I had a complex for a long time that I wasn’t running far enough to justify packing a backpack when I went trail running. Eventually, I realized I was getting really thirsty and hungry and I just stopped caring. If you find yourself wanting to bring a hydration vest or pack along with you, don’t be shy! Here are some beginner tips for what to bring with you.
Bring your phone. Even if you don’t take it out at all for pictures and running is your time to unplug, bring your phone with you so you can get help if you need it.
I would not recommend bringing headphones. I know there are companies out there that say you can still be aware of your surroundings with their specially designed headphones, but honestly if you’re trail running, I don’t think you should be wearing headphones.
You aren’t the only other person out on a trail, and a mountain biker or other trail user might need to get by you. You don’t want to startle any equestrians, either. Also, even though you’re unlikely to have a wildlife encounter, you should be aware of what’s going on around you just in case. You can’t do that with headphones in.
Bring your id and health insurance card. In case something happens to you and you need medical assistance. If you have any health conditions that medical professionals need to know about in an emergency, make sure that’s also stored with your insurance card and id (or wear a bracelet with the information on it).
Pack a few simple first aid supplies, even if you’re not going very far. It can be really handy to have things in a pinch (especially if that pinch is poop-related). I just pack a couple of each things (1-2 doses, a handful of Band-Aids, etc) and put it all in a little Ziploc bag.
Benadryl (Billy found out the hard way he was allergic to something in a park we ran in. This was a lifesaver for making it back to the car!)
Immodium or Tums/ginger pills/digestion aid of choice
I also bring a little travel-size hand sanitizer since most bathrooms at trailheads don’t have running water and soap. Also helpful if you’re eating gels and you get them on your hands – those bad boys are sticky!
Water and electrolytes
It can be a tricky balance between packing plenty of water and then having to cart around said water. Water is heavy, but I recommend over-packing the first few times until you can dial in how much you’ll need.
I’m not a nutrition expert by any means, so I Googled how much water you “should” bring. Most guidelines I found online for water and food were based on mileage, but when you’re first starting out it can take you a lot longer to do “only a few” miles. Pack your water based on how long you’ll be out and your own level of thirst.
Depending on your pack, you may have space for a reservoir in the back or water bottles up front on your chest. It’s personal preference which way you pack your water. If you do bring bottles, or if you have an extra bottle, it can be nice to fill one with electrolytes if you’re sweating a lot or going to be out for an hour or more.
My first few trail runs on my own were on a 3.8-mile loop that took me about 45 minutes. I get really really thirsty, so I always packed a half-liter of water. When I was training for a half marathon and my long road runs were about an hour or longer, I started packing electrolytes and it made a big difference in how fatigued I felt. I got this small 250mL soft bottle since I didn’t need *that* much.
Food and snacks
Have a little something with you in case you have a tough day and are out longer than you thought you would be. Again, I am not a nutrition or medical professional, but I never leave home with out some sort of sustenance.
My go-to is Clif Shot Bloks (without caffeine). I always make sure to have at least half a sleeve with me. If I’m out for less than an hour, I typically don’t need to eat anything, but listen to your body! There’s no shame in packing plenty of snacks.
Gels are easy to digest, which is why they are very popular. But be prepared for trial and error with flavors and brands. I discovered the hard way that I can only tolerate citrus flavors with minimal or no caffeine, and I stuck with Clif because they were cheaper than other brands.
You can also bring normal human food with you. Fig Newtons, applesauce, and PB&J sandwiches are all great options (you could also just keep these back in the car). I’ve also heard of people packing baby food/purees. I haven’t personally tried this, but Billy did get some purees that weren’t much different from applesauce and he liked them. Baby food is weirdly expensive, though, so keep that in mind.
Eating while running is unfortunately one giant experiment to find out what works the best for you. It took me five or six times of running more than an hour to figure out what wouldn’t give me a terrible stomachache (or what wasn’t enough to fill my stomach). Try running snacks, try regular food, and find out what you like! Personally, the running snacks are a fun treat that make me look forward to running. You don’t always need a scientific reason to do one or the other!
Depending on the terrain and time of year, you may want to bring microspikes or another traction option. Obviously, these cost money, so I consider them an optional upgrade (aka great Christmas gift) to help you get outside year-round.
The trail running world tends to debate over whether using hiking poles makes you a “real” runner or not. Some people hate them, some people love them. They are also expensive, so I don’t consider them required equipment either.
Poles make hills easier, but are another thing to tote around, so it also depends on how much stuff you want to bring with you. I like having them for longer runs, especially as a beginner on very hilly Colorado trails. But I was also doing just fine before I got them for Christmas!
I also like to bring an extra layer with me (or leave room to stash one) during fall/spring/winter when the temperature can fluctuate wildly. Throwing a pair of gloves into your pack is never a bad idea if you’re on the fence!
The bottom line
Pack based on how long you think you’ll be out (worst case scenario), not how many miles you’re running. Overpack at first while you figure out how much you need. Experiment with what your stomach likes. Don’t forget a few Band-Aids.
Denver has no shortage of amazing running routes, mostly thanks to the ginormous parks around the city.
Washington Park (Wash Park to locals), Cheesman Park, and City Park are three of the most popular running destinations in Denver. Each has a crushed gravel path that’s great for running in addition to paved paths and loops of varying distance. All are beginner-friendly, but each have their own pros and cons. Keep scrolling to pick the one for you!
Location: Capitol Hill, between 13th and 8th (north/south) and Humboldt and Race (west/east).
Distance of Gravel Loop: 1.43 miles
Bathrooms: Port-o-potties in the southwest corner and by the pavilion (looks like the Lincoln Memorial) during winter; additional port-o-potties during the summer on the western side of the park along the paved path. Bring hand sanitizer!
Water: No public water fountains (that I’ve found).
If you want to run to Cheesman, you’ll be running uphill there and downhill on the way back no matter what direction you’re coming from. If you’re starting your run at the park, the east side is the high point (the side next to the Botanic Garden by the Lincoln Memorial-looking pavilion).
It’s also uphill in both directions around the park. I recommend running counter-clockwise (when you’re looking at the park on a map) because it’s slightly easier. In my experience, running clockwise felt like a longer, steeper uphill (and running counter-clockwise lets you cruise down that instead).
You’re treated to mountain views at the high point in the park as well as views into the Botanic Garden. This is especially cool during the holiday season when they have the Blossoms of Light displays lit up after sunset. You get to run through a grove of massive pine trees, which my husband and I love so much we chose it for our wedding and maternity photos (two separate occasions, to clarify how much we like it).
Cheesman Park’s biggest perk is that it has no bodies of water. Hear me out, I know how pretty lakes are. But lakes bring geese. And geese bring poop. Plus I’m kind of scared of them. At Cheesman, there’s no poop and no birds. It’s great.
Cheesman is also very easy to find your way around if you take the gravel exterior loop (1.4 miles). There is only one way to go if you follow the gravel. The interior paved loops can be a little more confusing, but overall the park is small enough (the smallest of the three in this post) that you can easily figure out where you’re headed.
Occasionally, the city closes the park to car traffic, but don’t bank on being able to run on the road at Cheesman. The park has a lot of cars cutting through it as well as a bus route. Stick to the sidewalks and gravel path to be safe.
If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and City Parks will get you to 6.2 miles (a 10k).Combining Cheesman and Wash Park gets you to 8 miles.Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.
Location: City Park is also the name of a neighborhood. The park itself is located between 17th and 23rd (north/south) and York and Colorado (west/east).
Distance of Gravel Loop: 3.1 miles
Bathrooms: Actual bathrooms at the pavilion in the middle of the park (may or may not be open year-round). Additional port-o-potties have popped up along the interior road throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but I can’t guarantee they’ll always be in the same spots. Bring hand sanitizer just in case!
Water: Also found at the pavilion.
City Park’s Mile High Loop is a nice even 5k on a crushed gravel path. However, following the gravel path to get to that even 5k has been incredibly challenging for me. Even after years of running in the park, I still find myself on the wrong loop (there are tons of interior looping paths). Do your best to follow the very short concrete markers that say Mile High Loop.
It’s especially tricky to stay on course by the Museum of Nature and Science. Turn left off the sidewalk onto the gravel path before you reach the entrance of the museum. You should be running along the south side of the museum and end up at the back of it. You should also be running along the backside of the zoo, not the front.
The north side of the park is higher than the south side. I’ve run around the park in both directions and don’t find one more difficult then the other, but running north along either Colorado Boulevard or York Street will be uphill. The downside of City Park is having to run along those two segments since both roads have a ton of traffic. You can always make your own loop to avoid these once you’re more familiar with the park!
Parts of the interior road around the park allow cars. The road around the lake does not, but everywhere else is open to cars and there is a far amount of traffic cutting through the park. I stick to the gravel path for this reason.
In the summertime, be mindful of City Park Jazz (Sunday nights June-August). The park is completely packed, so make sure you’re out of there well before 6 pm on summer Sundays. If you’re looking for a post-run pick-me-up in the morning or afternoon, stop at Cafe Miriam just across from City Park’s entrance on York Street.
