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Hiking in Douglas County: Sharptail Ridge Trail and Swallowtail Trail

Picnic shelter at Sharptail Ridge trailhead
Picnic shelter at Sharptail Ridge trailhead
Deb Stanley

"Rocks and ledges, shrublands speckled with pines and firs, and intermittent creeks and upland meadows," those words sold me on visiting the Swallowtail Trail in Douglas County.

Rock formation on Swallowtail Trail
Deb Stanley

However, there's no road to the Swallowtail Tail and no parking lot. To visit this Douglas County Open Space park, you'll have to hike in via the 4.5-mile Sharptail Ridge Trail, via a 2-mile road from Roxborough State Park or via the 7ish mile Ringtail Tail. I chose the Sharptail Ridge for this hike.

Sharptail Ridge Trail may be the least known hiking trail in Douglas County. While equestrians like to ride here, hikers tend to visit the nearby, very scenic Roxborough State Park and skip this lesser-known area. However, if you're looking for a peaceful walk on the prairie, you should visit here.

The Sharptrail Ridge trailhead is about 1.1 miles from the entrance to Roxborough State Park (directions below). At the trailhead, you'll find a large covered picnic area, porta potty, trash cans and a call box.

Walk toward the nearby log cabin-looking building. That's actually the covered picnic area. Next to the building is a sign telling hikers it's 3.7 miles on the Sharptail Ridge Trail to County Road 5 and 4.1 miles to the Swallowtail Trail -- that's our destination.

The initial trail appears to be an old farm or ranch road. The dirt road is wide enough for 3 people to walk side-by-side. Looking ahead, you can see how the trail is heading for rolling grasslands in the distance. The Douglas County Outdoors website describes the trail as, "crosses high rolling grasslands, home to a variety of wildlife including elk herds on Douglas County Open Space, as well as through the SE portion of Roxborough State Park shrublands."

Note, there are no trees along this trail, so if you come in the warmer months, you'll want to start early in the day.

As the trail continues south and slightly west, it becomes a split side-by-side trail, as if following the old tires tracks of a road.There are even a few switchbacks over the ridges, as you hike the prairie lands.

About 1.66 miles from the trailhead you may see a small building in the valley below. With binoculars, you'll be able to see this is an old barn -- maybe a place to store hay in the outer fields. A mile later, at 2.66 miles, we came to the state park boundary. The sign says you've hiked 2.5 miles, a little less than my GPS read.

As you hike in this next section, you should start seeing a wide open view of the foothills and hogback rock formations to the west. You may even spot some of the red rock formations of the Roxbourgh Valley to the northwest. We also saw a large reservoir to the northwest -- that's Aurora's Rampart Reservoir. Completed in 1966, it's about 820 acres.

About 3.3 miles from the trailhead, one of my hiking buddies spotted some unusual rock colors off to the right. Talking a few steps off trail, we found an area that was an old quarry. Roxborough Park officials say the quarries are believed to be a part of the clay mining activities along the Dakota Hogback which occurred in the area between 1910 and 1940.

Back on the trail, it was about 4 miles (according to my GPS) to County Road 5. (The signs say 3.7 miles.)

At County Road 5, continue west (straight ahead) just under 0.1 miles to a sign on your left. (Look carefully, it's easy to pass.) The sign says this is still the Sharptail Ridge Trail and that it's 0.3 miles to the Swallowtail Trail loops.

A few steps down this trail and you'll be hiking on a single-track trail through some trees and shrubs. In one open spot, notice a large, red rock monolith on your left. You'll be getting closer to this rock formation and even walk right next to it on Swallowtail's upper loop trail.

After about a third of a mile, you'll come to a sign that says you're entering the Nelson Ranch Open Space. Nelson Ranch was purchased in 2002 by Douglas County and Great Outdoors Colorado.

Continuing hiking until you come to a trail split -- this is the upper loop. We decided to go clockwise, so we turned left. The trail winds through the vegetation to the base of that rock formation we've been looking at. We turned left and walked about 2/3rd's of the way around the rock before coming to another trail split. We turned left again. As you hike here, enjoy the views of the valley.

About a quarter mile from the start of the upper loop, the trail cuts across a colorful, rocky ridge. This is a scenic spot and a good place to take a break. It's sunny here, so it's warm in the cooler months. If you walk around the ridge, you can easily get on top and enjoy the views even more.

When you're ready to continue on, just follow the trail and the occasional arrows that will point you in the right direction. This next section of trail gets rocky at times, but it just adds to the adventure of being in this remote place that very few people visit.

As we hiked in the valley, we suddenly spotted a barn. While there is no information sign, we assumed this was part of the Nelson Ranch. A historical article on the people of the Sedalia area said the Nelson family owned the Nelson Store in Sedalia at one point.

Just past the barn, we came to the trail split for the lower loop. The 1.1-mile lower loop doesn't have the rock ledges, but it has nice valley and prairie views as it circles around the property, bringing you back to almost this same trail split, just a few feet away.

Then we continued on the rest of the upper loop, passing the trail split for the Ringtail Trail that leads to Indian Creek.

At the end of the loops, we were back near that big, red rock formation we hiked around earlier. From here, turn left back up to County Road 5, back to the Sharptail Ridge Trail and back to the trailhead.

Note, Douglas County does not allow bikers or dogs on the Sharptail Ridge Trail. Read more here. Read more about the Swallowtail Trail. Get a map of the trails in the area here. Find more hikes in the area listed below or check out this list of 200+ hikes in Colorado. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign for an email alert at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Details: The hike on the Sharptail Ridge Trail, around the Swallowtail loops and back is about 11.75 miles with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain with all the ups and downs.

Note, the area may be closed in the fall for hunting. Call Douglas County Douglas Space and Natural Resources at 303-660-7495 for information.

Directions: Two choices. Douglas County's website says: From Highway 85 (Santa Fe) turn west onto Titan Parkway and drive 2 miles to Roxborough Park Road; turn left and drive south for 3.7 miles on gravel road; Sharptail Ridge Trailhead is on the left at 6500 North Roxborough Park Road, Littleton, CO 80118.

I recommend taking C-470 and exiting at Wadsworth. Take Wadsworth south past Chatfield State Park. Turn left on Waterton Road (just before the entrance to Lockheed Martin.) Continue on Waterton Road until it ends at North Rampart Range Road (1.6 miles). Turn right (south) on Rampart Range Road and drive 2.2 miles to Roxborough Drive. Turn left and take Roxborough Drive about 1.2 miles to the trailhead. 1.1 of those miles are dirt road.

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