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Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park is located in Evergreen, Colorado and is one of 27 parks comprising the Jefferson County Open Space system. Lying just to the west of Denver, Jefferson County is the fourth most populous county in the state of Colorado and includes several of the western suburbs of the city. But most of the county is mountainous and encompasses a significant number of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The system of Open Space parks comprises some 56,000 acres and features 244 miles of hiking trails. A dedicated sales tax provides funding for the creation and maintenance of these parks, as well as for creation of new trails. Admission to the parks, most of which are in the foothills of the Rockies, is free for all visitors and the parks are very popular, especially on weekends.

Jefferson County Foothills. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Jefferson County Foothills

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park is one of the many foothills parks with terrain varying from about 7,500 feet to 8,536 feet at the summit of Evergreen Mountain, the only named, and therefore the highest and most prominent, mountain in the park (note, however, there is unofficial access to another mountain outside the park boundaries – more on that later). The park has 15.6 miles of trails in an area of 1,135 acres, giving it the highest trail density of any foothills park. It has two trailhead parking areas about one mile apart along the Buffalo Park Road which are about a five-minute drive from the center of the historic town.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

The park derives its name from two sources. Up until 1988, what is now the park was a privately owned working ranch controlled by the Alderfer family. They raised horses, cattle and foxes, and even maintained a sawmill on the site. After they sold 1,000 acres of the ranch to Jefferson County, and donated additional land, it was formed into the present park. Their historic barn is a distinctive landmark in the park. It started as a small log barn in the 1850’s as part of the Hester Homestead. A timber frame addition was constructed in 1900, and the barn was further expanded in 1985. The barn is now used for special events including weddings. Nearby are two picnic shelters.

Alderfer Barn. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Alderfer Barn

Most of the terrain in the park is rolling hills and meadows which are interspersed with stunning rock formations and are often covered with wildflowers. There are stands of impressive ponderosa pines at the lower elevations, with lodgepole pines higher up. The Three Sisters designation comes from three dominant rock formations that are popular for climbing, scrambling and bouldering. A variety of wildlife can be found in the park as well. On one of our hikes, my wife and I encountered a young Black Bear; on another hike I had an encounter with a fox. Deer and elk are also common in the park.

The Three Sisters. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

The Three Sisters

Recreation in the Park

Most activities in the park are confined to hiking and mountain biking. All trails are open to both. In addition, horseback riding is permitted but we have found that is not very common. But since hiking is what we are concentrating on here, that is what we will try to examine so that you can get an idea of how to spend your time in this pleasant little oasis in the foothills. The park is divided into two segments, one on each side of the Buffalo Park Road. The smaller southern section is mainly serviced by two trails for those wanting to hike to the top of Evergreen Mountain. The larger northern segment contains most of the park’s trails, including access to the Three Sisters. There are, needless to say, a number of different hiking combinations possible depending on how far you want to go and how much time you have. I have done some hikes here that were as long as 12 miles without repeating any segments of trails. We prefer hiking here in the cooler months of the year – even at elevations that are slightly higher than the lower foothills, it can still be mighty hot here in the summer. Winter can be especially pleasant here. So let’s go hiking in Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

Winter in Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Winter in Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Evergreen Mountain

The southern part of the park appears to be the more popular and is well-used for the main reason that this is where Evergreen Mountain lies. An easy loop hike with a spur trail to the top of the mountain is a nice half-day outing of about six miles. Beginning at the east parking area, the hike starts with the Evergreen Mountain East Trail, which meanders through mostly intermittent forested areas with occasional viewpoints. It then reaches a junction with the Summit Trail and the Evergreen Mountain West Trail. The Summit Trail continues to the relatively flat summit area which is mostly forested until you reach the two summit overlooks. From there you will get fine views toward the west, where the mighty Mount Evans dominates the view. You then return to your starting point, except when you arrive back at the trail junction, don’t go back the way you came but instead take the Evergreen Mountain West Trail. This trail is mostly in lodgepole pine forest and ends at a nice meadow, from where the Ranch View Trail takes you back to the parking area. You will encounter lots of bikers on this hike.

Mount Evans from Evergreen Mountain. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Mount Evans from Evergreen Mountain

If this hike seems too short for you, as it usually is for me, you have many options to extend the hike to include some of the trails in the northern segment of the park. Let’s take a look at what you can do to get the most out of your day in the rest of the park.

Loop Hike through the Sisters

If exploring the Three Sisters, and perhaps even scrambling around on or climbing their cliffs, is what you would like to experience, there are several fine loop hikes of different lengths available starting at either trailhead. The simplest is the combination of the Sisters Trail and the Ponderosa Trail, with the additional bonus of a short spur to the Brother’s Lookout, which offers fine views to the east. If climbing is your objective, please note that permanent protection is not permitted – in other words don’t leave your hardware behind.