If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and City Parks will get you to 6.2 miles (a 10k).Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.
Washington (Wash) Park
Location: Wash Park is also the name of a neighborhood. The park itself is located between Virginia and Louisiana (north/south) and Downing and Franklin (west/east).
Distance of Gravel Loop: 2.5 miles
Bathrooms: There’s a port-o-potty by the north entrance to the park outside of the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado office. There’s also a port-o-potty between the boathouse and rec center that are in the middle of the park. If you have a Denver rec center membership, you can use the bathrooms at the Wash Park rec center.
Water: I’ve never stumbled upon public water fountains, but you should be able to find some at the rec center.
For some reason, Wash Park’s loop feels like the biggest to me even though it’s not. Like City Park, you get amazing mountain views on the east side of the park. Unlike City Park, the gravel loop is easy to follow and just goes around the perimeter of the park.
Wash Park also has the largest non-vehicle road, which can come in clutch in the winter time. You do have to share with bikes, rollerbladers, etc, but the loop is only .25 miles shorter and won’t be muddy. There is one short segment of the road by the rec center that does allow cars (so people can get to the rec center) but otherwise it’s really nice to have a totally car-free loop!
Wash Park does seem to attract the masses more than the other two. Cheesman and City Park certainly get busy, but for some reason I’ve always seen the most people at Wash Park on the weekends. There’s also seemingly always a 5k happening there, so be prepared to run into that on Saturday mornings year-round.
I’ve only run counter-clockwise around the park, and the entire loop is pretty flat. There’s a very slight incline on the southern end if you’re traveling east, but overall this park doesn’t have any big hills like Cheesman or sustained uphill like City Park.
If you’re training for longer distances, combining Cheesman and Wash Park gets you to 8 miles.Distance assumes one lap around Cheesman at the beginning of the run.
The bottom line
Cheesman is the hilliest, Wash Park is the busiest, and City Park is the biggest (and hardest to find your way around). All three are part of every Denverite’s running routes for good reason!
If you’re running with a stroller, the crushed gravel is typically level enough to safely use a running stroller on. They can get a little rutted and washed out toward the end of winter. When in doubt, stick to the roads and sidewalks.
Enjoy your run, and as always, let me know in the comments if I missed anything.
When getting out of the house to walk around the block feels complicated, getting back to (or starting) outdoor adventures with a new baby can feel downright impossible. After having my first kid, I was determined to rip off the Band-Aid and figure out outdoorsy adventures with a newborn baby in tow.
Our Saturday snowshoe was a success, although I will admit we got incredibly lucky with no poo-splosions (we forgot a back-up outfit). A few things we did have control over also helped: keeping our expectations low, planning ahead, and going with the flow. Basically no different than the rest of parenthood!
What should baby wear on the trail?
First and foremost, how the heck did we keep a two-month-old baby warm? Well, we picked a warm day. It was no accident we decided to go snowshoeing on a day that was sunny and 40. degrees! This was key for our first time out (for my anxiety and for ease of dressing Baby OB).
Just like adults, babies need a moisture-wicking base layer. In case baby does actually manage to get too warm, you don’t want them to stay wet if they start sweating. Cotton stays wet and non-cotton/synthetic fabrics dry more quickly.
But where the heck do you find baby base layers? Well, you can spring for some from Patagonia or similar brands. Or you can just put them in a onesie that isn’t cotton. I opted for the latter because I didn’t want to spend $50 on something that would only last one season. I used a long-sleeve polyester onesie with feet as my base layer.
For a middle layer, I added a cardigan since, again, it was what we already had. If you have a hoodie or really anything else that’s big enough to add on top of the onesie, just use that.
I used the beanie we got at the hospital and made sure tootsies stayed warm with these slippers (which we also already had and are 100 times easier than socks, so I highly recommend them).
The outermost layer we use is this fleece bear suit from Columbia (it’s the Tiny Bear II, on sale in some colors and sizes as of March 2021). It’s our go-to for walks and other outdoorsy time all winter. Baby OB loves getting snuggled in it and it keeps them super warm. The hood creates an extra layer of warmth that started coming in VERY handy once Baby OB decided they didn’t want anything on their head. They haven’t (yet) figured out how to take off a hood, so it’s super handy!
If you’re deciding between a puffy/water-resistant snowsuit (aka bunting) and a fleece one, I’d go with a fleece suit if you’re carrying your baby in a carrier. Your body heat keeps them really warm, and they’re so tiny that the carrier protects them from most of the elements.
Unless you have a toddler/walking baby, they’re not getting in the snow, so they don’t really *need* anything waterproof. As a beginner, I personally wouldn’t take Baby OB out if it was precipitating, so that totally eliminated the need for something waterproof.
I never felt myself wishing I had something thicker than the bear suit when Baby OB was in a carrier. Now that Baby OB is in a backpack, they are a little bit more exposed to the elements. I bought a snowsuit (on sale, keep an eye on 6pm!) for the backpack that has worked really well. Even without my body heat, they stay nice and toasty. The snowsuit is a little more windproof, which is nice, too.
No matter what they’re wearing, once you’re out, make sure to periodically check to make sure baby is staying warm. It’s easy for their hands and feet to get chilly, even if they’re covered up by multiple layers. I packed handwarmers to stuff in the carrier just in case, but on this particular day Baby OB was just fine with hands tucked inside the bear suit.
How do I keep them protected from the sun?
This sun hat from Target has already been a huge help with the Colorado sun not blasting Baby OB in the eyes. I put it on over the beanie, but under the hood of the bear suit.
Since Baby OB was still facing forward in the carrier at this point, we didn’t really have to worry about sunglasses or keeping their face from getting burnt. Now that they are facing forward, we’ve relied on baby sunscreen to keep that from happening! They won’t keep sunglasses on their face, so I usually end up just holding my hand up to shield their face. If they’re in the backpack, we use the sun shade that came with it.
How to carry baby
I use Beco’s Gemini soft carrier all of the time – running errands, neighborhood walks, wherever taking a stroller would be a pain/unwieldy (so almost everywhere). We do have a backpack carrier now that Baby OB is big enough for it, which is more comfortable now that they’re bigger. BUT backpack carriers are very expensive, so if you already have a less expensive soft carrier or wrap that you’re comfortable with, use that!
If you gave birth to your baby, it totally depends on your personal recovery for whether you should carry them or not. I had a rough recovery and was only two months postpartum when we went, so my partner strapped on Baby OB.
Carrying a baby while snowshoeing is a pretty big ask of your core muscles, so don’t be disappointed if you aren’t ready yet. Take your time and be patient (I’m the least patient person in the world and this was HARD). I couldn’t carry Baby OB while hiking for at least six months, so if you’re in the same boat, try not to despair!
I always recommend hiking or ski poles for snowshoeing, but with the extra weight, you will DEFINITELY appreciate having them! Plus, they help you keep your balance with your extra precious cargo 🙂
Picking a baby-appropriate trail
You don’t want to be too far from civilization, especially in winter time when road conditions can be a toss-up. We went to Staunton State Park in Colorado because we knew the state would plow, it was a popular enough location that we wouldn’t be alone, and we were less than an hour from Denver and only 15 minutes from the closest town.
If you’re also in Denver, I highly recommend Staunton for your first family winter adventure! We did part of the Staunton Ranch trail. The Davis Ponds loop is also a great option for a three-mile trek.
In general, when choosing a trail, remember that snowshoeing is harder than regular hiking. And that whoever has baby on will have a harder time too! Choose something that is relatively flat and be realistic about how far you can hike, whether as the person who has given birth or the person toting around the baby. For reference, it took us an hour and 15 minutes to snowshoe for two miles on a relatively flat trail at 8,300 feet of elevation. And I was TIRED after.
How to feed baby on the go
If it works out scheduling-wise, feeding baby at the trailhead will buy you the most time to actually go snowshoeing.
I was still breastfeeding at this point, so I fed Baby OB at the trailhead to buy us as much time as possible on the trail and to reduce the likelihood that I would have to whip out a boob in winter weather. It wasn’t easy, since I’m used to having a Boppy and being on our couch in a robe, but practicing is the only way to make it easier to feed on the go!
To make it a little easier, I wore as few layers on top as possible. Just one base layer (that was relatively loose), a fleece jacket, and then my winter coat. These nursing bras pulled double duty as sports bras for me since they are moisture-wicking and you can swap the straps to cross in the back for a little extra support. For arm support, I wedged myself between the car seat and the door handle (we have our car seat in the middle of our Subaru Forester).
If you need to bring a bottle of milk, you could prep it at home and then stick it in an insulated travel mug. I happen to have a Yeti that was a work gift, which is large enough to fit Lansinoh Momma bottles and keeps them warm for several hours.
If you need to bring a bottle of formula, you can put warm water in an insulated travel mug and prep it at the trailhead. To cut down on how much stuff we bring, I like to scoop the formula into the bottle at home and then put it in a coozie to keep it protected from the light.
