-year-old serving your table.
Paint Mines is a great beginner hiking spot that’s definitely worth the drive. The geological features are one of only four of their kind that can be found in Colorado, and the wide open spaces of the Colorado prairie lend themselves perfectly to winter hiking.