One day you’re hiking along, probably by yourself, thinking, “Man, it sure would be great to have a dog along with me on this trail.” So you visit the animal shelters, browse Craigslist and PetFinder online, or pay some breeder a fortune, and find the perfect animal companion. Now you’re ready to hit the trail with your new friend only to find every hike you used to enjoy doesn’t allow pets or requires they be on a leash. What fun is that? You got the pup to watch him run around, not trot along next to you.
If you live in Larimer County, Colorado, then fear not. We’re a dog-friendly place up here. You can take Fido into most of the home improvement-type stores and many restaurants have an outdoor area that allows dogs. Okay, there’s no point in taking him into Rocky Mt National Park as he can’t go on any of the trails, leashed or not, but most of the National Forest hikes are open to dogs and allow them off-leash if you can control them. I’m going to outline a few near Estes Park (another dog-friendly town).
Lily Mountain: This one’s a bit of an effort, being over 3 miles round trip and 1k’ elevation gain with a boulder scramble at the end, but the view from the top is staggering. You can see into the Park one way and out to the plains the other, with Estes Park spread out below you. There’s also a geocache below the summit. The trailhead is on Hwy 7 south of Estes Park a few miles and can be hard to find as parking is along the side of the road. If you get to Lily Lake, you’ve gone too far. Take water as there is none on the trail.
Transformers: Just below the switchbacks between Estes Park and Glen Haven are 3 transformers up on poles. Park there. The trail starts by the telephone pole to the right of the transformers, scrambles up the side of the ridge, then wanders back to the McGraw Ranch subdivision; a fence marks the boundary. You can turn right and continue along Cow Creek, but there aren’t any bridges so you won’t get far in summer. This is a fairly short hike, less than 2 hrs, but not well travelled so it’s a good one if your dog isn’t very social or you just want peace and quiet. No water until you get to the creek; no geocaches either.
Piper Meadows: This is one of my favorites. It starts in Glen Haven as the Crosier Mt Trail, switchbacks up the ridge, then splits off to the right at Knapp’s Knob towards the H-G Ranch (there’s a sign). It‘s quite gentle as it meanders through semi-open pasture, passes an old homestead, and up to a gate that continues on into Estes Park, but don’t go that way. Turn left onto another path that takes you back to the Crosier Mt Trail along the upper side of Piper Meadows, where Harry Piper used to have a dairy farm early last century. Turn left when you hit the main trail (there’s another sign), then back down to the parking lot. You’ll see the ruins of Harry’s old milk house at the bottom of the meadow. It takes about 2 hrs and there are several geocaches around. Intermittent water.
Pauldy Sawmill: Take a lunch for this one, but you won’t need water for Fido as most of the path is along Miller Fork Creek. The trailhead is at the end of Dunraven Glade Rd in Glen Haven and it has a restroom. Continue along the road on foot until you hit the trailhead on the right, then take it up over the ridge (hard work); you’ll drop down onto Miller Fork Trail at the bottom. Turn left and follow the trail to the ruins of George Pauldy’s old sawmill, which was destroyed in a forest fire in 1905. The boiler and steam engine are still there, and there’s also a geocache at the site (and others along the way). This hike is probably about 4 hrs and it’s quite steep at the end. There are also other trails that branch off along the way so it’s best to have a map with you.
There are other places to take your dog around Estes Park. The hike to the top of Crosier Mt has three different trailheads and another stunning view. The Deserted Village is a nice 2 or 3-hr hike along the North Fork of the Big Thompson; technically it requires a leash, but in winter when it’s not much used, you can get away without one if you go during the week. Lion’s Gulch is another good trail, but long. You can find all these online if you’re interested. You can find Lily Mt online too, but the other three trails I mentioned are off the beaten track.
Remember, your dog has to be controllable off-leash. No chasing wildlife or jumping on people. These trails are used by other hikers and their dogs; they’re trusting you to keep your dog off them.