If your baby is eating solids, try to make the trailhead meal a liquid one (bottle, boob, whatever). It’s easier to figure out on the go, particularly for your first time. Puree pouches are a decent trailhead option, but weren’t very easy for me. The puree was really messy, Baby OB could tell I was in a hurry and didn’t’t want to to eat it, and pouches just wasn’t really worth the hassle. Your experience may vary! I will say I’ve had a 100% success rate with teething biscuits as an on-the-go snack.
No matter how you feed your baby, it’s going to be difficult to extract them from the carrier, keep them warm, and give them food while standing up. I recommend a trailhead feeding before you head out!
Changing diapers on the go
The poop gods were smiling on us this day, because we forgot a back-up outfit in case of a blowout. We got very lucky and no such blowout occurred, but don’t push your luck! The first time we went hiking, we got to the trailhead only to discover Baby OB was leaking poo all over me. A back-up outfit was necessary (so was hand sanitizer).
This travel diaper pad has been everything we need. It fits easily in a backpack (I bring it with us on the trail just in case) or you can just toss it in the backseat of the car. To change Baby OB in the car or on the trail, I put the diaper pad part on my lap and use myself as the changing table.
Our winter adventure packing list
Okay, that was a lot. Doing anything with a baby feels like a lot, it turns out. Here’s a quick recap on what to bring:
Diaper bag (diapers, wipes, burp cloth, something to put baby on to change them)
Back-up base layer for baby
Bottles + formula supplies as needed
Snowshoes + poles for you
My complete hiking checklist is here for any outdoor adventure!
And what baby should wear:
Base layer of synthetic fabric (ie a long-sleeve onesie with legs and feet that isn’t made of cotton)
The Manitou Incline, or just “The Incline” as it’s more commonly known, is one of the more famous (infamous?) trails in Colorado. But it’s really hard to find any information about it, and all the folklore about how steep and challenging it is can make it seem totally out of your league as a beginner. I’ve hauled myself up it twice, once as a total beginner and once as a slightly-more-fit beginner.
My favorite part about the Incline is that there are legitimately ALL KINDS taking it on. Crazy fit people, total beginners, all body sizes, all ages, moms with kids, teenagers, literally everyone you could think of. People are struggling, people are making it look easy, everyone is just on their own journey.
Going up the Incline is one mile. The most beginner-friendly option to get back down is to take the Barr Trail, which is an additional 3.1 miles, putting you at just over four miles round-trip for this uniquely challenging trail.
How do I get there?
The Incline is just outside of Manitou Springs, which is about an hour and a half south of Denver. It’s an easy drive until the very end, when you’re on a narrow (but paved) road up to the Incline. This part only gets tricky because it’s extremely crowded on the weekend. If at all possible, go to the Incline on a weekday to avoid this (and even then, it can still be crowded).
It costs $10 as of 2019 to park in the lot at the bottom of the Barr Trail, which is also where the Incline starts from. There’s a free shuttle that leaves from elsewhere in town, but I haven’t experimented with that. Considering the trail itself is free to access and is expensive to maintain, $10 is a reasonable fee (in my opinion). Make sure you have a credit card handy to pay!
Where do I go?
There is only one way to go – up! The beginning of the trail is very well marked and there’s only one way to go once you get started. About 2/3 up the trail, there is a bail-out option for you take the Barr Trail back down. At this point, you are 80% of the way there, so I was too stubborn to take the bail-out. I was just too close to finishing to not go all the way. But if you need the bail-out, it’s an option. The Incline is one-mile long one way.
There are two options for getting back down: the way you came up, which is too steep for my liking, and the Barr Trail. The trail is 3.1 miles long, zig-zagging back down from the top of the Incline. It’s tricky because it’s downhill the entire way, so your knees and quads take a bit of a beating. But it’s also very beautiful, and in my opinion, a nice jog back down. Follow signs for the Barr Trail, not Pikes Peak or Barr Camp, which will only take you higher up (the last thing you want at that point).
There are port-o-potties in the parking lot, and nothing at the top of Incline except for a great photo op.
What is the trail like?
It’s obviously difficult. But make it your own challenge. Like I said, there are all kinds of people taking it on. You’ll get passed by people older than you, fitter than you, and carrying kids on their back. You might pass other people yourself. It doesn’t matter – take your time, pace yourself, and see what you can do!
There are railroad ties that make the entire trail like nature’s Stairmaster, which actually makes it easier to climb up the whole thing. You don’t have to worry about sliding back down on the steep parts because it’s basically a staircase.
There are a few parts with wider steps of metal grating that help the trail drain properly. If you’re using hiking poles, be careful not to get them stuck in there. There are also plenty of points where you can pull over on the side if you need a break or to get out of the way for faster hikers. The trail is a consistent width all the way up that makes it easy for people to pass if you’re at a point that there isn’t a place to actually get off the trail. Just try to get as far over the right as possible when you do need to take a breather.
There’s a false summit that you can see right away. You’ll look at it and think there is absolutely no way that it isn’t the real summit. I didn’t believe people when they pointed it out to me. But please believe me, there is more to come after what looks like the top. Don’t be fooled – that was pretty emotionally crushing to me the first time I did it.
Assuming you take the Barr Trail back down, which is the most beginner-friendly option, there are parts that get a little rocky and technical, but nothing too advanced. It’s downhill the entire way and controlling your speed can be difficult, so your quads will be a-burning by the time you’re done.
It took me 40 minutes to get up the Incline the second time I did it, including multiple breaks. I was able to run down the Barr Trail in about the same amount of time. For context, I was running pretty regularly at this point preparing for a four-mile section of the Colfax Marathon Relay – averaging two or more 2-3 mile runs per week. I only provide my time for your planning purposes – remember, this is all about challenging yourself and seeing what you can do personally. Plan on being out for two or more hours just to be safe.
There’s very little shade on any part of the trail, which means it’s a great option for winter (assuming it’s dry) or spring. If you go in the summer, start early to beat the heat!
What should I wear and bring?
Because there is no shade, make sure to slather on plenty of sunblock and wear a hat and sunglasses.
I’ve done the Incline on a warm, sunny day in December and a cloudy day in May, both of which were ideal weather. I wore shorts and a t-shirt both times, but could’ve used a long-sleeved layer for the way back down (particularly the time I hiked down). Because the hike up is so strenuous, I would recommend wearing your grippiest running shoes so you aren’t bogged down with the weight of hiking boots. For this reason, and because I planned on jogging down, I wore my trail running shoes (last year’s model is currently 50% off at REI!).
Hiking poles will certainly make your life easier, particularly helping out your knees on the way down. But the trail is at no point technical enough that you would absolutely NEED them. In the winter, if it’s icy, you might want some extra traction like microspikes.
I regretted not bringing water with me the first time I did the Incline. The second time, I wore my running vest and brought water and snacks (just in case, I always have snacks just in case) as well as chapstick with SPF in it and a long-sleeve shirt. I did my best to pack light since I certainly didn’t want to make going up the Incline any harder than necessary by having a heavy backpack!
Is it crowded?
Yes. Even on the weekdays, there has always been a crowd when I’ve done the Incline! On the weekdays, it’s totally manageable. I was in no way alone either time I’ve done the trail, but people were at least pretty spread out.
I imagine the weekends would be much more challenging, mostly because the road the Incline is on wasn’t built to handle the huge crowds it attracts. I’ve been lucky to do the Incline as part of my workday both times, so I haven’t had to contend with Saturday or Sunday crowds in the parking lot or on the trail.
Anything else I should know?
While I believe almost anyone can do the Incline if they take their time, I don’t think it’s a good idea for someone visiting from sea level unless you are already VERY fit. Colorado altitude can kick your butt on a regular hike, but adding on a hike that is a mile straight up probably isn’t the best idea.
However, if you’re already in Denver or elsewhere in Colorado, it’s less of an extreme. The hike is definitely very challenging, but like any hike, as long as you take your time, listen to your body, and give yourself enough time to complete it in good weather and during the daytime, it’s worth a try. Age and body type aren’t the best predictors of how physically fit someone is, but I’ve seen people of all ages, weights, and fitness levels (based on how out of breath they are when I see them) trying it out.
I can’t overstate just how enormous Yellowstone National Park is, which can make planning a trip a little intimidating. Things are so spread out that the park itself has full-service gas stations and grocery stores. There’s just SO much to see at this national icon. So how did we pick?
I read American Wolf a few months before our trip (which by the way if you haven’t read, do so immediately) and have always been a huge wildlife nerd, so visiting the Lamar Valley was high on my list. Iconic geothermal features, like Grand Prismatic and Old Faithful, were our other must-do, along with seeing the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We optimized our four-day road trip (followed by three days at Grand Teton) to hit what we considered the most iconic areas of Yellowstone.
The best time to visit
Early September is a fantastic time to go. We arrived September 8th, and sure, things were less green than in the summer, but there’s less rainfall than June and the leaves are starting to change colors! Most importantly, the crowds have gone down. It was still busy, but definitely more manageable than peak season. And, we had wonderfully mild fall weather during the day without it being too cold to camp (although this was admittedly a little bit of a gamble and it could’ve been much colder).
