Colorado Trails Adventures

A guided naturalist hike through Mueller State Park leads to new appreciation for Colorado Parks and Wildlife trails programs.
Mueller State Park
CPW offers naturalist guided tours at Colorado’s state parks.

A lot happens at Colorado Parks and Wildlife in August to celebrate our public lands and outdoor spaces. Everyone gets in free to our state parks on the first Monday in August to celebrate Colorado Day. And military and veterans get in free all month.

It’s a great time to get in touch with the spirit of what it means to enjoy the outdoors in Colorado. Maybe it’s more important than ever right now, with the coronavirus pandemic still keeping many of us socially distanced. Nature has the power to heal. It’s why so many of our public lands are seeing enormous increases in visitation.

This month, I thought I’d celebrate our state parks by highlighting some of their best trails and seeing if there was anything relatively close to home I could hike with my family.

On July 10, my 15-year-old daughter Natalie, girlfriend Jamey and I went to the Grouse Mountain Trailhead at Mueller State Park.

I had asked CPW’s Southeast Regional Trail Coordinator Luke Svare for some insight on the best trails located on Colorado Parks and Wildlife property in his region. He suggested the Cahill Pond Loop – a 2.6-mile hike with beautiful views of the backside of Pikes Peak.

Masked hikers meet at the trailhead.
Masked hikers meet at the trailhead.

At the trailhead, we met CPW Naturalist Pam Williams and another family who had registered for a guided hike of the loop, which includes multiple Mueller trails. It is easy to follow, as the trails are well-marked at the trailhead and with green arrow markers along the trails.

We all wore masks during the hike, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. It was a hot day on the Front Range, but Mueller’s location at 9,600 feet meant more tolerable temps.

We took things slow and Williams’ enthusiasm for the many wildflowers that were in bloom was infectious.

CPW Naturalist Pam Williams identifies wildflowers from the trail.
CPW Naturalist Pam Williams identifies wildflowers from the trail.

The flowers have fantastic names: Alpine Pussytoes, Pinedrops and Yellow Stonecrop, Sneezeweed, Kinnikinnik, and Mariposa Lily. I had been struggling to pick up wildflower identification from books. But Williams, with a copy of Wildflowers of Colorado Field Guide by Dan Mammoser at the ready, taught us so much in such a short amount of time.

Jamey grabbed a copy of the book when we got home and we spent the rest of July learning and pointing out flowers as we went on walks around our house back in Colorado Springs.

Daughter Natalie wasn’t as excited by the wildflowers as we were. She preferred the next part of the trail.

Bootlegging and Murder

John and Lester Cahill Cabin
Natalie and Jamie at the John and Lester Cahill Cabin.

Around a mile into the hike, through beautiful aspen trees and open meadows, we came to a dilapidated cabin. Williams had us pause for a chance to take photos before giving us a little history of the area.

She said the cabin belonged to John and Lester Cahill, brothers who ran a cattle ranch in this area during the 1920s and ’30s.

“This was during Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal in the United States, and John and Lester were also big bootleggers,” Williams said.

But there was more to the Cahill brothers’ story. William said they didn’t get along with a neighboring family, the Osborns. And in 1941, John and Lester Cahill stole four horses from the Osborns and sold them to Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. 

The brothers would eventually go to prison for the horse theft and other cattle-rustling crimes. But before they landed behind bars, they were rumored to have been involved in the disappearance of Sumner Osborn, of the neighboring family.

As our hike continued, there was more history to learn as Williams stopped us again. She reminded us that the Cahills were also bootleggers and challenged us to spot their hidden still somewhere near the next section of trail. 

She let us walk right past it before stopping us and backtracking to examine the still. None of us were able to spot it from the trail, and it’s not marked with any interpretive sign. I am positive many who hike this trail without a naturalist have never noticed the remains of the bootleggers still. The crumbling railroad beams used to build it are still too well-concealed. Here, a group of beautiful Colorado Columbines now grew beside the still and I made sure to get photos before we continued on.

Remains of the bootleggers still.
Remains of the bootleggers still.

The final section of the hike featured even more wildflowers, as well as beautiful blue tree swallows that live near the Cahill Pond. Williams pointed to dark markings on many of the aspen trees and explained that elk eat aspen bark. If you looked around at the aspen trees in Mueller State Park, you could see where the elk had come through, leaving their chew-marks on many of the trees. Suddenly, I was seeing the trees around me in a whole new way.

At the end of our hike, we parted ways back at the Grouse Mountain trailhead and headed back down U.S. Highway 24. It was only noon and yet the morning had been so full.

I have been on many hikes, and have enjoyed trail running for many years, but I realized I haven’t been on enough naturalist-led hikes. They’re slower. They’re more meditative. They put you in a learning state. If you’re in the mood to really deepen your understanding of the land around you, there’s nothing better. And they’re a great activity to do at a state park.

CPW Events Calendar
For a complete list of events at Colorado’s state parks, please see the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s events calendar. CPW has many great trails at its state parks, but it also has a huge part in creating trails all around Colorado through both motorized and non-motorized trail grants.

