A Quick and Dirty Guide to Some of Boulder's Best Hiking

Zach Dischner
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A glance at Boulder’s backdrop hints at why this is hiking nirvana: The city sits right where the Rocky Mountains blast up from pancake-flat plains, and much of the land surrounding Boulder is preserved as part of the city’s open space system.

Since 1967, voters here have repeatedly approved sales taxes to support public land acquisition and management, resulting in a network of 45,000 acres with more than 145 miles of trails. With rolling prairie, vibrant meadows, peaceful forests, shadowy canyons, and stout climbs, there’s something to suit every hiker’s desire.

With so many options, it’s tough to boil down Boulder hiking to just a few favorites. Here are some classic routes within spitting distance of town. If you want to bring your pooch, check regulations. Some trails prohibit dogs, some require leashes, and others allow dogs off-leash as long as they have a City of Boulder off-leash tag.

Chautauqua Park

The scenic golden meadows of Chatauqua.
The scenic golden meadows of Chatauqua. Akos Kokai

The crown jewel of Boulder hiking is Chautauqua Park , a gateway to miles of trails that lead into the mountains west of town. Take an easy stroll through the meadow, or use the park as a launching point to places farther afield. From the trailhead, you can access trails that let you get up close and personal with the Flatirons, grunt to the top of peaks, or meander all the way south to Eldorado Springs. Hikers of all levels will find something to suit them in this peaceful setting with stunning views.

From the parking lot, trails cross a scenic meadow that is ablaze with wildflowers in the summer and fades to the muted hues of golden grasses come fall. Paths climb up to shady pine forest, then branch out in a well-marked network of trails that you can string together any which way you please. Wander for an hour or a day, getting intimate with Boulder’s mountain backdrop.

The Chautauqua and Bluebell-Baird trails are good options for hikers who are seeking shorter, less strenuous outings. The McClintock and Enchanted Mesa trails dive a little deeper into the park. If you’re up for a bigger adventure, tackle the steep switchbacks between the 1st and 2nd Flatirons, climb up to Royal Arch, or head through the meadow to Gregory Canyon, where you can access trails to the Amphitheater, Saddle Rock, and beyond.

Bear Peak

RootsRated CEO, Fynn Glover, admiring the view from Bear Peak
RootsRated CEO, Fynn Glover, admiring the view from Bear Peak Ry Glover

Bear Peak is a must-do hike for anyone who wants to explore the hills west of Boulder. Rising to 8,461 feet, it’s a sturdy climb that tops out on a rocky summit with unobstructed 360° views of the sky-scraping 13,000-foot Indian Peaks to the west, Rocky Mountain National Park and Longs Peak to the north, Boulder and Denver to the east, and the foothills mountain chain to the south. This hike is a great workout, with 2,400 feet of elevation gain over five miles. For extra credit, combine it with South Boulder Peak, just another 20-30 minutes to the south.

You have two trail options to reach Bear Peak. Bear Peak’s West Ridge trail ventures through flower festooned meadows and quiet woods before abruptly climbing through a burn zone and topping out via a rocky scramble. Fern Canyon is a more direct, steeper option through a shady, verdant forest. If you choose this route, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re almost there at the saddle; it’s still a stiff, steep grunt to the summit.

Most people strike out for Bear Peak from the NCAR parking lot, which requires you to dip down and lose some elevation before climbing back up. To avoid this, park at the neighborhood trailhead at the end of Cragmoor Roadand follow the North Fork Shanahan Trail to Shanahan Mesa, which links to Fern Canyon.

Another—longer—option is to park at the South Mesa Trailhead and follow Shadow Canyon, which leads to a saddle between Bear and South Boulder peaks, with a 15-minute jaunt to either.

Green Mountain

The view from Green Mountain's flat summit
The view from Green Mountain's flat summit James Dziezynski

At 8,144 feet, Green Mountain is the most accessible of the “big three” Boulder summits (the others being Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak). Choose from several trail options, or string a couple together to make a loop. Pack plenty of water. While none of the trails that lead to the top are particularly technical, you still face 2,278 feet of elevation gain over about 3.2 miles one way.