Where to stay: Camping versus park lodging
Yellowstone lodging is EXPENSIVE. We were willing to pony up, though, if it was going to be too cold to camp (for us, that’s below freezing at night). Fortunately the weather held out and the hotels all have generous cancellation policies (free cancellation up to 7 days in advance). We made reservations at a lodge and a campground for the first part of the trip, and then cancelled our lodge stays once we could see the 10-day forecast. This is a HUGE savings since rooms can run upwards of $200 per night, but does require a bit of a gamble on potentially changing weather forecasts.
The $30 per night camping rate was much easier to swallow. Plus, the Canyon Campground had so many amenities we weren’t giving up that much convenience.
We camped the first two nights at Canyon and had access to showers, laundry, flushing toilets, bathrooms with electricity, and an indoor wash station for dishes. We were a three-minute drive from a fully stocked grocery store. Keep in mind the first-come, first-serve campgrounds sprinkled throughout the park have significantly fewer amenities (which is why we were glad to be staying at Canyon).
Canyon Campground specifically is an excellent jumping off point for lots of hiking around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and for a day trip to the Lamar Valley. The campground isn’t very private, but we quickly learned that none of the park campgrounds were. Read my full guide here for what it’s like to camp at Canyon.
Nearly every area of the park has a lodge, but since they’re so expensive it can be helpful to pick one to prioritize if you don’t want to camp the whole time. We chose the Old Faithful Inn because it’s a really cool historical landmark, plus we really wanted to visit the area and there were no camping options available there. We did manage to save a little bit of money on our stay at the historic inn with these tips and tricks.
The Old Faithful area is a great stepping off point for geysers and hot springs (aka geothermal features). It also has plenty of hiking options for more traditionally mountain-ey trails (including waterfalls). We ended our trip on the southern end of the park (where Old Faithful is) since that was where we planned to exit the park to head to Grand Teton.
All your reservations (for camping and lodges) have to be made well in advance, even for the less-busy fall season. We booked all of our camping and lodging in January right when everything opened up for the calendar year, but if you don’t get on it immediately, cancellations are relatively common so you might get lucky if you check back frequently.
Our four-day itinerary
Day 1: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
We arrived at the southern entrance to Yellowstone in the late morning after driving in from Riverton, Wyoming (about three hours away). We stayed in Riverton the night before so we could split the 10-hour drive from Denver into more manageable pieces. Lander is another option to do this – there’s very little difference in distance between the two towns (although Lander is prettier), we just needed a Holiday Inn so we could book with hotel points and the one in Riverton had availability.
Our final destination was our campsite in Canyon Village, but we explored the southeast corner of the park on our way there to get a glimpse of Yellowstone Lake and the Hayden Valley (you drive right by/through both of them on the way to Canyon). We set up camp and then hit the trails!
If you only have time (or desire) for one hike, I would recommend the North Rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone over the South Rim. Both are just a few minutes drive from the campground.
The South Rim is much busier thanks to Artist’s Point (more on that in a moment), but the views from the North Rim were even more stunning and really blew Artist’s Point out of the water. Hiking farther down the North Rim Trail would also give you the same canyon panoramas that our hike to Sublime Point did. However, Artist’s Point is completely paved and therefore easier to access.
South Rim – Artist’s Point(no hiking involved): Artist’s Point is one of the more famous overlooks. It’s right next to a parking lot so getting there doesn’t require any hiking. Even in the less-busy September season, we were packed in like sardines with tour buses of people. And, once we saw the view from other overlooks, we realized it wasn’t really worth fighting the crowds for a view from Artist’s Point.
South Rim –Hikes from Artist’s Point (3+ miles round trip): Our first choice was the Uncle Tom Trail, but it was closed for construction in September 2018. Instead, we hiked to Point Sublime (approximately three miles round trip) which had beautiful views of the entire canyon. Ironically, the point you end up at isn’t the most stunning view, but the views along the way are tremendous and it was a great way to stretch our legs and get our first taste of Yellowstone!
I appreciated that all the trail options were fairly flat. The Sublime Point Trail also had just enough people on it to help me feel more at ease since I was really scared about running into bears.
North Rim – Brink of the Upper and Lower Falls (approximately one mile total): In the early evening, we went back out to hike these two trails that, as the names imply, are at the brink of two huge waterfalls. The Lower Falls are the bigger of the two, and are the ones you would’ve seen from Artist’s Point.
The hike to the lower falls overlook (it’s literally a deck right on the brink of the waterfall) is short (half a mile total) but steep. Don’t let this stop you, though! There are plenty of places to sit and take a break and this was absolutely worth the hike back uphill. The vantage point is unmatched. I get a little bit of vertigo around steep drop-offs, but wasn’t bothered by this overlook and am SO glad I went a little out of my comfort zone to do this.
We got back in the car and continued driving down North Rim Drive to the Lookout Point overlook to get a view back at the Lower Falls; this was the perfect way to cap off the evening and get the best view yet of the falls (also why you could skip Artist’s Point if you wanted to). If it’s daytime, you can also wander down the North Rim Trail as much (or as little) as you want!
All of these hiking options are no more than 10 minutes from the Canyon Campground entrance, one of the reasons I loved staying there.
Day 2: Lamar Valley
Lamar Valley wolf watching (1 hour from Canyon Campground): We woke up at 5 a.m. to make it to the Lamar Valley by sunrise. This is the best place and time to spot some wolves, which was one of my biggest priorities when planning our trip. Driving through the dark before the sun comes up is legitimately pitch black with no lights, so drive slowly and carefully!
We drove into the valley (outside of the Tower area of the park) until we saw a crowd of wildlife watchers, then pulled over and parked (in designated parking areas/shoulders, please do the same). We had regular binoculars, which ended up not doing much, so fortunately all the pros were more than happy to share their big fancy scopes, and their knowledge.
We saw an entire pack of wolves mingling with a herd of buffalo, so my day was made and the 5 a.m. wake-up call was 100% worth it! With the help of the more high-powered scopes people shared, we could see the wolves clearly enough to see the radio collars on their neck. I was so incredibly grateful for the generosity of others and really enjoyed having this quiet, shared experience with a small crowd of people, all committed enough to be there right before sunrise.
Breakfast on the road: After we got our fill of wolf watching, we drove a few more minutes north to a pull-out at Soda Butte Creek for a roadside breakfast. This camp stove was super easy to travel with and made it quick to whip up some oatmeal for a more filling breakfast before hiking.
Trout Lake Hike (1.2 miles round trip): We made an entire morning of it in the Lamar Valley area by hiking to and around Trout Lake. My complete guide to this beginner-friendly hike is here. I highly recommend it for the stunning mountain lake views!
Slough Creek Trail (pick your distance): On the way back from Trout Lake, we made a side trip to Slough Creek (30-minute drive total from Trout Lake) to do a bit more hiking and check out the campground. This is a first-come, first-serve campground that’s a bit more isolated, and we ended up being glad we had booked the more centrally-located Canyon campsite.
The trail that leaves from the campground is 14 miles total round trip, so we just enjoyed as many miles as we felt like doing before turning around. This trail was very pretty but much less heavily trafficked, which ended up making me too nervous to go more than a few miles. We didn’t see any wildlife except for some birds, though, so I’m sure I was overreacting.
Throughout our drive, we saw TONS of buffalo, most of which were just hanging out on the side of the road. Drive slowly and let the person in the passenger seat take photos so you don’t get into an accident.
Tower Falls Overlook (100 yards): At the Tower Junction on your way back, there’s a restaurant and waterfall overlook. We weren’t ready to eat yet, but made one last stop to see the waterfall, which was an easy 100-yard hike out to the overlook. It was crowded, but I thought worth the stop and a nice way to split up the trip back to the Canyon area. Don’t be expecting the powerful falls of the Grand Canyon, though, especially in September. This lives up to it’s tower name – tall and skinny!
There are a ton of other quick overlooks to stop at between Tower and Canyon, which makes the drive back overall much more enjoyable than the trip out you made in the dark. Stop at whatever sounds interesting!
After napping off your morning at the campground, you could easily fit in more activities if you wanted to. We decided to hit the showers, at which point I unfortunately was fully hit with the altitude sickness I’d been struggling with all day and almost fainted. So the rest of our day was napping and spending time around the campfire, which was still very pleasant! 🙂
Day 3: Old Faithful
I was still feeling pretty crappy by morning, which only illustrates how important it is to stay hydrated and not underestimate the altitude of the park. I’m from Denver, after all, and still got altitude sickness! I chalked this up to spending the week prior at sea level, getting on a plane, then driving straight to Yellowstone, all while not drinking enough water. Stay hydrated and rest as much as you need so that you don’t suffer a similar fate.
