Getting Out in Boulder - Top 8 Trails
With open plains giving way to high peaks, Boulder's hiking trails cover beautiful and varied terrain.
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The views from atop Boulder’s highest peaks show how the amazing landscape that has shaped the Rocky Mountains presents itself in two different worlds. To the east, the land is a flat, tawny expanse of sprawling prairie that meets the sky in a horizon line as flat as a level. In contrast, western views look out onto the snow-capped mountains of the Front Range, a collection of summits that alternate between massive, rounded domes and harsh, jagged spires. Boulder’s foothills serve as altars between these geographic marvels, transitioning from the high plains to the first uplifted contours of America’s most famous mountain range.
We’ve put together a list of 8 hikes that showcase the beauty and diversity surrounding Boulder, Colorado. Lace up a pair of the FC 4.1 and get started; these versatile, eco-friendly, workhorse hikers fit the bill for the varied terrain found on these Front Range trails.
At 8,150 feet, Green Mountain is one of a trio of peaks that extend above the city’s famous Flatirons- a series of exposed slabby faces visible from downtown. Several trails lead to Green’s summit with the most popular routes starting at Gregory Canyon. The Amphitheater Trail begins with an abrupt stone staircase that bypasses the namesake rock alcove before heading up through pine forests, where semi-open views preclude the exposed summit overlook. From the same starting point, Gregory Canyon Trail follows more open rock outcroppings than the Amphitheater and may be a more desirable summit approach for runners looking for a challenge. A sturdy stone cairn topped with a brass plate identifying the distant peaks is mounted on the summit boulder.
•Round Trip Distance: 6mi // Elevation Gain: 2,867ft
Choose from two routes to tackle the 8,460-foot Bear Peak; both start from the NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) parking lot—and combined they form an excellent loop. From NCAR, head to the Mesa Trail then up Fern Canyon. This trail follows the shadowy, steep canyon with askew boulders lining the trail. After a steady climb, the iron-rich spine of red rock that makes up Bear Peak’s exposed summit comes into view. A brief but exciting scramble leads to the top, where Boulder’s most open summit views await. Descend via the West Ridge Trail through the remnants of a burn zone that fades into lush alpine meadows before reconnecting with the Mesa Trail, closing the loop.
•Round Trip Distance: 7.7mi // Elevation Gain: 3,018ft
South Boulder Peak
South Boulder Peak is the highest point in the Boulder Mountain Parks region (8,549 ft.) yet this out-and-back isn’t as popular a hike as its neighboring summits of Green Mountain and Bear Peak. Fewer crowds means that hikers often have the summit to themselves. Views to the east are hindered by pine trees but are open and expansive to the west. Linking Bear Peak and South Boulder peak only takes about 30 minutes and the two mountains share a common trailhead at Shadow Canyon/South Mesa Trailhead. For a robust day, hiking all three mountains (South Boulder-Bear-Green) is a classic adventure both as a loop and as a point-to-point from South Mesa Trailhead to Gregory Canyon.
Mount Sanitas (Lion’s Lair Trail)
If Boulder were to designate a hometown mountain, Sanitas would be it. It can be a busy place on summer weekends when hikers, joggers, canine companions, and photographers converge on the modest 6,843-foot peak. The addition of the smoothly-graded out-and-back Lion’s Lair Trail in 2014 from the western approach in Sunshine Canyon has helped disperse foot traffic on the mountain while offering one of the best trail running paths in the city. (Note: Parking for the Lion’s Lair trailhead is limited.) The east side trails from Linden Avenue and Mapleton Avenue are steep, sturdy, and scenic. The access is approachable, the views are spectacular, and a round-trip hike can be done in just over an hour—or longer if you want to make a loop. Settlers Park, Boulder’s Red Rocks Park, and nearby Pearl Street are all a short distance from Mount Sanitas.
•Round Trip Distance: 4.5mi // Elevation Gain: 987ft
Rather than offering airy summit views, Marshall Mesa’s eastern locale affords it some of the very best, wide-open views of Boulder’s iconic landmarks from the vantage point of the plains. A network of trails cover the rolling terrain while offering optimal vistas of the Flatirons to the west. To the north, views of the city and Boulder Valley sprawl to the foothills and off in the far distance, Longs Peak looms. Marshall Mesa is a peaceful place to admire Boulder from afar and it can be accessed by two main trailheads off CO 93: Marshall Mesa Trailhead and the Greenbelt Plateau Trailhead, or for a longer route from the Doudy Draw Trailhead (via the Community Ditch Trail). Keep an eye out rattlesnakes in the summer!
•Round Trip Distance: Distances vary // Elevation Gain: Varied; relatively flat
Boulder Valley Ranch: Sage Lollipop Loop
Located on the outskirts of north Boulder, this loop harkens back to the city’s agrarian roots. The Sage Loop circles Boulder Valley Ranch, a still working farm in the middle of open space. Just following the loop is right at three miles while the addition of a short spur adds a little extra distance. Views of the city to the south are blocked by a small mesa, making it feel like you are much farther away from the urban bustle than you actually are. Old cottonwood trees line the irrigation ditch that opens up to the grassy meadows, where cows and horses graze. Those looking to increase their mileage can walk via the Eagle Trail and dirt roads to Boulder Reservoir or detour up to the mesa through a network of single-track trails.
•Round Trip Distance: 3.75mi // Elevation Gain: 123ft
Dowdy Draw/Community Ditch/Flatirons Vista
Parking at the Doudy Draw Trailhead, this seven-mile loop starts with a short section of low-grade gradual climbing up the Doudy Draw intro section to reach the split for the Community Ditch Trail. Following this leg to Foothills Parkway/ Highway 93 leads to an underpass to gain the Greebelt Plateau Trail, bringing runners or hikers out onto the exposed plains with scenic views of the foothills and Eldorado Canyon. Eventually crossing Highway 93 again to link up with the Flatirons Vista North Trail, the trail then cuts back west and rejoins Doudy Draw. Dowdy Draw sees less traffic than the neighboring South Mesa Trail, though some of that is in the form of mountain bikers. For a shorter, more shaded option, take Doudy Draw to the Spring Brook North/ South Loop, a loop that courses through pine groves along a narrow trail over rocky footing. This area is especially pleasant during the winter months when cooler temperatures offer relief from the otherwise exposed (and hot) sections on the plains.
•Round Trip Distance: 7mi // Elevation Gain: 400ft
Walker Ranch is a 7.5 -mile loop located about 20 miles west of Chautauqua Park, up and over Flagstaff Road. The trail can be hiked in either direction and starts near the highest point of the route. Descend to South Boulder Creek before encountering a steep, 200-foot tall stone staircase near the halfway point of the trail. There are burn zones, open meadows, a trickling creek and quiet forests to explore along the way. It’s also a good place to see the western faces of Bear and South Boulder Peaks. Be alert to mountain bikers sharing the trail!
•Round Trip Distance: 7.5mi // Elevation Gain: 1938ft
Originally written for La Sportiva by RootsRated.
Preview Photo: ©Hage Photo
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