Plan your perfect outings in Boulder County’s high country with this resource guide
By Haley Gray
Welcome to Boulder County’s high country, where you’ll find calf-busting hikes and quiet mountain strolls, stunning summits and peaceful lakes, red rock formations begging to be climbed, and beautiful bluffs ideal for picnics with a view. With so many ways to play, it’s hard to know where to start.
Use this resource guide to plan your perfect close-in outings this summer.
Right Above Boulder – Know Before You Go:
The trails crisscrossing the five peaks that lord over Boulder are managed by either Boulder County or the city. Both maintain frequently updated, highly useful websites. Visit www.OSMPprojects.org and click on “2017 Major Trail Projects” to find an interactive map of all trails managed by the city of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), with updated information on trail closures, as well as trails managed by the county. Hiking vs. multi-use functions of the trails are also marked.
An easy-to-use list of county-managed trails features icons clearly marking the allowed uses and recreational opportunities, like fishing and climbing, on every county trail. Access it via www.bouldercounty.org/open-space/parks-and-trails.
Tip: As you get to know your favorite trails, take note of which agencies operate them. That way, you’ll know exactly where to check online for closures. County-managed trails are clearly marked “Boulder County Parks and Open Space.” City trails are often scantily marked, or might be posted with signs that include “City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks.”
Enjoying Our Splendid Mountains
Escape the heat this summer with a trip to one of the wonderfully varied adventures to be found just a short distance above local cities. This handy guide to some of the best areas to visit will help you enjoy the majesty of our mountains.
Brainard Lake Area
NOTE: Mid-June through September, Brainard Lake is open to motorized vehicles for a fee: $10 for a three-day pass per vehicle; $1 fee for those on foot or bicycle; $55 for a seasonal American Lands and Leisure pass. Interagency Federal Lands Passes are accepted. This area is extremely popular, especially on weekends. Expect large crowds and limited parking. Camping and campfires are prohibited through Nov. 15, except at Pawnee Campground. Expect snow on trails through early July. www.fs.usda.gov/goto/arp/brainard
Clear Creek County–Georgetown/Idaho Springs
Located along I-70, just 20 miles west of Denver, Clear Creek County’s historic mining towns of Idaho Springs, Empire, Georgetown and Silver Plume, and the surrounding forests, are rich with history and beauty. Avoid the crowds and enjoy a simple day trip or a weekend getaway.
Georgetown’s Guanella Pass Scenic Byway is located a few minutes off I-70, just west of historic downtown Georgetown. The 23-mile paved and gravel byway goes past aspen groves, gorgeous waterfalls and wildlife. Be sure to bring your hiking boots to take advantage of the many trailheads along the way, including direct access to Mount Bierstadt, one of four “14ers” (peaks over 14,000 feet) in the county.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
Eldorado Canyon State Park is 5 miles south of Boulder on Colorado Highway 170 adjoining Eldorado Springs. The 1,442-acre park is a world-renowned rock-climbing area, with over 500 routes on cliffs rising more than 850 feet above South Boulder Creek. For nonclimbers, Eldorado offers fishing along South Boulder Creek and several hiking trails. The Eldorado Canyon Trail, open to hikers and horses, gains 1,000 feet in elevation and leads 3.2 miles (one way) to the 7.5-mile Walker Ranch Loop Trail (open to hiking and mountain biking, and partially open to horses). The Walker Ranch Loop can also be accessed off Gross Dam Road and Flagstaff Drive.
The Rattlesnake Gulch Trail has reopened since the 2013 flood, but the Upper Loop may be closed to protect nesting golden eagles. This trail is used by hikers and mountain bikers, and gains 800 feet in elevation as it leads over 1.4 miles to the few remaining bricks of the once-great Crags Hotel. From the ruin, the 1.2-mile Upper Loop that gains 325 feet in elevation leads to views of the Continental Divide to the west. Fowler Trail is wheelchair accessible for one-half mile to the Bastille, and then continues 0.2 miles to the park boundary, a total of 0.7 miles one way. This trail offers the best views of the inner canyon and the rock climbers. A self-guided nature-walk brochure for this trail, available at the visitor center, explores Eldorado Canyon’s unique environment. Streamside Trail is an easy half-mile hike (one-way) along South Boulder Creek. The first 300 feet are wheelchair accessible.
Throughout the year, the daily pass fee is $8 per vehicle at the gate. An annual pass valid at all state parks or recreation areas may be purchased at the gate. Cost is $70 ($60 for Colorado seniors).