Watch Old Faithful erupt: Fortified with some anti-nausea medicine from urgent care (there is practically a small city surrounding Old Faithful), we got ice cream at the inn and staked out a spot on the deck to watch Old Faithful erupt. The deck was way better than walking up to the actual geyser (we did both just to make sure) since you don’t have to fight the crowds as much. You can also hike up to an overlook above the geyser, which was recommended to us by friends, but unfortunately wasn’t going to work for me that day.
Explore Upper Geyser Basin (3 – 4.5 miles round trip): The other geothermal features surrounding Old Faithful were honestly more interesting than Old Faithful. Even though the other geysers were less predictable, we still saw multiple eruptions. You can get really close to Castle Geyser, which turned out to be our favorite, but we also got really lucky with the timing of the eruptions. That can be hit or miss if you’re only there for a day or two.
The entire walk is pretty level and part of a boardwalk, making it very beginner-friendly. Even with altitude sickness, I was able to do the entire 3.5-mile loop. You can add on the Old Faithful Overlook to make it 4.5 miles or make it shorter by turning around whenever you want instead of doing the entire loop.
Wildlife watching and cocktail hour: We had a bunch of time to kill before our late-night dinner reservation, and this was a great way to do it. We took a short walk down to Castle Geyser around sunset and saw an entire family of elk! I was surprised by how many times I could walk around the boardwalk and not get tired of it.
Afterward, head up to the second floor of the lodge and jot down any wildlife you spotted on the whiteboard (and enjoy seeing what others have noted)! If you’re in the mood, grab a cocktail from the bar while you’re up there (we loved the Huckleberry Mule) and settle into a cozy leather chair and listen to the incredible live music. We were treated to piano the first night and a cellist the second. It was heavenly!
Dinner at the Old Faithful Inn: You have to make advance reservations to eat in the historic dining room. We did this pretty late in the game (a few weeks prior) so we had to eat dinner at like 9 p.m. The food was expensive and not bad, but I would keep your expectations tempered. We really enjoyed the experience of the historic dining room, but weren’t wow-ed by the food. It was better than the cafeteria options at the other surrounding lodges, though.
Day 4: Old Faithful’s Surrounding Areas
Breakfast at the Old Faithful Basin Store (aka Hamilton’s Store): Next door to the lodge is a more affordable and faster breakfast option than the buffet at the inn. Since we already got our historic dining experience in the night before, we opted to get breakfast here. It was still expensive, but the food was significantly better than the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. Definitely stop in for breakfast or lunch!
Hike to Mystic Falls (2.5 mile round trip hike after 8-minute drive from Old Faithful): This beginner-friendly waterfall hike leaves from the Biscuit Basin area, just down the road from Old Faithful. Make sure to take a lap around all of the geothermal features before or after your hike to Mystic Falls. At this point, my bear anxiety was finally easing up so I was comfortable with the fact that we only saw a few people along the hike. The bottom of the waterfall is a great place for a picnic lunch, too! Read my full trail guide here >>
We originally wanted to do a longer hike to Fairy Falls (5-6+ miles), which I would still recommend if you have the appetite for something that long and aren’t recovering from altitude sickness. It looked beautiful in the guide book and was highly recommended by multiple friends!
Sunset at Grand Prismatic (approximately 2 mile round trip hike after a 15-minute drive from Old Faithful): This was another can’t-miss Yellowstone icon that was even more stunning at dusk! We hiked to the overlook and did the boardwalk that goes right up to Grand Prismatic, and I would recommend both. The overlook is uphill on the way out, but short and beginner-friendly (less than two miles total round trip). Adding on the board walk should put you at right about two miles total for hiking around.
Dinner atthe Bear Pit Lounge: A smaller dinner menu, but easier option than the dining room back at the Old Faithful Inn. Make sure to get a huckleberry-themed cocktail (or lemonade or dessert) to cap off your trip – huckleberry everything is a Yellowstone hallmark!
What I would do differently
Not get altitude sickness! Or at least done a better job of avoiding it by hydrating better.
I also would’ve worked on my bear anxiety much earlier on. We were on plenty of hikes that were screaming “bear country” (we were out in early morning, by ourselves/on less populated trails that were lined with berry bushes) but we still never saw a bear on a hike.
The only time we even saw a bear was on the side of the road headed to Grand Teton! My anxiety about bears interfered with our first few days of hiking, and I wish I could’ve been a bit more relaxed about things. Bring bear spray and be prepared, but try to leave your anxiety at home.
There are endless hiking options to choose from, and I thought we did a good job of picking the ones that helped us see what we came for. If you want to do more research on your own, this guidebook was really helpful in evaluating all of our options.
If you want to spend more time on the water, you could adjust your stay to include the Yellowstone Lake area. There is another really incredible historic lodge there – we took a quick peek on our way to Canyon but didn’t stay long. Had it been later in the day, getting a cocktail to enjoy in the huge sitting room overlooking the lake could’ve been fun. It also struck me as a romantic place to spend an anniversary. You would need either more time than just four days or you’d have to cut out Old Faithful or the Grand Canyon – neither of those were an option for us.
Overall, keep in mind that in four days you have to pick and choose where you want to go – you can’t see all of Yellowstone without more time. But our four-day trip focusing on the Canyon, Lamar Valley, and Old Faithful areas of the park was everything we were looking for. Bookend your trip with an additional three days in Grand Teton National Park. Here’s our itinerary >>
I got the urge to start running in mid-October. Within weeks of starting Project Become A Runner, winter arrived in Colorado. More recently, I decided to run my first half marathon in April…and start training right as the temperatures were dropping in November.
Needless to say, I’ve been over (and under) dressing for winter running for several years now. It takes some trial and error, some sweaty days and some numb fingers, so let this beginner-friendly guide help you get a jump start on not freezing your booty off as winter runner!
A good rule of thumb is dress like it’s 10 degrees warmer than it actually is.
If you’re dressed right, you should be uncomfortably cold for just the first few minutes of your run before warming up and feeling good. If you’re wet with sweat, you’re overdressed.
There’s going to be some trial and error in the beginning (or, if you’re like me, at the beginning of every single winter). Don’t worry! You’ll get the hang of things eventually.
Layers are your best friend.
Start with a long-sleeved base layer. This is the piece of clothing closest to your skin. You’ll be fine in cotton if you’re just starting out and aren’t outside for very long (ie you’re just trying to run a few blocks without barfing like I was). You might be a little uncomfortable, but you’re not going to have some catastrophic consequence (this is why I hate the saying “cotton kills” that I see on websites all the time).
On top of your base layer, add a hoodie, a fleece jacket, puffy vest, pretty much whatever you’re comfortable in or already have. If it’s windy, make sure your outermost layer is something like a raincoat or other waterproof/windproof material.
*However* if you are wearing something waterproof, you’re going to be MUCH hotter, so back off on the layers underneath. Windproof/rainproof materials just trap all of your heat – like a wrestler running in a trash bag trying to make weight.
Based on the ten degrees rule, you may be surprised by how few layers you need. Even as a slower runner (12-minute mile pace), I found myself getting totally drenched with sweat and overdoing it almost every run.
You probably won’t ever need a full winter coat to run in – but if you’ve driven somewhere else for your run, it can be nice to keep that in the car to warm up when you get back!
Torn between wearing shorts and long sleeves or pants and short sleeves? Try pants first.
Some people can run in shorts no matter the temperature, but my joints get very upset if exposed below 45 degrees. I also get really hot and sweaty on my upper half, so having more layers up top has been a one-way ticket to being both hot and freezing at the same time.
Switching to pants and short sleeves when it’s in the 40s has been a game-changer. If you’re wondering what took me so long, it was my preference for how shorts and long sleeves looked together. #fashion
Use what you have.
Are cotton leggings not meant for sporty activities ideal for running? No. Did I wear the ~fashion~ leggings I already had from LOFT for most of my first runs? Absolutely.
I am in no way insisting that you have to go buy ALL THE THINGS. Technical fabrics are pricey, and I know everyone can’t just go buy a whole new wardrobe of things to sweat in.
If you buy one thing, buy good base layers.
Moisture-wicking, quick-drying, technical fabric base layers are the best investment I’ve made. They make winter running so much more pleasant – getting (and staying) too wet and sweaty is SO much more miserable then just being too cold from under dressing.
If you can spring for it, merino wool is the cream of the crop – it stays warm no matter how wet it gets (especially helpful when you are still figuring out how many layers work best for you).
REI’s base layers are a less expensive option suitable for most weather. Under Armour ColdGear is great for when it’s REALLY cold (below freezing). SmartWool is my favorite merino wool brand, but REI also carries their own less expensive (for merino, not for normal life) merino wool brand.
Springing for leggings is the next best investment. I rocked those LOFT leggings for a long time because I maxed out at half a mile and wasn’t actually outdoors for very long. Once I got too cold and didn’t want my favorite leggings to get gross, I gutted up and spent $50 on insulated running tights. This seemed like a lot of money to buy something to sweat in, but they’ve lasted for years of near-daily use (I don’t run that often, I just wear leggings as pants a lot).