Those looking for a comprehensive resource for trails in Colorado should check out the Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) application at trails.colorado.gov. It’s available for free on the web or as a downloadable app (search COTREX), offers the most comprehensive trail map available for the state and is built atop data from over 230 trail managers.

Other Trail Recommendations

Below are some trails CPW’s Regional Trails Coordinators mentioned were gems of the state park system.  

Lathrop State Park: Cuerno Verde Trail
Recommended by: Luke Svare, CPW Southeast Region Trails Coordinator

Lathrop State Park
Lathrop State Park
  • Hike Distance: 3.0
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Permitted uses: Foot, Bike
  • Highest Point of Elevation: Approximately 6,440
  • Dogs: Allowed On Leash
  • ADA accessible: Yes
  • Nearest Town: Walsenburg, Colorado

This trail at Lathrop State Park is a beautiful, paved 3-mile loop that is great for all ages (including little ones on bikes). This handicap accessible trail is popular with the bicyclists as well as walkers and is within walking distance from both campgrounds.


Lory State Park: Arthur’s Rock
Recommended by: Ben Plankis, CPW Northeast Region Trails Coordinator

Video: Arthur’s Rock Trail
  • Hike Distance: 1.7 miles one way; 3.4 miles out and back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Highest Point of Elevation: Approximately 6,800 feet
  • Elevation Gain: Approximately 1,100 feet
  • Dogs: Allowed On Leash
  • ​Nearest Town: Fort Collins, Colorado​

This 3.4-mile Lory State Park trail (round trip) winds its way up and through grassy meadows, ponderosa pines, and steep rocky outcrops to a beautiful overlook above Horsetooth Reservoir. While relatively short in length, this trail gains over 1,000 feet in elevation and requires careful footwork on the final section of trail to reach the overlook. Hikers looking for an even longer day can descend via the Howard Trail which adds about 1.5 miles to the hike. 


Staunton State Park: Elk Falls Trail
Recommended by: Ben Plankis, CPW Northeast Region Trails Coordinator

Staunton State Park
Staunton State Park
  • Hike Distance: 12 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Highest Point of Elevation: 8,950 feet
  • Elevation Gain: Approximately 1500 feet
  • Dogs: Allowed On Leash
  • ​​Nearest Town: Conifer, Colorado​

This strenuous Staunton State Park trail 12-mile hike/bike (round trip) rewards users with an up-close look of the stunning Elk Falls Waterfall in Staunton State Park. This trail meanders from one side of Staunton to the other, while passing by Ponderosa pines, grassy meadows, wildflowers, ponds, and steep cliff faces. Mountain bikers can nearly reach the falls before needing to dismount, and make the difficult descent to the falls.


Highline Lake State Park: 18 – Hour Trail 
Recommended by: Randy Engle, CPW Northwest Region Trails

Video: 18 Hours of Fruita Race Course // Highline Lake Loop
  • Hike distance: 9+ Miles
  • Degree of difficulty: Moderate
  • Highest Point of Elevation:  4,760ft
  • Dogs: Allowed On Leash
  • 18 Hour Trail Map
  • ​​Nearest Town: Loma, Colorado​

This is a loop composed of several linked trails. It’s easy enough to be family friendly while still having enough turns and terrain to be entertaining for more advanced bike riders. Primary users are mountain bikes, hiking and trail running. The loop is almost seven miles long and is about half single track and half double track (4-foot-wide gravel). The trail is used every year for the 18 Hours of Fruita bike race. Season of use is March-June and September-November. 


Rifle Falls State Park: Coyote Trail
Recommended by: Randy Engle, CPW Northwest Region Trails

Rifle Falls State Park
Rifle Falls State Park
  • Hike distance: 1.5 Miles
  • Degree of difficulty: Moderate
  • Highest Point of Elevation:   6,500
  • ADA accessible: Yes
  • ​​Nearest Town: Rifle, Colorado​

A geological oddity, the Rifle Falls Trail just doesn’t fit with the surrounding area and therein lies the charm. The base loop that circles the falls is about half a mile and explores the travertine cliff wall that makes up the falls. 

Don’t be deceived by the short length. This trail is steep, has lots of stairs, some exposure and may not be suited for those with balance or agility issues (especially the west side). 

For added fun, add the Bobcat Trail to your hike. Bobcat links the Falls property to the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery. Along the way, the trail gets back into the drier, normal western Colorado scenery with several good views of the Rifle Creek Valley before dropping back into the greenery and passing right by the cascades – an area that evokes thoughts of a tropical paradise. 

The trail ends up at the hatchery rearing tanks where you can see some giant trout. Round trip including the Falls loop is about 3 miles. Fishing is available along the creek and at a couple of ponds above the falls.


Travis Duncan is a public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Denver. Travis has lived in Colorado nearly 20 years and loves the outdoors. If you have a question, please email him at travis.duncan@state.co.us.

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