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Where to hike when you want to commune with nature, not neighbors

Supposedly, it's sunny here 300 days a year. Maybe that's tourism-board hype, or maybe it's true, but there's no denying we're a sunshiny kind of place.

Perhaps that's why you, dear visitor, came to our state. Well, that and those mountains over there.

Anyway, you'll notice that we love being outdoors. We do lots of hiking, and even when you catch us wandering the supermarket, we're often dressed in some combination of the following: spandex, shorts, hiking boots, Western wear and floppy hats. You'll not see much from the covers of Vogue or GQ in these parts.

If you're someone who loves the outdoors — and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't — you're no doubt eager to join the fun. So, of course, go visit those popular outdoor places, such as Garden of the Gods, Cheyenne Mountain State Park and North Cheyenne Cañon Park.

They're great and wonderful and pretty. Everyone goes there.

Really.

Everyone.

Hordes of people.

Especially on weekends and holidays.

But we understand that you want to see them, and that's good. When you're done, however, we recommend you experience some trails that are a little less populated. First, the easy ones.

Hills and valleys

Red Rock Canyon Open Space isn't a secret by any stretch, but one look at the main parking lot tells you that most people hike the trails in the center of the park.

If you want a less-crowded outing, go to the far west end and look for the Contemplative Trail. It's designated for foot traffic only, meaning you'll not have to contend with cyclists and horses. And there are plenty of rocks for the kids to scramble around.

Even fewer people visit the far east side of the park, off 31st Street. Instead of parking at the main lot off Ridge Road, turn onto 31st and look for the parking area on the right side. Take the trail at the south end of the lot, a short distance up the hill and turn right. Continue up the wide trail around the bend and then turn left onto the Hogback Trail. A couple hundred feet up, you'll find the Codell Trail on the left.

Although an official trail, it is not on the various maps posted around the park, so many people miss it. Go up the short switchback to the narrow spine and enjoy the hike along the trail until it drops back down to the Hogback. Turn right to go back to the parking lot (for a two-mile round trip) or turn left to explore further. To get there: Take U.S. Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs to 31st Street and turn left at the traffic light. The parking lot is on the immediate right side of the road.

Staying with relatively easy hikes, Spruce Mountain Open Space, about 20 miles north of Colorado Springs in Douglas County, offers great views after a short uphill hike to a wide mesa. This is an ideal place for families, and fairly easy even though you can log almost 4.75 miles.

To get there: Take Interstate 25 north to County Line Road (Exit 163), and turn left. Continue west to the railroad crossing, turn right onto Spruce Mountain Road, and then go north to the trailhead parking lot.

For a little more variety, the Catamount Ranch Open Space, west of the Springs in Teller County, offers great views of Pikes Peak. The most popular trails are the Elder-Fehn Trail, a moderate loop trail approximately five miles long, and the Vayhinger Trail, which is about four to five miles, depending on whether you make a loop by way of the "Ring the Peak Trail" or do it as an out-and-back hike. This wooded, shady preserve is ideal for hot summer days.

To get there: Take Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs. Once past Woodland Park, take the left turn on Edlowe Road. (Look for the church on the corner.) Follow Edlowe and look for the parking lot and trailhead on the left, when the road turns to dirt.

Tougher climbs

If you want more of a challenge, Grayback Peak may be a destination to your liking. While only four miles round-trip, it can be somewhat demanding, especially the last stretch to the summit. The views from this peak, including those down into the beautiful Emerald Valley, are not normally seen. Just note that to get to this one, you'll have to endure a fairly bumpy ride on a dirt road that is known for its washboards. You may want to get full coverage on the rental car.

To get there: Take Old Stage Road six miles from where the road becomes dirt, turn left onto Forest Road 371 (usually marked with a sign for Emerald Valley Ranch). Continue for approximately a quarter of a mile and look for a small parking area on the left side, at the top of a small rise. The trail goes uphill from the south end.

Want something tougher? Sure, there's the Manitou Incline. It's tough. It's nearby. It's crowded. People still insist on bringing their (forbidden) dogs. You'll want to do it so you can say you did it. So, go ahead and do it.

OK, are you done? Good. Now here are a couple of trails that will give you a good workout, and also better views.

The Heizer Trail in Cascade (approximately halfway between Manitou Springs and Woodland Park) makes for a moderately strenuous hike with nice views in all directions. While this trail goes up and over a small peak, your best bet is to stop at the top and enjoy the view of Pikes Peak. Continuing on over the top drops you into a more desolate area with several intersecting trails that confuse even experienced hikers. Round-trip from the trailhead to the top and back is approximately four miles, plus you'll have a short hike from the nearest parking spot to the trailhead.

To get there: Take Highway 24 to the Cascade (Pikes Peak Toll Road) exit. Turn left and park by the old abandoned building at Emporia Street. Walk up Emporia Street, then go left on Park Street and then left on Anemone Hill Road. The signed trailhead is at the top of the hill. Please respect the private property signs nearby.

Eagle Peak (known as North Peak on some maps) is a trying, 4.25-mile round-trip hike in the Pike National Forest, and is accessed from the U.S. Air Force Academy. Which means if you're not a military member or retiree, you and everyone with you will need a valid ID to enter; you and your car may be searched at any time; the Academy grounds may close to visitors at any time and with little or no notice; firearms are prohibited; and you will not have access to many parts of the Academy.

To get there: Enter the Academy at the north entrance (Exit 156 on I-25) and proceed to the AFA Visitors Center parking lot. Walk back to Academy Drive and cross to the road just north of the visitors center driveway that heads west. Go past the power substation and continue west up the hill until the next curve that turns north. From the curve, you'll see the sign marking the trailhead by looking west.

Oh, one more thing about this hike: The Academy has a mandatory "buddy system" requirement for most trails, meaning you'll need to have someone with you.

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