Leggings are harder to fit then shirts, so the best brand to get is the brand that fits you the best. I have two rules of thumb: Go for a name brand and get a pair specifically for cold weather. Normally, I love Target for cheap active wear. But in my experience, cheap leggings don’t stay up and I’m constantly pulling them up while I run (the exception: this pair on Amazon, but they aren’t for winter).
Insulated/cold weather leggings will also make a big difference in staying warm, too. This doesn’t have to mean bulky – UnderArmour makes the warmest tights I own but are still thin (and a lot of the models have pockets!!). Here’s their current selection. I also love UnderArmour’s leggings because they’re nice and long – I’m 5’7″ and their leggings cover my ankles!
Don’t forget your head and hands.
Gloves are important, even if they’re just the $2 bargain gloves from Target. Your hands will be numb and you will probably be hating life pretty soon if you go out with your hands uncovered. I wear gloves if it’s under 40 degrees. You don’t need anything super thick – I love these thin, but wind-resistant, ones. (30% off as of October 2021!)
For my head, I prefer an ear warmer since 99% of women’s hats don’t have a hole or similar place for your ponytail, and I’m not a low pony type of gal. This Outdoor Research ear warmer is awesome, but it’s so good at blocking out the cold and wind that it also blocks out a fair amount of background noise – don’t be surprised if you startle anyone when you think you’re talking to them in a normal voice volume. You aren’t. You’re yelling. And it’s awkward. Worth it for warm ears, though!
As I started running a little longer (four or more miles) at a slightly faster pace (10-minute per mile pace), I realized my head was getting way too hot every time I ran. I had received a free Buff from work, and started using that as a headband. It’s much thinner than an ear warmer, but still moisture-wicking, making it another great option to keep your ears/head toasty!
The bottom line.
Dress like it’s warmer than it is. The 10-degree rule is a great starting point to figure out what works best for you.
Wear plenty of layersand don’t be afraid to experiment. There will be trial and error. If possible, invest in a moisture-wicking base layer shirt that isn’t cotton. Upgrade to non-cotton leggings next.
Don’t forget your extremities. Gloves, ear warmers, and Buffs are your friend!
One last thing: Safety.
It’s important to wear something reflective besides your shoes. Cold weather means shorter days, which means cars have a harder time seeing you. Consider a reflective vest like this one.
Consider a headlamp. If you live in a well-lit neighborhood, disregard this message, but the combination of questionable lighting and extremely questionable sidewalk quality in my neighborhood has made me a devotee of running with a headlamp. I run with a Black Diamond headlamp.
Best of luck with your trial and error! I mostly learned how to dress for running in the winter by wearing way too many clothes and getting too sweaty. That might happen you, too, but don’t worry – you’ll get to the happy medium eventually! Have fun out there.
As an East Coast native, I wasn’t sure leaf peeping in Colorado could live up to the hype – after all, instead of an explosion of a billion different colors, you have “just” one color. Gold.
But there’s something about the contrast of the golden aspens against the evergreens that is just stunning. And there’s nothing like standing in a grove of dozens of bright gold aspen trees. But I probably don’t need to tell you that, because everyone and their mother goes leaf peeping every fall in Colorado!
Because I don’t love crowds, leaf peeping is a once-every-few-years outing for me. You need to bring your patience, set your alarm clock early (or really bring your patience), and embrace the fact that this will not be the time for solitude in nature. There will be Instagram influencers, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Raccoon Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park is the perfect beginner-friendly option for some leaf-peeping close to Denver. Keep reading for all of my tips for this trail of less than three miles!
How do I get there?
If you already have a state parks pass, you can go straight to the trail head via Coal Creek Canyon and Highway 72. If you don’t have an annual pass, you have to buy a day pass at the main entrance on Crawford Gulch Road outside of Golden. You can also buy a day pass (with cash or check) at the northeastern entrance to the park on Gap Road (the fastest way from Arvada or Boulder area).
The drive to the park itself is easy, but does feel like it takes a long time since the highway from Golden is curvy and slow going. Once you’re in the park, if you have cash, you can just pull over at the small kiosk immediately to your right after entering the park.
If you need to pay with a credit card, skip that line and make your next right to park at the visitors center (where I’m sure there’s another line, just one that will get you what you actually need).
Where do I go?
If you’re comfortable on very steep, curvy (but still paved) roads, I recommend taking the scenic route on Mountain Gap Road, just past the fishing pond area of the park. Be very careful and drive slow since the park will be very crowded with other leaf peepers and there will be people walking along the road.
Your other option is to continue on the park entrance road until it comes to a T at Highway 119. Turn right on 119, then turn right again after a few miles onto Gap Road. This is the same road you end up on after taking the Mountain Gap Road (similar names, which I know is confusing). This is also where the road turns to dirt and gravel, but nothing you’ll need four-wheel drive for. This way is a little longer, but is less curvy and steep.
It’s going to be a little bit of a sh*tshow with how crowded it is, so just emotionally prepare for that if you know it’s going to be annoying to you. You can try to avoid the crowds by getting there early, but there isn’t anyone to take your money until 9 am, so make sure to stop on your way out if you get there before then.
I was (very) pregnant at the time of this hike, so getting up early was not on the table. We arrived around 2 pm along with the rest of the metro area, so parking was already snaking up the rest of Gap Road. It had only gotten worse by the time we were done, so an evening hike may not help you much with crowds. Rangers are on hand to help you find where to park – don’t be a jerk to them if they tell you to go elsewhere, they’re just doing their job!
To start the hike, I recommend going counterclockwise on the Raccoon Trail loop so you end with the best views. It’s not immediately obvious where to go from the signs, so make your way over to the Panorama Point overlook (it’s a large gazebo-like structure) and pick up the trail heading to the left of that. Stay on the Raccoon Trail – if you end up about to cross the road, you’ve gotten onto the Mule Deer Trail and are headed the wrong way!
What is the trail like?
No matter which way you go, you’ll go downhill first before coming back uphill. Traveling counter-clockwise, you go gently downhill or are on a flat trail for the first half. There are two big hills after that, but they are short so don’t get intimidated. Lots of people take breaks, and each hill doesn’t take more than 10 minutes of going up to get to the top.
Overall, the trail is well-maintained and easy to follow, but it does get rocky in places so watch your step!
The first part of the trail is in pretty dense evergreens, which I loved. It smells like Christmas and the pine needles on the ground make the trail really soft.
But then you open up into the aspen meadows and things start getting really scenic. Once you’ve climbed higher, you start getting glimpses of the surrounding mountains and the groves of gold aspen trees. There are two rocky outcroppings toward the end of the hike that make for excellent photo ops – and once you’ve gotten to the second one, you’re only minutes away from the parking lot!
The trail map and various places online said this hike was more than three miles long, but it’s actually almost a mile shorter than that. My watch missed the first section (see screenshot below) but only measured our hike at 2.3 miles, so I can’t imagine it’s more than 2.5 miles round trip. It took us about an hour and a half, including several breaks, photo ops, and my mad dash into the woods to find a spot to pee (thanks third trimester).
What should I wear and bring?
Always wear plenty of layers in the fall. It gets hot in the sun and when you’re going uphill, but any time you’re in the shade it was still quite cool. Golden Gate Canyon is also at significantly higher elevation than Denver, so make sure to check the weather at the park before you go. It’s typically 15 degrees cooler at Panorama Point than in Denver.
The day we hiked, it was unseasonably warm. I wore a t-shirt and fleece with leggings and a baseball hat. I got hot a few times, but for the most part kept my fleece on. You could wear grippy sneakers or hiking boots, it’s up to you. I opted for trail runners and was totally fine.
Speaking of those hills, make sure to bring some water and snacks. There isn’t anything immediately available at the trailhead, and you’re going to at least get thirsty. There is a convenience store along Highway 119 and snacks at the visitors center if you run out or need more.
Anywhere with aspens will be crowded in late September. But yes. It’s crowded. Parking is rough, there was a line to get into the park, and we hit a lot of traffic on the drive in too. If you want to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I’d recommend arriving shortly after sunrise or try a weekday.
The trail is also likely going to be very crowded when you first start out. Like to the point that you’ll wonder why you decided to do this and if you should just call it and go home. But be patient! After about 15 minutes, we had spread out enough that we weren’t still on top of everyone and their dog.
But that’s leaf peeping! Start early and bring your patience. It’s worth it!
Anything else I need to know?
The ideal time to leaf peep each year depends on the weather. We hiked this trail the first weekend of October which was just a little past prime (at least in 2019). A snowstorm was coming, so it was definitely our last chance, but there were some empty trees already.
Typically, the last two weeks of September are ideal. But this year (2020), it’s about to snow on Labor Day Weekend, so who knows! Not many trees have started turning, so maybe the early snow won’t affect things. (Wishful thinking?)
Torrey Pines is a must-do if you’re visiting San Diego. It has stunning cliff views and plenty of beginner-friendly hiking options. Plus, if you’re a nature nerd like me, the Torrey pine trees are a completely unique species and there was a lot of cool wildlife and other plants throughout our hike.
