You don’t have to hike far to see some bighorn sheep in Waterton Canyon. It’s an easy hike with a big wildlife sighting pay-off. Seeing wildlife on a hike is fascinating and exhilarating. Even with wildlife as cute as bighorn sheep, you need to keep your distance. The bighorn sheep in Waterton Canyon might seem like they are used to people and will most likely leave you alone, remember they are wild animals….with horns.
Getting There: The Waterton Canyon Trailhead is in Littleton and is about 30 minutes from downtown Denver. There’s a large parking area on the east side of Waterton Road. There are crosswalk flashers so it’s easy to get to the trailhead on the west side of the road. This is the start of the Colorado Trail and you may see trekkers taking pictures at the sign.
Trail Stats: It’s out-and-back and distance depends on how far you want to go. The first bighorn sheep area is at just under 2.5 miles (5 miles round trip). It’s 6.5 miles (13 miles round trip) if you want to hike all the way to Strontia Springs Dam. It’s a gentle dirt road that parallels the South Platte River. Bikes are allowed but to protect the bighorn sheep and other wildlife, pets are not allowed.
Sending off two friends on their trek of the Colorado Trail, I hiked the first couple of miles with them. It’s an easy hike as the trail is fairly flat on a dirt road, but there’s not a lot of shade. Make sure you have sun protection and plenty of water, even if you’re just planning to do a couple of miles. We started hiking about 10:30am and it quickly got hot in the blazing sun. In one of the first shady areas along the South Platte River, we say a mule deer bedded down. Just shy of the 2.5 mile marker there’s a white sign on the trail alerting you to watch for bighorn sheep. When you see the sign, start looking up in the cliffs. We saw a bunch, including multiple babies. We stopped for a few minutes to watch.
I hiked to about the 3-mile mark and turned around as the clouds were building and we got a brief shower. As much as I wanted to keep hiking with them, I also knew I had to hike 3 miles back in the heat of the day. I wished my buddies well on their trek and walked back to watch the bighorn sheep again. I thought I would stay just a few minutes but they were so active I watched them for a good 20-30 minutes. I watched babies interacting with their moms, juveniles playing/fighting, several came down from the cliffs and crossed over to get some water from the river, and others grazed. Several other hikers and bikers passed by and all seemed conscious of keeping their distance. Another hiker was taking pictures and videos with a much better camera than my iPhone. As he was filming a trio by the river, they walked up to check him out. He remained calm and quiet as the curious three got close then returned to the cliffs. As you stop to watch the bighorn sheep, remember you’re in their space, not them in yours.
I wanted to stay and observe longer but forced myself to continue hiking back. I did stop at a viewpoint spot, about a mile from the trailhead. I got buzzed by a monarch butterfly and enjoyed the lovely sound of rushing water in the South Platte River.
Author Jennifer Broome is an avid hiker. Check out the Explore Colorado section for more hikes and adventures in Colorado. For another great hike along the Front Range, try Arthur’s Rock in Fort Collins.