Waterton Canyon Trail is a 12.4-mile, out-and-back trail that makes for an ideal day trip. It’s located just southwest of Denver, near the small town of Louviers, Colorado. The trail’s a wide service road that follows the South Platte River to the Strontia Springs Dam.
Waterton Canyon Trail Overview
|Distance:||12.4 miles round-trip|
|Elevation gain:||688 feet|
|Route type:||Out and back|
|Trail Map:||Waterton Canyon|
|Closest city:||Littleton, CO|
Waterton Canyon Trail might seem long, but it is deemed “easy” due to its low elevation gain and well-groomed trail. This trail makes for a mellow, fun-filled day with plenty of recreation possibilities and stunning views.
The Strontia Springs Dam sure is a sight to see! You’ll be amazed to find a 243-foot tall dam hiding in such an isolated canyon. The dam sits right over the tranquil South Platte River. If you happen to visit when water is let out from the dam, you are in for a breathtaking waterfall.
Exploring Waterton Canyon Trail
In short, this is just a fun trail!
The first time I visited Waterton Canyon Trail, I hiked with my sister and her two daughters (ages 5 and 10 at the time). The girls loved the wider trail to run around on and play while we hiked. The rest areas provided shade and seating for the (many) breaks we took.
This trail is so unique because there are rest areas and picnic tables dispersed along the trail from start to finish. This allowed the trail to be really busy, but without ever actually feeling crowded. Denver Water and the National Forest Service have done a great job of creating an outdoor space for recreators of all types.
Even in the heat of summer, we saw a bunch of wildlife. There were groups of bighorn sheep in several different spots along the trail. Closer to the dam, we saw a few bald eagles flying overhead.
And then there’s the dam! Waterton Canyon is one of the coolest trails I have been on because of this dam. After a good hike in of enjoying the rushing South Platte River noise and canyon wildlife, suddenly there’s this giant feat of engineering in front of you. This was especially an awesome sight for the kiddos to see.
The second time I visited this area, I ran the trail. The gradual elevation gain was enough to make me work for those first 6.2 miles. The way back was downhill and smooth sailing.
Since the South Platte River is right off the trail, it was easy to stop and splash around whenever I got too hot. This was a great and easy-going trail run where I didn’t have to worry about getting lost or hurt (which is usually a big concern).
I would highly recommend this trail for anyone who is visiting Colorado or is new to being at higher elevations. It is easy to take breaks here and avoid exertion. If you are visiting the state and are staying in or near Denver, this trail is a short drive from the city. For the same reasons, I would highly recommend this trail for beginning or young hikers.
The many picnic and day-use areas make this an ideal location for a family outing or friend gathering. I was blown away by the amount of activities you can do here.
Waterton Canyon Trail Activities
Since this is a well maintained service road, the trail offers opportunities for many different activities. This trail offers amenities along the entire 6.2 miles to the Strontia Springs Dam and reservoir. Waterton Canyon has a little bit of everything for anyone looking to have some outdoor fun!
While this is a very family-friendly area, due to the large bighorn sheep population here, dogs are not allowed on this trail.
Hiking is the most popular activity here. Waterton Canyon offers spectacular views and the serenity of the South Platte River. Due to the high volume of rest areas and pit toilets along the trail, all skill-levels are welcome here.
Since the trail is a wide service road, there is limited shade. I highly recommend UV layers, sunscreen, and plenty of water if you are looking to hike the whole trail in the warmer months. The summer heat will make it easy to take advantage of all those rest areas along the way!
Waterton Canyon Trail is a great trail for strollers and little hikers! The gravel road is easy for little bikes to move along. I’ve seen many families have their children on bikes while they hike or run.
There are many picnic and day-use areas along the whole trail. Some of these areas are only one or two miles away from the trailhead. So, if you’re looking to have some fun with kiddos who don’t quite have their hiking-legs, this trail is still the perfect way to spend a sunny day outside!
The evenness of this trail allows easy access for hybrid or road bikes that do well on gravel. You will get a decent workout on the way up as you gain elevation. The smooth and fast ride down is worth the work!
As mentioned earlier, the easy gravel road makes it ideal for children to bike on. This is also one of the few trails that are wide enough for bike trailers, so you can even haul your little ones for a bike ride.
There is a bike rack at the end of this trail. Here, you can lock your bike up if you want to hike up to the reservoir before riding back.
“Bike-packing” is very popular on this trail since it is very bike friendly and connects you to Pike National Forest and trails such as the Colorado Trail that go beyond the dam*. If you are going beyond the dam, or want to ride up to the reservoir, a mountain bike is required on these upper, more technical trails.
This trail is very popular among runners looking for some easy miles due to its easy access and groomed path. Since this is a wider trail, shade can be hard to find on hot days. UV layers and water are vital for runners.
If you are new to the sport, we suggest you read our 101 guide on trail running.
Fishing is popular along the trail as well. Since the trail follows the South Platte River the entire way, it is very easy to find your own spot away from any others. This trail even features a Handicap Fishing Pier! The pier can be found 1.25 miles up the canyon. The abundant rest areas make it easy to “set up shop” along the river and spend the day fishing with friends or family.
Fishing in Colorado does require a fishing license. You can find more information about fishing in Colorado and purchase a license through Colorado Parks & Wildlife. Children under the age of 16 fish for free in Colorado, making it easy to get the kids involved!
If you have ever been in Pike National Forest, you know just how much wildlife is in this area. If you’re new to the area, you’re going to fall in love with this section of Colorado Front Range! Bighorn sheep especially love this canyon and are often seen. Other animals such as mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, lizards, and snakes have been reported.
Denver Water reports that there are 40 bird species in the canyon! This includes everything from great bald eagles to buzzing hummingbirds. There is even a designated lookout area for birding roughly 6 miles into the trail. Be sure to grab your binoculars for this one!
Backpacking (beyond the Waterton Canyon Trail)
If you are looking for a good backpacking adventure, you can connect with the Colorado Trail from Waterton Canyon. You’ll meet up with the Colorado Trail as you follow the more technical trail that ascends the dam and up to the reservoir.
The complete Colorado Trail goes from the meeting of the North Fork of the South Platte and the South Platte all the way down to Durango. The connection via Waterton Canyon Trail lies only about 10 miles south of the South Platte River confluence.
Even though some of this trail is on National Forest land, there is no dispersed camping allowed off the Waterton Canyon Trail itself, you must go beyond the dam to camp.
Here is a recreation map of the area that details day-use and rest areas, and includes camping and fire restriction information so you can begin planning your own Waterton Canyon adventure!
As with all outdoor adventures, please follow Leave No Trace principles. The abundant rest areas and pit toilets along this trail make it easy to clean up your trash and sustainably go to the bathroom. Please take advantage of these resources!
Directions to Waterton Canyon Trail
The parking lot for Waterton Canyon Trail is located off Waterton Road south of Chatfield Reservoir and about 20 minutes from Littleton. Click here for driving directions.
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