2 Off-Road Trails Within A Day Trip From Denver, That You Can Tackle In A Stock Tacoma – Detailed Trail Guide & Report
From the Sawatch to the San Juans to the Front Range, Colorado is a bucket list state for 4×4 enthusiasts. However, its iconic Rocky Mountains are their own beast. They quickly chew up and spit out rigs and leave many unprepared drivers with vehicle damage and disappointment.
Between the landscape dotted with 14,000-foot peaks and the drastic, unpredictable weather conditions, the Rockies are treacherous but also make for some of the world’s greatest off-roading experiences.
I’ve done the recon for you and compiled a guide to two must-do Colorado 4×4 trails that will help prepare you for everything the Rockies have to offer. From sketchy shelf roads to rock crawling (in manageable doses), they have it all. I took down these trails (much to my surprise at some points) in my stock 2019 Tacoma TRD Off-Road with BFG KO2s, so you don’t need a built-up rig to tackle them.
Each trail in this guide is accessible within a day trip from Denver. They are listed in the order they’ll be best enjoyed (and manageable) by a beginner off-road driver or if you’re just getting acquainted with your Tacoma.
Trails Near Denver For Stock Trucks
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Here’s the thing many people don’t realize when they visit Denver; it isn’t in the mountains. The drive from Denver to the mountains (and world-class off-roading) is about 45 minutes, minimally, no matter where you’re headed. This can easily be up to two hours or more with traffic, so plan accordingly.
- Inflation & Deflation kits: The Rocky Mountains are aptly named. You’ll be driving over a ton of sharp rocks on most 4×4 trails. Bring air down and inflation kits (or a two-in-one inflation/deflation kit). A tire repair kit doesn’t hurt either.
- Offline Maps: Cell service in the mountains is spotty at best. Download the routes for offline use on an app like Gaia GPS or onX Offroad.
- Radios: Pack a GMRS or CB radio to communicate with other drivers or call for help in case of an emergency. I prefer GMRS for its range and clarity when surrounded by the peaks and valleys of the Rockies.
- Recovery Gear: Whether you come across mud, snow, or a poorly chosen line, it’s easy to get stuck on these steep grades.
Santa Fe Trail – Idaho Springs, Colorado
Trailhead Coordinates: 39.73845, -105.5097
Accessing the Santa Fe Trail is simple. It starts in a neighborhood right on the opposite side of I-70 from downtown Idaho Springs.
This trail is short with plenty of room for error, making it a great way to prepare yourself for the more advanced trails. It’s a 4.1 mile (8.2 miles total) out-and-back in Idaho, Springs, Colorado — about a 45-minute drive from Denver without traffic. Most guides rate it a 2-3 out of 10 in difficulty.
This no-stress 4×4 trail is “somewhat” accessible throughout all four seasons. I say somewhat because there was snow on the second half of the trail when I was on it. It was manageable but that’s not to say it will always be passable in the winter and early spring.
Santa Fe Trail – Trail Guide
The trail starts just below 8,000 feet elevation and gains about 1,600 feet over its 4.1-mile length. You’re in for a climb! However, most of it is dirt as opposed to the sketchy loose rock that you’ll encounter on many of the more difficult trails in Colorado.
Santa Fe Trail is about the width of a Tacoma with 6″-12″ of clearance on either side. You’ll find areas to pass throughout the drive, although there are also significant stretches that are too narrow to pass another vehicle. The good news is that it’s not a particularly busy area. This may be one of the few trails in Colorado that you’ll be lucky enough to have all to yourself.
The crux of the route (especially for a Tacoma) is the hairpin turns — and there are many of them. The tight turns aren’t too bad going uphill. However, it is on a mountainside and you can easily lose traction on the gravel while descending. Judging the turn radius effectively is important because reversing to make a 10-point turn isn’t much fun on the steep grade.
I learned the hard way that these turns aren’t only cumbersome, but also potentially hazardous in the winter with snow on the ground. It was nearly impossible to keep traction while negotiating sharp turns on narrow roads in the snow. There are some points where you risk sliding into trees and others where the consequences are far worse. There may not be snow in Idaho Springs, but with another 1,000 feet in elevation gain, you may find yourself wheeling in the white stuff.
Aside from sharp turns and steep grades, the trail is a breeze. You’ll come across rutted-out conditions depending on the season but it’s nothing your Taco can’t cruise right over. There are countless dispersed campsites as well. Both the trail and the campsites host incredible views that make it hard to believe you’re only 45 minutes from Denver.
After ascending over 4 miles and tight turns to wrap your way up the mountain, Santa Fe Trail ends at a private property gate. There’s plenty of space to turn around and head back the way you came.
