Complete Guide to Waterton Canyon with Kids

If you are looking for an easy hike near Denver, this is the place! Hiking in Waterton Canyon with kids is really easy. It’s easy to access, it’s easy to walk, and it’s easy to go as far as you want and turn around.

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After debating where to go, we spent the day at Waterton Canyon and were glad we did. We were a little worried it was going to be boring, but this scenic walk kept our and our kids’ attention.

This canyon is beautiful, with the South Platte River flowing alongside the trail and high chances of spotting Bighorn Sheep who call this canyon home.

So grab some snacks, water, and a hat and head to Waterton Canyon with the kids for your next easy adventure. Here is everything you need to know about parking, fees, trails, and what you can (and can’t) do at Waterton Canyon with kids.

pin image for visiting waterton canyon, collage of river and canyon images

Quick Guide to Waterton Canyon

Here is what you need to know about Waterton Canyon at a quick glance. This should help if you don’t feel like scrolling 🙂

But if you have a minute, check out all the beautiful pictures of Waterton Canyon below.

Guide Facts about visiting Waterton Canyon with kids, picture of WC in background

Entrance to Waterton Canyon

Waterton Canyon is located next door to Chatfield Reservoir (a great lake for swimming and paddle boarding). You do not enter Chatfield State Park to access Waterton Canyon, therefore you don’t have to pay. Waterton Canyon is FREE to visit.

Off C-470, exit south (toward the lake) onto Wadsworth. The road will break to the right to go into the Lockheed Martin campus. Stay left and the parking lot will be on the left.

Waterton Canyon Parking area, dirt lot with sign

Parking area

Parking is free, but it does fill up quickly on weekends. Make sure you have a legit parking spot, and then use the cross walk and the entrance of the parking lot to cross over to the Waterton Canyon trail.

Note: Perhaps you’ve noticed that All Trails says you’ll have to pay entrance to Chatfield State Park to access Waterton Canyon. This is incorrect. Waterton Canyon is not within the limits of Chatfield.

Make sure to lather up in sunscreen and bring a hat and glasses. While the hike is beautiful, there isn’t a lot of shade.

girl walking on dirt road in Waterton Canyon, river on the right

Hike or Bike through Waterton Canyon with Kids

If you’d like an easy stroll, then Waterton Canyon is a perfect place to bring kids. The dirt trail is as wide as a road, though cars (except authorized vehicles) cannot drive on it.

Waterton Canyon is a popular spot for biking as well. Even young kids bring their bikes and enjoy the long, easy stretch of trail alongside the river. If your kids aren’t old enough to ride, you can bring your bike trailer since the road is flat enough and groomed enough.

Be ready to pedal the whole time as E-bikes are NOT allowed in Waterton Canyon. They are considered motorized, and motorized vehicles are prohibited.

We saw a lot of families with kids of all ages on the Waterton Canyon trail. Many had strollers, bike trailers, or kids on their own little bikes. It’s a very family friendly hike near Denver perfect for families in every stage.

We saw so many bikes that my son started racing them all. So if you were in Waterton Canyon that day, thanks for being a good sport about my son sprinting alongside you!

Elevation of Waterton Canyon

This is another things that make Waterton Canyon with kids so great. The elevation gain is very gradual, as it gains just 688 feet over the 6 miles.

Theend of the hike at Strontia Springs Reservoir is 6,002 feet. This makes it a great hike not only for kids, but also for people visiting Denver who are not use to elevation. It’s nice and gentle. You’ll feel among the mountains without having to go to 9,000 feet.

full river flowing through a canyon

What Animals are in Waterton Canyon?

Waterton Canyon is known for its large population of Bighorn Sheep, so there is a good chance you’ll see one as you progress along the trail deeper into the canyon.

We, unfortunately, didn’t see any sheep. But I could see how the canyon is an ideal spot for them and many people do see the Bighorn Sheep.

Waterton Canyon is home to other animals like black bears, deer, mountain lions, elk, lizards, and snakes. These are not seen often.

Hiking through Waterton Canyon with Kids

Distance: 6.2 miles to the end (12.4 roundtrip)

We took our kids here recently and really enjoyed the easy, scenic stroll. The total walking trail is just over 6 miles long and ends at the Strontia Springs Dam.

The Dam is a 200 foot structure made of concrete, so even though it’s manmade, it pretty impressive.

The Strontia Springs Dam is definitely too long for kids to walk, as it is over 12 miles roundtrip. If you’d like to make it all the way to the dam, I suggest getting the bikes (and bike trailers) out.

We simply walked a few miles in and turned around.

The first part of the trail is a bit boring, if I’m being honest.

But somewhere between a half-mile and a mile, the South Platte River starts to flow along the trail. In addition, the mountain walls of the canyon begin and you feel like you’ve finally gone into another world of beauty.

I assume this is the point where people start to see Bighorn Sheep as they jump of the rocky sides of the mountains.

kids walking away from a picnic shelter in a canyon

Rest Areas and Activities at Waterton Canyon

Within the first quarter mile of the trail, there is a pavilion area with some tables to the right. As you continue along the trail, you’ll see more rest areas like this, and most have a bathroom (vault) available.