A Longer Northern Loop Hike

If you want to experience a longer hike in the northern segment of the park, and encounter a lot less people, at least for part of the hike, try this one. Take the Hidden Fawn Trail from the east trailhead until it intersects the Sisters Trail. Take that to the junction of the Bearberry Trail until it meets the Mountain Muhly Trail - this trail will take you past some old ranch buildings after which it reaches the northernmost point in the park. It then loops around to the south until it meets the Homestead Trail, which in turn meets the Silver Fox Trail, which you can then take as far as the Ponderosa Trail. From here, the Ponderosa Trail follows alongside the Buffalo Park Road to your starting point. This hike involves some significant elevation gains and losses, and is about seven miles long.

Historic Ranch Building, Mountain Muhly Trail. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Historic Ranch Building, Mountain Muhly Trail

The Longest Hike

If you are really ambitious, you can do what I have done several times. Simply stated, you start at either trailhead and then follow all the trails that make up the outer perimeter of the entire trail network in the park. This will take in the east and west Evergreen Mountain trails (including the diversion to the summit) and connect with the trails in the northern segment of the park. That includes several of the trails described for the “Longer Loop” above, but not the Ponderosa Trail. This makes a long loop of about 10 miles. You can even add to that a sub-loop of several of the interior trails thus increasing your total hike by two or three miles. The choices are quite diverse. If you live nearby, as we do, and you go there often, as we do, you can vary your choice of trails as suits your wishes for the day.

Wildflower Meadow, Hidden Fawn Trail. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Wildflower Meadow, Hidden Fawn Trail

Elephant Butte

OK, let me make it clear that this is not officially part of Alderfer/Three Sisters Park. But Elephant Butte is a mountain near the northwestern part of the park, with its eastern slopes spilling well into the park. There is no official trail, but a couple of “social” trails will get you from near the park to the summit, which is at an elevation of 8,405 feet. This summit is far nicer than that of Evergreen Mountain, affording fine views in all directions, from the plains to the high summits of Mount Evans and Pikes Peak. We have climbed it many times, and have rarely ever seen any other people up there. There are several hiking/climbing websites online that offer plenty of hiking information about Elephant Butte for anyone interested. Since it is not part of the park, we will not promote it here other than to point out that it exists in close proximity to the park and that some of the best views anywhere close to the park can be had from its summit. Since there was a recent (Summer 2020) wildfire on the mountain, it may be off limits to hikers indefinitely.

Elephant Butte Summit, Rosalie Peak (c),  Mount Evans (r). Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Elephant Butte Summit, Rosalie Peak (c), Mount Evans (r)

Major Towns and Resorts

Since the entire Jefferson County Open Space system is handy to the greater Denver metropolitan area, all of the parks, including Alderfer/Three Sisters Park, attract mostly locals although it is certain that visitors to the Denver area would want to do some hiking here as well. Any such visitors will likely already know that Denver offers all of the amenities of a large city with a metropolitan population of almost 3 million residents. But there are a few places closer to the park that may be of specific interest to some visitors.

Evergreen and Conifer

These two communities with populations of 9,200 and 8,200 respectively (elevations of 7,220 and 8,277 respectively) are fundamentally “bedroom” communities for people who want to live in the mountains yet need to be close enough to the city for commuting to work or for shopping and entertainment. Their semi-forested environment is conducive to clean air and somewhat cooler summer temperatures than in the city. They also get more snow in the winter. Evergreen is of course where Alderfer/Three Sisters Park resides. It, and therefore the park, is easily accessible from Interstate Highway 70 (I-70), only ten miles from the trailheads. Conifer is located on U.S. Highway 285, which is only nine miles from the park via County Road 73. Both towns are also handy to other fine hiking areas, including other Jefferson County Open Space parks such as Elk Meadow, Mount Falcon and Meyer Ranch. Living with wildlife is part of everyday life in these communities. Historic Evergreen is also blessed with a beautiful lake nestled in a grand mountain setting and offering a variety of recreational opportunities.

Evergreen Lake. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Evergreen Lake

Very handy to both towns, but especially Conifer, is the beautiful Staunton State Park with its stunning views and exceptionally wonderful trail network. For visitors with small children, there is an attraction only eight miles to the north along U.S 285, that is sure to incur lasting memories in the younger minds of the little ones – Tiny Town (or as they like to promote it “World Famous Tiny Town and Railroad”). It is a miniature village spread over wooded meadows and hillsides, which can be explored on foot or via a miniature railroad that even adults can ride. We have done it and had lots of fun. It is only open during the warmer months of the year.

Tiny Town. Alderfer/Three Sisters Park

Tiny Town

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