I ran most of this trail in 4-Hi until it came to descend (and in the dark, oops). At that point, I was white-knuckling the wheel in 4-Lo with MTS set to Mud and Sand. If you didn’t know, this setting works well for gaining traction in snow, too.
Even in areas without snow, the steep grade and hairpin turns will have your brakes begging you to put your Tacoma in low gear. I recommend doing so at the private property gate while you’re on level ground.
Slaughterhouse Gulch – Bailey, Colorado
Trailhead Coordinates: 39.47734, -105.54699
Slaughterhouse Gulch in Bailey, Colorado is both a testing ground and playground for both new drivers and seasoned off-road enthusiasts. Want to push the limits of your stock Tacoma? This 11.2-mile loop is the place to do it.
What I love about Slaughterhouse Gulch is that for every looming obstacle, there’s a more accessible bypass. This helps beginner off-roaders build confidence rather than get in over their heads.
Slaughterhouse Gulch is about a 1 Hr 15 Min drive from Denver and hosts ample dispersed camping opportunities. It’s a great option for a weekend away or a day trip. The peak elevation maxes out at just over 9,811 feet. It’s accessible throughout much of the year (May-October reliably). It’s also fairly flat in comparison to many of Colorado’s trails, making it a fun romp in the snow if it’s open.
This trail is rated a 5-6 out of 10, moderate to difficult, in most guides. If you stick to the bypasses, I’d call it easy to moderate. But what fun is that? If you’re in it for the obstacles, Slaughterhouse Gulch is a solid moderate. Wet conditions contribute to an even stiffer difficulty rating.
There is another Slaughterhouse Gulch near Pitkin, Colorado. It’s generally rated 3 out of 10 and is about 4-5 hours away. Don’t get mixed up when dialing in the GPS or looking up this route on an app.
Slaughterhouse Gulch – Trail Guide
Slaughterhouse Gulch is a 4×4 trail for off-road purists. It isn’t so much about peak mountain views (the trail is hidden away in trees) or a backcountry adventure. Rather, it is for getting muddy, flexing your Tacoma’s suspension, and reckoning with burly boulders and demanding lines.
Off of County Road 43 in Bailey, turn left onto Saddlestring Rd. dirt road. There’s a large parking area on the left and a smaller pull-off on the right to air down before heading up.
Across Saddlestring Rd. from the large parking lot, adjacent to the small pull-off, is a small dirt trail headed uphill. This leads to Slaughterhouse Gulch.
Aside from a rocky outcrop with an easy bypass on its left, and an off-camber tippy section through tight trees, the beginning is cake for any vehicle with a Subaru Outback’s worth of ground clearance. The trail is a loop, that branches off of a single entry/exit road. The road provides a slow start that quickly turns spicy.
The beginning of the loop portion of the trail is marked by a sign reading “Slaughterhouse Gulch Jeep Trail”. The fun starts here as the road narrows with trees on each side.
Throughout Slaughterhouse Gulch, expect mud, slick conditions, water crossings, and about four major obstacles with more moderate challenges in between. You’ll also come across a handful of tight sections that are just wide enough for a Tacoma to squeeze through the trees. Untamed branches and downed trees make the potential for dinging up your rig (or at least a few new pinstripes) pretty high.
Every major obstacle has a bypass either to the right or the left. My stock Tacoma TRD Off-Road took each obstacle like a champion, although not without a fight. The obstacles consist of large boulders amidst dirt or, in many cases, slippery mud and deep ruts. The hazards also include potentially smacking a tree or two while navigating the toughest sections. Choose your line carefully and lay on the gas when you need to.
When I got into a sticky situation (or should I say slippery) on the final test, Crawl Controls’ sensor automated locker system helped pull me through the ruts and mud while I focused on not smashing my undercarriage. After the last obstacle, the rest of the trail comprises fun cruises and some shallow water crossings (unless it’s a dry summer). Once you’ve completed the loop, head out on the road you came in on.
With the moderate risk of banging up your rig and getting very stuck, Slaughterhouse Gulch’s isn’t for the faint of heart. However, if you’ve mustered up the courage to tackle the Sante Fe Trail above, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to push your truck even further.
Wheeling in the Colorado Rockies is its own breed of off-roading. Riding along sheer cliffsides and steep inclines on loose rock means even easy trails can be vertigo-inducing and heart-stopping. However, if you want to gain confidence behind the wheel, these will certainly help.
It’s all worth it when your Taco grants you exclusive access to some of the most rugged and beautiful countryside in the western United States. Colorado has some of the best off-road trails in the country and there are few better vehicles to get you there than a Tacoma.