As you approach the Black Bear rest area, take a rest and pull out some snacks. This is a great place to use the bathroom, watch people fish, or just enjoy the river and watching the water move over the smaller dam right here.

You’ll probably notice people getting into the water to cool off here. Swimming is prohibited at Waterton Canyon. There are signs at each potential beach area signifying there is no swimming.

Why can’t you swim at Waterton Canyon? Well, I’m not certain, however, at the beginning of the hike (if you pay attention) you’ll see a sign about the abundance of snails in the water and the plea to not get in.

You cannot swim (or wade), tube, raft, kayak, paddle board, or anything else at Waterton Canyon. The only activity that is permitted is fishing.

If you’d like to fish in Waterton Canyon, make sure to get your fishing license from Colorado Parks and Wildlife first.

eye level with a river off a dirt bank

Mountain Biking at Waterton Canyon

If your family is older and into mountain biking, then Waterton Canyon is a great place to go. While the first 6 miles are on an easy, dirt road, beyond that is where it picks up.

Beyond the dam you’ll find connections to Indian Creek Loop mountain bike trails (moderate, lots of climbing, roughly 17 more miles). If you’re really ambitious (maybe not with kids, but this is a fun fact), you can ride the trails and eventually connect into Roxborough State Park.

History of Waterton Canyon

How did Waterton Canyon come to be?

Waterton Canyon trail and water facilities are owned by Denver Water. Why?

Back in the late 1800’s, the High Line Canal was constructed. It runs from the High Line Diversion Dam (where the Black Bear rest area is) and all the way over by the Denver Airport.

The canal took 2 years to build, and the purpose was to help run water from the South Platte River over to the farms on the plains for irrigation.

The canal isn’t used much for irrigation purposes anymore, but the trails remain to provide recreation for tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Lockheed Martin Campus near Waterton Canyon

As you drive in toward Waterton Canyon, you’ll be greeted by Lockheed Martin signs and you’ll see the gates to the campus.

This campus was $350 million to build and has began creating next generation satelites. The building also has a thermal vacuum chamber that can replicate conditions in space.

While they may produce satelites, the building has rooms large enough to fit a rocket ship in with room to spare. The building is 266,000 square feet!

Hikes Near Waterton Canyon

Want some more great hikes nearby? Check out Roxborough State Park where you can find huge red rock sandstone formations along an easy trail.

Lair o’ the Bear is another great hike for families. Just go a few more miles west on C-470 and exit in Morrison. Take Bear Creek Road down to Lair o the Bear.

Down the same exit in Morrison is Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater where you can also do a fun, easy trail.

Hotels near Waterton Canyon

Courtyard Marriott– Located just on the other side of Chatfield Reservoir, Marriott makes for a comfortable stay near Waterton Canyon.

Hampton Inn – also located on the other side of Chatfield, Hampton is a touch nore affordable and includes a free breakfast.

Is Waterton Canyon Good for Kids?

Yes! Whether you are hiking or biking, you’ll have a great time at Waterton Canyon with kids. They’ll love watching the river, keeping their eyes out for Bighorn Sheep, and being among the beauty of the canyon.

The easy road makes a great and safe trail for families to walk on, leaving plenty of space for hikers and bikers to all share the trail.

Quick Overview of Waterton Canyon with Kids

  • Kid Friendly!
  • Flat, easy road
  • No Cars
  • Bikes, hikes, horses welcome
  • Rest Areas about every 1/2 mile
  • Free to visit
  • 6.2 miles to the end, but turn around whenever you’d like

FAQ about Waterton Canyon

Who Owns Waterton Canyon?

Waterton Canyon is owned in part of the Forest Service, but most of the trail and water area facilities are owned by Denver Water.

Do you Have to Pay to Get into Waterton Canyon?

No, you do not need to pay to use Waterton Canyon. There is free parking and free trail access for this great family-friendly hike.

What Animals are in Waterton Canyon.

The most common animal in Waterton Canyon is the Bighorn Sheep. Waterton canyon is also home to deer, black bears, mountain lions, and snakes, though those are not spotted as frequently.

What River Runs Through Waterton Canyon?

The South Platte River runs through Waterton Canyon.

How Long is the Waterton Canyon Trail?

The Waterton Canyon Trail from the trailhead to the Strontia Springs Dam is 6.2 miles. You can continue after that if you’d like, and mountain bikers can continue onto the connecting Indian Creek Loop.

Can you Drive up Waterton Canyon?

You can NOT drive up Waterton Canyon. Motorized vehicles are strictly prohibited. This makes for a nice, safe hike or bike ride through the canyon. You may, however, see authorized Denver Water trucks ride through.

Is Waterton Canyon a State Park?

No, Waterton Canyon is not a state park. It is located right next to Chatfield state park. Waterton Canyon is a free area to use. It is partly owned by Denver Water and parts are owned by the US Forest Service.

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