Climb, hike, fish, and bike a short drive from overheated Denver by Lora J. Finnegan

On a sizzling day in Denver, the snow-topped Rockies to the west — if you can see them at all — can seem unbearably distant. Though the mountains may beckon, you don't have to head all the way to the high country to escape the summer heat. Just an hour or so from downtown, you'll find icy streams, sheer-walled cliffs, and the sweet song of the canyon wren. A trio of shady canyons that cut into the Front Range offer a welcome escape from a sweltering day in the city. Each canyon has its own special character and is worth taking a day to explore.

Big Thompson Canyon makes a refreshing summer drive, with stops for hiking, fishing, or picnicking, and is the only one with camping. Eldorado Canyon is a mecca for rock climbers. And Waterton Canyon is ideal for fly-fishing and biking. Whichever canyon you choose, you'll want to pack a picnic, water, and a pair of binoculars for watching birds (golden eagles, canyon wrens), wildlife, or perhaps even a few daring climbers.

Rock climb in Eldorado Canyon | Top From the parking area at the visitor center in Eldorado Canyon State Park, southwest of Boulder, it's a gentle stroll up the Fowler Trail to the Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, but soon the route begins to switchback up the forested slope. Halfway up the 4-mile hike, most visitors need a pause to catch their breath. But here you don't mind the climb, since there's an awesome view to distract you — a wide sweep of the roughly 280-acre canyon in this park. Looking east, out the canyon mouth, you'll catch a glimpse of the plains shimmering in the summer heat. Far below, the silver ribbon of South Boulder Creek hits a bend and whips into a white froth. And right across the canyon, you're likely to see rock climbers spidering up Redgarden Wall and the West Ridge. They're easy to spot along a cleft in the rock, which glows rust red in the slanting light. For local climbers, the park is the Holy Grail, mecca, and nirvana rolled into one — all because of the rock. The Fountain Formation sandstone here is more like granite than the soft sandstone in other Front Range canyons. Even nonclimbers can enjoy the experience: Try your hand at bouldering on the lower walls, take a hike, or just watch the pros picking their way up some 500 routes on the steep walls. After a rest, continue up Rattlesnake Gulch Trail to the original site of an elegant clifftop resort called the Crags Hotel, built in 1908 and destroyed by fire in 1912. Trailside signs tell of its construction (a tram ran from this point straight down to the canyon floor) and heady days of society parties. Take time to drink in the panorama. From here, you can continue upward to a grand overlook of the Continental Divide, or head downhill to soak your toes in the chilly creek and enjoy a picnic by the water, as Denver families have done for years.

Eldorado Canyon State Park. The park is about 8 miles southwest of Boulder. Take State 93 south from Boulder, turn right on State 170, and continue about 4 miles to the park entrance. $6 per vehicle. 9 Kneale Rd., Eldorado Springs; http://parks.state.co.us or 303/494-3943.