DENVER — Getting in shape for fourteener season comes with a complication: You want to prepare your legs and lungs for hikes that will involve 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation gain, even more in some cases, but high mountain trails still have snow on them.
Usually the best training for a specific physical activity is doing that activity, or one that simulates it, but nobody wants to set a treadmill on 10% incline and walk on it for six hours. Fortunately, there are plenty of trails in the foothills near the metro area where you can get 1,000 to 2,000 feet of elevation gain right now and prepare your legs for the bigger mountains you hope to climb this summer.
“It is very important to prepare the body for long and steep grinds,” said Heather North, a physical therapist who practices in Louisville. “Attempting those climbs undertrained can not only cause injury, but also be downright dangerous.”
You may think you’re already in shape for fourteener season because you run or bike year-round, but hiking uphill puts unique stress on the feet, ankles, knees, and leg and back muscles. If you don’t prepare by gradually introducing some climbing into your training regimen, you might come back from that fourteener with a limp.
Fourteener season usually begins in mid- to late June or July, and North recommends beginning to train eight to 12 weeks out.
“Gradually increasing training with a sustained incline not only changes our cardiovascular system, but also helps our connective tissue and bones acclimate to the specific demands of sustained uphill efforts,” North said.
One hike you can do to ease yourself into climbing season can be found at Matthews/Winters Park, just south of Interstate 70 at the Morrison exit. Take the Village Walk trail to the Red Rocks Trail, bear right at Cherry Gulch and hike up the switchbacks of the Morrison Slide Trail to a prominent ledge. That will give you a 4-mile roundtrip hike with almost 500 feet of elevation gain. Plus, the views are special.
Another option for starters is North Table Mountain near Golden, which offers three short ascent routes of 400 to 600 feet leading to the top of a mesa where a network of relatively flat trails awaits. One climb begins at the west trailhead just off of Colorado Highway 93, ascending via the North Table Loop trail, and is steep right from the start but only for half a mile or so. Another ascent option is via the Mesa Top Trail, which requires a hike of about a mile from the west trailhead via the North Table Loop to reach the Mesa Top ascent. The third is on the east side of the mountain, accessed by Easley Road, climbing via North Table Loop and the Cottonwood Canyon trail. That’s the toughest, but by far the most beautiful.
When you’re ready to take it up a notch, as it were, here is a list of places in the foothills near Denver where you can get in 1,100 to 2,200 feet of climbing:
White Ranch Park
Located near Arvada, a little over a mile west of Colorado 93, White Ranch has 22 miles of trails. The eastern trailhead is located at 6,150 feet and there are trails that will get you to 7,500 feet.
Chimney Gulch Trail
This trail begins at a turnout on the west side of U.S. 6 in Golden, about a half mile south of Colorado Highway 58. It climbs about 1,100 feet from the trailhead to Windy Saddle, which connects Mount Zion to Lookout Mountain.
This park on the eastern slope of Lookout Mountain, near the old Heritage Square theme park, has 10 miles of trails with up to 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Keep in mind that its trails are open to hikers and runners only on odd-numbered calendar days. On even calendar days, trails are open to mountain bikers only.
Mount Falcon Park
Located southwest of Morrison, Mount Falcon has 12 miles of trails with climbs of up to 2,000 feet. Just be aware that finding a parking space at the Morrison Trailhead on weekends can be a challenge, and it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes on the trails.
Deer Creek Canyon Park
Located 4 miles west of Chatfield Reservoir on Deer Creek Canyon Road, this park has more than 14 miles of trails with up to 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Note: A seasonal closure is in effect on the Black Bear Trail, which connects the park to nearby Hildebrand Ranch Park.
Bergen Peak Trail
From the Lewis Ridge Trailhead in Elk Meadow Park, which is located between Bergen Park and Evergreen on Colorado Highway 74, the trail to the 9,700-foot summit of Bergen Peak climbs 2,200 feet. The roundtrip hike is just over 10 miles.
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This story was originally published May 26, 2022 5:30 AM.