What better way is there to start the day than watching the sunrise in nature? Horsetooth Rock sits above Fort Collins, overlooking the large reservoir and plains to the east and the mountainous divide to the west. Its location makes it the perfect place to watch a stunning sunrise and experience a peaceful early-morning hike.
Hike Type: Moderate out-and-back trail
Distance: About 5 miles round trip
Duration: 4-5 hours total
Cost: $10 per vehicle for a day pass payable by card
Restrictions: Pets are welcome but must be leashed, drones are not permitted
The Dark Hike to Horsetooth Rock
The alarm jolted us awake at 4 a.m. We grabbed a bite and eagerly headed out from Fort Collins to make the 30-minute drive to the Horsetooth Rock trailhead. Moonlight lit up the parking lot as we arrived and bathed the fields and nearby trees in an eerie blue light. We wanted to make sure we were up on the rock before sunrise, so we paid the fee and headed out at a quick pace.
The 2.5 miles through the trees and amongst the rocks were beautiful, even in the dark, and the bright moonlight allowed us to walk without our headlights the majority of the time. There are a few trails that lead to the base of Horsetooth Rock, and we ended up reaching the base of the giant formation on the right. The left side makes for a steeper ascent that requires some scrambling. The right side is a bit easier and is best for those not quite awake enough for climbing.
Sunrise on Horsetooth Rock
We scrambled up the right side of the rock in the dark and found a bench-like formation on the east-facing side. The wind howled up top, so we brought out our down jackets despite being warm on the hike up. Other small groups settled atop the rock a ways away from us. We huddled together to block the wind as a red glow lined the horizon.
When the sun finally crept up, Horsetooth Reservoir became a vibrant mirror and the air became warmer. The thousands of yellow city lights dulled in the brightness. Light hit the mountains behind us, and the crevices that the sun hadn’t reached created patterns in the valley. We sat and enjoyed the view as the city came to life in the distance.
The sun rose higher in the sky as we made our way back down the rock. Upon making it back to the forest floor, we were instantly warmer and the jackets came off. The day was beautiful and there were very few clouds in the sky. When we made it back to the car, the parking lot had just started to fill as many began a morning hike to the rock.
Notes on Hiking Horsetooth Rock
Hiking to Horsetooth Rock to watch sunrise is a fun experience, and we will definitely do it again. When planning the hike, the time you should arrive at the trailhead will depend on what time the sun rises. Check this before the day you want to hike and bring your credit/debit card for the entrance fee.
Also keep in mind the pace at which you hike because this will determine how much time you need to reach the rock before sunrise. Two hours to hike should be enough, but remember that it will be dark and the trail is rocky, so the hiking may be a bit slower than your normal pace. Bring along your flashlight or headlight.
Layers are a good idea as the early mornings can be chilly, even in the summer. But the sun will warm you up once it rises. Bring hot cocoa, coffee, or other warm drinks if you desire. We watched enviously as we passed a family enjoying hot cocoa on our way down the rock. Lastly, be aware that there is a range of wildlife here. This includes snakes, deer, coyotes, mountain lions, and more. Respect the wildlife and environment and keep your wits about you.