This is a great, fairly short (5+ mile) loop from the town of Palmer Lake through Limbaugh Canyon that circumnavigates Chautauqua Mountain. It starts at the highly-popular "Palmer Lake Reservoir" Trailhead in Palmer Lake, CO.
Arrive early! The trailhead quickly fills on weekends and the throngs become distracting. An early departure offers both the most peaceful hike and the best lighting for photos. I recommend 6-7 am in the summer.
Don't descend too far on the final leg of the trail. It dead-ends into private property and will require you to climb back up.
This route starts in Palmer Lake (PL) at the very popular Palmer Lake Trailhead. From the TH, follow a clearly marked set of trails that lead to a wide dirt road heading up to the reservoirs. This road is an old mining grade that follows the swiftly flowing Monument Creek, known as Balanced Rock Rd.
To your left is Mount Chautauqua which forms the left handrail of the canyon that hold the reservoirs. On the opposite side, the slope climbs steeply into a series of picturesque, boulder-strewn ridges.
This first section is a quintessential 'no-brainer.' Simply follow the steep gravel road to the first of two reservoirs above PL. This is a exceedingly popular area from spring through fall because of its accessibility and beauty, though few of these day-adventurers move beyond the second reservoir. The waters are usually very clear and the views eastward are quite impressive. Both bodies of water are popular with fishermen, as well.
At the 1st reservoir, there is a new trail network - known as the Ice Cave Creek Trail
- that branch off the main road to the north, though you'll continue on. As the route moves deeper into the mountains the crowds thin significantly. The second reservoir is at least twice as large as the lower one, but features the same crystalline water and great views. Continue to follow the road around its north shore until you arrive at a small vehicle gate. In the spring and during heavy rains, this area can become flooded, but can be bypassed fairly easily using a number of alternate routes to the north and west of the gate.
Once through the gate, continue to follow the road deeper into the Pike National Forest. The road will gradually become significantly rutted and is open to well-equipped off-road vehicles. That said, in multiple visits through this area, I've never encountered a vehicle, though there are a few beautiful campsite tucked into the woods. After approximately 2 miles, the road will switchback sharply to the left (south); this is the first indicator that you are getting close to the turn-off to the Palmer Lake to Limbaugh Canyon (715 Trail)
that leads to Limbaugh Canyon. The trail is on the left and is well marked by a vertical brown trail marker. In front of you is the western face of Mount Herman
; Limbaugh Canyon opens up below you.
Due to heavy erosion, 715 Trail has recently been rerouted. At the top, look for a discernible singletrack branch that descends to the right from the main trail. It is not immediately obvious. If you find yourself slipping and sliding down a deeply-eroded, gravelly gully, you've likely missed the turn. The new trail 715 is a pristine bit of singletrack that meanders down until it links up with another trail. Continue to follow the route downwards towards Limbaugh Canyon. At the bottom, the trail suddenly open up into a broad canyon dotted with meadows, aspens, wild flowers, and small trees. This is Limbaugh Canyon.
The remainder of the route is generally down hill and follows a pleasant creek. In the springtime, the trail crosses the creek multiple times. Others have left improvised bridges, so crossing is only slightly challenging when the waters are high. Near the end of the canyon, the trail rounds a corner that offers a stunning view of PL, Spruce Mountain, and Greenland Open Space.
The final challenge is choosing one of several unmarked options to return to PL and the TH. Approximately 200yds after the overlook, another trail climbs up to the south. This is a lightly-used MTB route - Limbaugh Canyon Trail
- that leads back towards nearby Monument Preserve. After this forks, the trail will gradually broaden into what must have been an old access road, though now impassible and eroded. On the left (north), you'll encounter multiple trails that clearly descend towards PL. I prefer one that is approximately 200 yds after the MTB split. Follow the trail downward to another small TH at the edge of a quirky neighborhood. Navigate back to the TH by whatever roads you choose.
Nice wildflowers throughout the Canyon.