The standard trailhead is at the base of Gregory Canyon on the perimeter of Chautauqua Park. The wickedly steep Amphitheater Trail is an instant lung-buster, starting with a quarter-mile of stone steps that get your heart rate racing before you’ve left sight of the parking lot. A second option from Gregory Canyon is the Gregory Canyon Trail, a sunnier approach that’s also steep and is punctuated with scenic rock formations. Eventually, the two paths converge and join up in a burly path to the summit. The final push to the top twists through one final rock garden before concluding at a welcoming, flat summit with outstanding views.

If you want the satisfaction of a peak without all the work, drive 4.5 miles up Flagstaff Road to the Green Mountain West Ridge Trail. This route shortens the hike to 1.4 miles one way with only 600 feet of elevation gain.

Royal Arch

Royal Arch in all its glory
Royal Arch in all its glory UCFFool

Royal Arch is one of Boulder's natural gems, a beautiful sandstone arch perched in the foothills above the city. Reaching it requires a short, steep hike that gains more than 1,400 feet of elevation and wanders through forests, gullies, and boulders. The arch doesn’t come into view until you are nearly in front of it, providing a welcome sight to sweat-drenched hikers who wonder when the steep climb will end. The total hike is 3.2 miles round trip.

Access the trail from Chautauqua Park. Hikers who like steep, rewarding adventures will appreciate the effort to reach Royal Arch. While the trail gains a lot of elevation, don’t let that intimidate you. Nearly every rest spot has great views.

Anne U. White Trail

The beginning of the Annie U. White Trail
The beginning of the Annie U. White Trail James Dziezynski

The Anne U. White Trail is one of Boulder’s best-kept secrets. Just 2.4 miles round trip, this easy, wooded trail winds alongside Four Mile Creek, providing a welcome departure from the dusty, rugged mountain trails more typical of Boulder. Quiet, shady, and peaceful, Anne U. White is a great place to beat the heat in the summer and enjoy pristine snowfall in the winter. A modest elevation gain of about 400 feet is nearly unnoticeable.

The trailhead is off Wagon Wheel Gap Road, accessed from Lee Hill Road west of Boulder.

South Boulder Peak

Hiking through the burn zone on the way up to South Boulder Peak
Hiking through the burn zone on the way up to South Boulder Peak James Dziezynski

At 8,549 feet, South Boulder Peak is the highest summit in the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks network and sees less traffic than Bear Peak and Green Mountain. It’s a stout hike—8.5 miles round trip with 3,100 feet of elevation gain—that can occupy the better part of a day. The trail climbs up through a shrubby riparian zone before entering magical Shadow Canyon, where chirping birds create an almost tropical sound at the start. After a steep grunt up the canyon, the trail passes through a burn zone and tops out on the rocky summit.

Views from the peak are stunning, especially during the winter when you can see snow-capped peaks to the west. If you’re after a strong workout, you’ll love this hike. Start at the South Mesa Trailhead off Eldorado Springs Drive, south of town. For extra credit, string together Bear and South Boulder peaks, or do the Boulder trifecta that includes Green Mountain as well.

Mount Sanitas

The sun rises over the grassy flank of Mount Sanitas
The sun rises over the grassy flank of Mount Sanitas Ry Glover

No discussion of Boulder hiking would be complete without mention of Mount Sanitas , a beloved peak that offers several options, including a quick up and back burn, or a more meandering loop. The 6,863-foot peak delivers expansive views of the City of Boulder to the east and the Indian Peaks to the west.

If you want to bust out the peak during lunch, burn up the western ridge, which conjures up images of a Stairmaster as it climbs up a seemingly endless series of steps and steep rocks. For a more moderate outing, stroll up the valley on the east side, or the Dakota Ridge Trail that parallels it. At the top of the valley, you can opt to keep climbing up the east side to the top, returning the same way or via the steep back side.

The full loop is about 3 miles with more than 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Access the trailhead where Mapleton Avenue turns into Sunshine Canyon Drive at the west edge of town.

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