My husband and I visited in mid-September (because we are perpetually making our travel plans around when we can avoid crowds). We weren’t able to do the classic beach walk because of the timing of high tide, and also because I was six months pregnant and didn’t want to wake up early enough to beat high tide or walk that far. I did really want some cool views, I just really did not want to hike up the cliffs to see them.
We originally aimed for three short trails – North Fork to see the Broken Hill Overlook, the Red Butte loop, and Guy Fleming. We didn’t make it to Red Butte because I was running out of gas and didn’t want to miss the crazy cool views of Guy Fleming. All in all, we hiked just over 2.5 miles on some beautiful (and flat) trails!
How do I get there?
Drive north from San Diego. Make sure you type Torrey Pines State Reserve into Google Maps so you don’t accidentally navigate to the golf course. That will get you almost there, but obviously not quite to where you’re looking to go!
Taking the 5 is faster, but driving through La Jolla is way prettier. Plus you can stop at Bird Rock Coffee, which ended up being one of our favorite finds during our trip. If you’ve never been to La Jolla, add a stop at La Jolla Cove to see the sea lions and take the scenic route back to stop at Mt. Soledad.
Ok back to Torrey Pines. Once you get there, there’s free parking at the beach and a paid parking lot for the reserve. Don’t be fooled, this is not the only parking lot and you don’t have to walk up the giant hill along the road. Pay to enter the reserve (they take credit cards as of Fall 2019), drive up to the visitors center, and park there. This takes you to the top of the cliffs and gives you easy access to a bunch of different trails.
The drive is easy. The road is paved the entire way, but does get a little steep and curvy – just drive slowly and keep an eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.
Where do I go?
There is only one road, so it’s pretty much impossible to get lost!
If you want to do multiple trails, park at the Visitors Center (and take a quick peek inside if you feel like it or want a free map). There’s a parking lot directly at the visitors center and one across the road – the one across the road is a few steps closer to the trails and bathrooms.
We hiked multiple trails – Broken Hill Overlook via North Fork Trail (~1.5 miles round trip), poking around very briefly at Red Butte (~10 minutes of waddling), and Guy Fleming trail – and walked a combined 2.63 miles on all three trails. If you’re interested in more, add on on the entire Red Butte overlook after North Fork. The trail starts at the parking lot across from the visitors center.
If you only want to do one trail, do Guy Fleming. It’s got insane beach views from the top of the cliffs, cool wildlife, interesting plants, and of course, the iconic Torrey pine trees. Instead of going to the visitors center, park at the Guy Fleming trailhead (2/3 mile total). The parking area will be before you get to the visitors center on your right. There’s a dirt shoulder off the main road where you can find parking.
If you’re doing multiple trails, start with North Fork. A significant part of the trail is walking along a paved path/tiny road that gets hot very quickly. We started at 10 am in September and were very glad to be done (aka very very sweaty) by the time we were hiking back.
The North Fork trail is an “out and back,” meaning you hike out to the overlook and then hike back on the same trail. There are a few trail junctions, so make sure to follow the signs for North Fork so you don’t end up hiking all the way down to the beach, or missing the overlook by hitting South Fork. The trail was easily marked, so you will be fine!
After getting your Broken Hill photo op, hike back to the car and decide whether to add on Red Butte or go straight to Guy Fleming. It’ll likely be getting hot at this point, and Guy Fleming is also mostly in the sun (basically the entire park is mostly in the sun), so keep that in mind. This is also your chance for a pit stop at the port-o-potties (as of Fall 2019 the bathrooms were under construction). Make sure you bring hand sanitizer!
Whether you poke around Red Butte or not, drive over to the Guy Fleming trailhead to wrap up your day. It’s on your way out and there’s only one road, so it’s not hard to find! Guy Fleming is a “lollipop” trail, meaning you walk a short ways to a loop (so the trail looks like a lollipop on map). Because it’s a loop, it doesn’t matter which way you go. We went counter-clockwise to end up in the shade on the end of our hike.
What is the trail like?
The North Fork trail is mostly flat with scrubby brush until you get to the overlook. You can see the famous Torrey Pines golf course, but other than that the hike out isn’t particularly notable. The combination of desert plants and ocean is interesting, but the real reward is the view at the Broken Hill Overlook, which my photo honestly doesn’t do justice to.
The Guy Fleming trail is slightly hillier, but more scenic for the entire time with two crazy cool overlooks. You also get to actually see the Torrey Pine trees on the north half of the loop, which can only be found in the park and on a few coastal islands. Plus, more pine trees means more shade!
Keep a close eye out for the little lizards that live in the park! We saw them on both trails. Walking along the cliff overlook on Guy Fleming was also a great opportunity to watch the peregrine falcons swooping around. The trail also had a bunch of different cacti, including really huge prickly pear.
All of the trails were well-marked and easy to follow. I still recommend bringing a map just in case! The map makes everything look really far apart, but once you’re up at the top of the road, it’s actually all very close together.
What should I wear and bring?
We hiked Torrey Pines in September, on a sunny day with highs in the 80s. It got hot quickly, so dress for warm weather, bring lots of water, and slather on that sunscreen! I also recommend a hat or sunglasses or both – see my entire list of what to wear hiking here.
I wore regular sneakers, not even grippy trail runners, and was totally fine. Parts of the trail are a little sandy, but overall there is nothing that you would need all-terrain shoes for.
You’re never too far from the car, so you don’t need to bring a backpack for the trails in this post. I was six months pregnant and eating every five seconds, so I packed plenty of snacks but just left them in the car. We had lunch back in Pacific Beach (where we were staying), but you could also pack a lunch to enjoy on the beach when you’re done hiking!
Is it crowded?
On the weekends, yes. In the summer, even more so. We went in September on a weekday and it was still very busy. This is not the place to go for solitude, but it is totally worth all the company for the views!
Do you have other Torrey Pines tips? Add them below in the comments!
Ultramarathon and beginner are two things that you may not think go together. While beginner runners certainly can’t stick with someone for 50 miles (the maximum length you can be a pacer runner at Leadville), there is absolutely a place for us at one of the most iconic trail races in the world.
Even if you aren’t a beginner runner, there can be a steep learning curve if it’s your first time in Leadville or if you haven’t been part of an ultramarathon before. This guide will cover just about everything you need to know, focusing on crewing since it’s the most beginner-friendly option.
What does it mean to crew?
First, let’s all get on the same page. Running an ultramarathon is a really difficult thing to take on, so most races recommend you have a crew to support you along the way. The person or people who make up the crew meet their runner at some or all of the aid stations along the way.
Your runner wants to spend as little time at the aid station as possible so they can get back on the course and finish the dang thing. The crew arrives at each aid station well ahead of their runner with a bin of supplies you’ve organized with them ahead of time and/or the drop bag they packed for that aid station. The aid stations at Outward Bound and Twin Lakes let the crew pick up a runner’s drop bag, which is a handy time-saver.
Once you get to the aid station, you set up shop and wait for your runner to arrive. Once they get in, you leap into action like a NASCAR pit crew and get them in and out as efficiently as possible.
You make sure their pack is full of all the food and water they need, that they have appropriate clothing for the next leg (in Leadville, runners have a river crossing, 15,000+ feet of elevation change, and very chilly nights, so this is a must!).
The crew is critical because you need at least one person who is reasonably well-rested, not worried about running, and whose sole focus is “do we have everything we need?” This only gets more important as the race goes on and the runner’s cognitive abilities and general executive decision making get more and more compromised. You’re their back-up brain! Plus it’s a big morale boost for runners to see friends and loved ones throughout the race .
What does it mean to be a pacer?
For the last 50 miles of Leadville, runners are allowed to have one person run with them. This is a pacer. You’re there to keep them moving at a steady pace (whether they have a time goal or simply need to finish within the time cut-off) and serve as a kind of on-the-go crew, particularly once nighttime arrives and fatigue sets in!
For Leadville, you’re also allowed to carry the runner’s pack for them. But mainly, you’re there make sure they’re eating, drinking, moving, and at least somewhat happy (as happy as you can be trudging through 100 miles). If you have cell service, you can also communicate to the crew what your runner might want at the next aid station.
Pacing is a delicate balance of knowing when to encourage someone, when to give them some tough love, and when to go easy on them. It can be difficult to pace someone you don’t know or if you aren’t familiar with long-distance running yourself, but trust your instincts and discuss what kind of feedback motivates your runner ahead of time.
Most sections of the race are at least ten miles, but it’s possible to be a beginner runner and help pace. There’s a four-mile section that is actually incredibly helpful for a runner to have company for because it’s in the middle of the night through a very boring cow field.
If you have a training goal of running a longer leg, get after it! Just remember that this is not at all about you. You run when your runner wants to run, you run at their pace, you walk when they need to walk – your runner comes first. You’re there to support them, not to worry about your own distance or time goals.
What do I need to know to crew?
Honestly, it’s not rocket science. You have to be organized and able to follow your runner’s directions. You also need to be flexible, be able to think on your feet, and have a good sense of humor.
