Published: March 7th 2008May 18th 2007
Distance: CR 5 to Nelson Ranch ~ 1 mile, Swallowtail Trail (over hogback) ~ 1.5 miles, South Rim Trail ~ 3 miles
Rating: CR 5 to Nelson Ranch - easy, Swallowtail Trail - easy, South Rim Trail - moderate
With the temperatures in the Metro Area starting to climb, I decided to make my second and final trip to Roxborough State Park. For this hike, I decided to venture to the infrequently-visited southern border of the park. The land directly to the south of Roxborough has been turned into open space by Douglas County. There are two designated parks: Nelson Ranch and Pike Hill. The trails in this area are part of a larger network of trails that connect with the those in Roxborough and the surrounding Pike National Forest. Unlike the more dramatic scenery of Roxborough, Nelson Ranch is characterized by wide open meadows with relatively little change in elevation.
Just as with the Carpenter Peak hike, the trail begins just west of the Visitor Center. Follow the Willow Creek trail south on the route towards Carpenter Peak. At the intersection with CR 5, turn left down the dirt road. Follow the road for approximately one mile. Fortunately,
no unauthorized vehicles are allowed along this stretch of road, so hikers needn’t worry about cars. The road does pass through several sections of private property, so be sure to stick to the road. Along the way, the red Fountain Formation rocks run along the south, while the lush foothills rise to the west. Be sure to look out for several old abandoned farm houses along the way. CR 5 climbs gradually and then eventually levels off on a small ridge just before the road takes a sharp turn towards the west.
Continuing south, look for the well-marked entrance to Nelson Ranch. Upon entering the open space park, follow the trail towards the monolithic Red Rock. At this point, the Swallowtail Trail will begin winding through the rolling meadow on its way towards one of the Lyons Formation hogbacks. The trail eventually climbs the hogback and offers hikers an up-close look at the multi-colored geology of the formation. The trail then descends towards the shallow gully carved out by Rainbow Creek. The Swallowtail Trail is actually made up of two smaller loops, the second of which is accessible after crossing the creek. The entire trail is 3.3 miles long.
Due to muddy conditions, I decided to turn back at this point rather than complete the second part of the loop. Feeling like I hadn’t gone as far as I had wanted to, I decided to add in the South Rim Trail back in Roxborough. The South Rim Trail makes an arc that climbs steeply up to the top of one of the higher Lyons hogback ridges. Along the way, hikers are treated to nice views of some of the red monoliths of the Fountain Formation. Unlike most of the other hikes in the park, there is actually some shade to be found along this trail. At the top of the ridge, look north and west to see the entire park open up below. The South Rim Trail can be accessed in two places, both of which are along the Willow Creek Trail. Both options involve relatively steep climbs (although the western approach offers more shade).
As I’ve mentioned before, Roxborough State Park (and the land to the south) is best visited during the cooler months. Most of Roxborough and all of Nelson Ranch are exposed to the elements and there is little change in temperature from the
Denver area. The trails within the Douglas County Open Space are not as well maintained as those inside the state park, so overgrowth can make navigation a little difficult at times. Nelson Ranch allows horseback riding (I encountered a small group during my visit), so watch for manure and always give horses the right of way.
Directions: See my Carpenter Peak entry for directions to Roxborough State Park. Nelson Ranch can also be accessed via the 4 mile long Sharptail Trail which begins along Roxborough Park Road west of the park entrance.
There are more photos below