With all the mountainous goodness surrounding Boulder, it’s easy to overlook one of the city’s best natural features: Boulder Creek. It is a geological curiosity to consider that the humble stream flowing through the heart of the city is the same agent that carved out the deep walls of Boulder Canyon. (Though Boulder did get a taste of the creek’s true destructive potential during the floods of 2013).
But despite the occasional outburst, Boulder Creek is traditionally mild-mannered. The section that runs through downtown is a welcome summer playground, complete with a kayak course (near Settler’s Park) and of course, the legendary tubing. Ancient cottonwood trees tower 100 feet on its banks, and there are plenty of nooks along the way to recreate with your activity of choice (me, I like reading a good book by the creek).
West of town, Boulder Creek cascades through the canyon with more power. Many rock climbing areas are accessed by clipping into tyrolian traverses (ropes strung across the river) and hauling oneself across the raging waters. Boulder Falls enters into the creek in spectacular fashion, while simultaneously guarding the gateway to Dream Canyon. A drive to the top of the canyon and the mountain town of Nederland brings you to the origin of the creek—the sturdy dam of Barker Reservoir. It is here that waters from the 13,000 ft. summits of the Indian Peaks flow.
And east of town, Boulder Creek joins with St. Vrain Creek, then merges with Platte River, ultimately flowing into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. What a long, strange trip it must be.
Boulder is a dry, hot place and of course, the creek is more than a creek. It is a vein of life delivered from the mountains. Even in the darkest, coldest months of winter, it’s a constant reminder of the cycles of nature quietly going about their business. And even those who don’t view it quite as poetically have to appreciate the streak of verdant, green life it brings to an otherwise parched city.
Dating back to 19th century laws, it’s actually illegal to pan for gold in Boulder Creek. The hills that drain into it contain a lot of valuable ore: silver, lead, gold, just to name a few. The flurry of mining in the hills above Boulder are just one page in the city’s long history. Native Americans frequented the creek’s hunting grounds before the presence of white men and a host of wild animals frequented the life-giving waters.
Perhaps that’s why people appreciate Boulder Creek so much. It is fluidity and softness in a hard place. Despite all the (expensive) development along its banks, there are plenty of places where you can feel completely removed from the city around the creek. The 2-mile trail that extends west of the city along the creek into the canyon is a special treat for runners, cyclists, or walkers hoping to leave the bustle of the streets behind for a while. After all, most people who find their way to the Rocky Mountains are there because they crave the essence of raw wilderness in their lives -- to have access to such a place just minutes from the downtown area of a fantastic city is ideal.
So let’s hear it for good, ol’ Boulder Creek, one of the city’s most precious natural features. While the Flatirons and nearby mountaintops may score the photogenic bragging rights, this timeless river gives Boulder a new dimension, one that literally connects us to the mountains and provides a reminder of the wild places where we yearn to be.