You need to take care of yourself (more on that later) but also keep in mind that you’re doing this in service of someone else’s goal, not for yourself. It’s not the end of the world if things go wrong, and it’s not helpful to get mad at your runner or fellow crew members. You just need to problem solve!
Plans change, things go off the rails, runners forget to tell you things, but at the end of the day it’s a wonderful privilege to be worried about the logistics of an ultramarathon. If that’s the worst thing happening in your life, you’re doing pretty well.
What should I do before the race?
Familiarize yourself with the aid stations. The race is one long out and back, so the runners go through every aid station twice. As of 2021, crew and pacers can access the May Queen, Treeline (unofficial crew access between Outward Bound and Halfpipe, a lot of people just call it Halfpipe or the field at Halfpipe), and Twin Lakes.
Remember how I said you need to be organized and have a sense of humor? I forked up the directions to the Treeline (unofficial) aid station on our way back from Twin Lakes, and my friend and I ended up driving to Mount Elbert by accident.
Fortunately, we had over an hour of cushion, so we still arrived to the actual aid station with plenty of time and didn’t miss our runner. And the drive was really beautiful, to be honest.
But also to be honest, I had a brief panic attack when I realized my mistake. My friend just thought it was a funny and interesting side adventure. Fill your crew (and your life) with people like that!
Make a plan. It’s important to sit down with your runner ahead of the race (even if it’s just the night before) and familiarize yourself with what they’re packing in their drop bags or what they would like you to bring to every aid station. That way you’ve discussed everything when they are alert and well-rested (the opposite of what they will be in the middle of the night).
For example, my runner really wanted hot soup at a particular point so I was waiting for her at that aid station with a thermos in hand. And, because I forgot to ask where they were ahead of time, I was scrambling to find her caffeine pills when she specifically asked for them later on.
Know when they’re arriving (approximately). You also need to estimate when they’ll be arriving at each aid station so you can plan accordingly. You should be ready to see your runner at least 30 minutes before you think they’ll arrive, which means you are physically at the aid station with all of their stuff ready to grab and go.
Buffer time is most important for getting to Twin Lakes it’s kind of a sh*t show to get to. In 2019, we had to park almost a mile away from the aid station at Twin Lakes. In 2021, we got to Twin Lakes at probably the busiest time (11 am) and ended up frantically walking/jogging two miles to try to meet our runner.
I love a good spreadsheet, so I put all of this information in a Google sheet, downloaded the app, and kept it handy throughout the weekend (remember to make your sheet available offline). You can see it here.
Cell service will be spotty. Download the race guide, maps, and directions to all of the aid stations ahead of time. You also won’t be able to communicate with your runner or track exactly where they are, however you can sign up for text alerts for when they go through each aid station. This helps you guess more accurately when they will show up, but the app (Athlinks) is honestly incredibly unreliable. It gave my friends a scare in 2021 when it popped at their runner DNF’d (did not finish) when in reality he was still running.
In the second half of the race, if they have a pacer and you have the pacer’s phone number, you may be able to call or text them to get an update on roughly how far out they are. But keep in mind that the pacer may not be able to regularly check their phone because they’re keeping the runner going!
What should I bring to every aid station?
Pack light and bring a few things for yourself. This might be difficult if your runner is channeling any anxiety into packing ALL THE THINGS, but try to pare down as much as you can.
Bring only the essentials for yourself: a camping chair, water, snacks, an extra layer, sunscreen, your wallet, and your phone. Always make sure to bring a camping chair (the Helinox Chair One has come in SO clutch here because it’s so lightweight, but it is expensive).
I keep more of my stuff in the car and repack what I need to bring in my backpack for each aid station. This includes hand sanitizer, bug spray, plenty of snacks, and extra sunscreen along with all of my layers for the weekend.
You’ll likely also have a bin or some other container of your runner’s stuff to carry.
Every aid station has port-o-potties that the crew can access, but you can’t access the water or other snacks at the aid station. Those are for pacers and runners only, so make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day (10,000 feet of elevation is no joke).
What should I wear?
The temperatures (and weather in general) can vary wildly. You’ll need plenty of warm layers for overnight, but in the daytime, it’s quite hot in the sun (and cold in the shade). It might also rain! Or hail! I bring a small duffel bag of a bunch of different layers, including:
Winter coat (doubles as a rain jacket)
Fleece jacket or pullover
Light-weight long sleeve shirt
Baseball hat and sunglasses
My winter coat unzips into two layers, which helps me save space. I kept the outer shell with me all day as a windbreaker or raincoat, and swapped out other layers in my backpack as needed. Just make sure you have something warm and a raincoat!
I wear running shoes all day. It can be nice to change socks halfway through the day as a little pick-me-up, so I usually bring a few pairs. You’ll need warm clothes for the start and for once it gets dark. Make sure to bring your own headlamp and, if you have them, lanterns for your car for crewing in the dark. This lantern from Black Diamond is my favorite.
What’s it like to crew for Leadville?
You will walk a lot. Every runner has at least one car following them, meaning there are at least 800+ vehicles attempting to meet a runner throughout the day. As people drop out or get cut off, this obviously goes down. Cars also get more spread out throughout the evening as the runners get more spread out, but for the first half of the race, be ready to park far away (potentially 1-2 miles) from the aid station and walk there.
In 2019, I walked more than seven miles. I didn’t even go to all the aid stations, and I was actually trying to limit my walking for the day! (I was preggo and had symphysis pubis disorder).
You’re going to be very tired. It’s a very long weekend emotionally, so even if you’re not running, you’ll be headed to bed at 7 pm on Sunday. You need to make sure you get some sleep before then though. You can’t support your runner well if you’re also completely frazzled.
You can split the day into two semi-reasonable shifts if you skip a few aid stations. You can either have multiple members of your crew to make sure all the aid stations are covered, or discuss with your runner which ones they would be okay with you skipping (particularly if they’ll have a pacer with them).
Most of all, it’s going to be an experience like nothing else. The trail running community is awesome. There is a sense of camaraderie that I haven’t experienced anywhere else, that maybe can only be forged when you’re running 100 miles through the woods (or helping someone do so). Leadville is a world-famous race, but the competition is far from cut throat and everyone is out there to help each other and have as much fun as they can. You’ll be tired, you’ll be inspired, you might cry at the finish line.
It’s a really cool experience that anyone can be a part of – so don’t hesitate to join in if you get the chance!
What does your typical weekend look like?
The race starts at 4am Saturday, and if all goes well your runner will finish sometime Sunday between midnight and 10am.
This was how I did it in 2019 with my husband and our friend (both pacers, but helped me out as crew when they weren’t running). For reference, this was our third year crewing/pacing and I thought we did the best job logistically this time!
We stayed together all day except when one of them was pacing, so you could cover more aid stations if you split up more then we did. Our runner prioritized nighttime pacing and morale boosts, so as always, talk to your runner about their own preferences.
We woke up at 3:30 am to go to the start line with our runner. We went immediately back to the house and went back to sleep afterward, so we were back in bed by 4:30 am or so. We skipped May Queen because the crew can’t do much for you there. This is a point where you could split up if it was really important to your runner to see someone at every aid station.
Arrive at Outward Bound to really start the day (8:30 am for my runner). Be prepared to be out until after lunch time.
Next you have the option to meet your runner at Treeline (unofficial crew station along the road), or go straight to Twin Lakes. We went straight to Twin Lakes because we were worried about parking being a nightmare (it was). There’s a food truck at Twin Lakes and a general store if you need to buy anything. Both accept credit cards as of 2021!
In 2019, we skipped Winfield because of the shuttle fiasco and because our runner didn’t want a pacer until she came back through Twin Lakes. In 2021, Winfield wasn’t an option for crew or pacers anymore.
~NICE BIG BREAK~
We went home, ate, slept, and got ready for the night shift. This was at approximately 12:30pm for us. We didn’t need to leave for Twin Lakes until 4:30pm.
Arrive back at Twin Lakes. We weren’t going home again until 11pm or later, so both pacers brought all of their running stuff with them. Your runner’s needs at every aid station vary, but at this point, your runner will be wet and it’ll be dark or getting dark, so a change of clothes and a fresh headlamp is a must for this aid station.
Meet runner and pacer at Treeline for a quick morale boost. This is usually your biggest break because Twin Lakes and Treeline are about 20 minutes apart driving but takes several hours to run. This is a great time to sleep in your car because you just park right next to the road your runner comes down. Our runner got into Treeline at 10pm.
Go directly to Outward Bound, switch pacers, and go home to sleep (this was around 11:30pm for us). We left May Queen to the overnight pacer because we wanted to wake back up at 3:30am to see our other friend finish and we knew we wouldn’t be able to do both. But, we kept our phones on loud in case anything went awry.
Wake up and meet your runner at the finish line! We did this twice to see both friends. If you only have one runner finishing, you could add on May Queen overnight and not feel TOO horrific if you’ve gotten a nap earlier in the day/evening.
Have other Leadville questions? I’m all ears! Drop them in the comments.