Fall River Road/Saint Mary’s Glacier
Take Exit 238 from I-70, follow the signs to Fall River Road and proceed toward St. Mary’s Glacier. This drive takes you past the small town of Alice, historic buildings, barns, gorgeous aspens and waterfalls. Once you arrive near the top, you can hike the extra mile to the glacier, or stop at Silver Lake to fish or picnic.
Golden Gate Canyon State Park
Golden Gate Canyon State Park is 22 miles south of Nederland. Take Colorado Highway 119 south for 18 miles; then turn east onto Colorado Highway 46 for 4 miles. It can also be reached by going west for 13 miles on Golden Gate Canyon Road off Colorado Highway 93 south of Boulder. The park offers 35 miles of hiking trails as well as mountain biking, fishing, picnicking, backpacking, and beautiful views of the plains and the Continental Divide. Visitor’s Center open year-round.
Motor vehicles are charged a $7 entrance fee. Camping is available for $12 per night for backcountry sites; May-Sept. 30 rates are $20 per night for tent sites and $26 per night for a site with electric hookup. Group picnic areas are available, as are a conference room, cabins and backcountry yurts. RV access at Reverend’s Ridge.
Mount Evans Scenic Byway/Echo Lake
The 28-mile Mount Evans Scenic and Historic Byway is the nation’s highest auto road. It begins at Idaho Springs and ends only 140 feet shy of Mount Evans’ summit, accessing trails to several mountain lakes. Full of twists, turns and overlooks, this road takes you deep into the mountains and is full of gorgeous colors and countless aspen trees.
Take Highway 103 south from I-70; the twisting road will become the Mount Evans Byway on the way to Evergreen. After arriving at Echo Lake, you will have the option of turning toward Mount Evans and driving as far as Summit Lake.
For more information about recreational opportunities in Clear Creek County, visit www.clearcreekcounty.org or call 303-567-3000.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, west of Estes Park via U.S. Highway 36 and U.S. Highway 34, is wilderness at its finest, especially with its federal wilderness designation in 2009. Incredible views and frequent elk sightings are common from Trail Ridge Road, which reaches 12,183 feet in altitude and crosses the Continental Divide. It stays open (weather permitting) until mid-October. Mountains shoot up to 14,259 feet (Longs Peak). The park has more than 350 miles of hiking trails, as well as backpacking, technical climbing and picnicking. Look for elk, moose, bighorn sheep, ptarmigans, marmots, pikas and other wildlife that live within park boundaries. Fishing is allowed year-round, subject to Colorado fishing regulations and specific park restrictions. Pets are not allowed on any trails, and must be leashed in established campgrounds and parking lots, and along roads. Hunting is not allowed.
Entry fees to this 265,000-acre park are $20 for one-day for a private vehicle pass and $30 for up to 7 days; a one-year RMNP pass is $60. Single-entry pedestrian or bike passes good for a week ($10) or passes valid for a full year at all national parks ($80) may be purchased at the entrance stations.
Check the alerts on the park website, www.nps.gov/romo, or call the information office at 970-586-1206 for updates. To reserve campgrounds in national parks, call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov.
Roosevelt National Forest
Roosevelt National Forest, located several miles west of Boulder, offers numerous trails. Popular trailheads are located within the Brainard Lake Recreation Area ($10 entry fee mid-June through September; free thereafter until summer). Other trails are 2 miles west of Ward on County Road 102 off Colorado Highway 72; St. Vrain Mountain Trail in Allenspark, 1.5 miles south on County Road 107/Forest Service Road 116; Middle St. Vrain on Colorado Highway 72 at Peaceful Valley, 10 miles north of Ward; Rainbow Lakes, 13 miles north of Nederland and 5 miles west on Forest Road 298 at the turnoff for the Colorado Mountain Research Station; and Ceran St. Vrain, 4 miles west of Jamestown on Colorado Highway 94. The Lefthand OHV trail, east of Jamestown, is only open to bikers and hikers. Roads are subject to closure due to weather and road conditions.
For more information, call the U.S. Forest Service, Boulder Ranger District, at 303-541-2500, follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/usfsarp or visit www.fs.usda.gov/arp.
Ask a Ranger:
How to Spot a Golden Eagle
OSMP ranger Rick Hatfield has been a guardian of Boulder County birds of prey since he began volunteering with the city in the early ’90s. Peregrine falcons, prairie falcons and the elusive golden eagle make their nests in the rocky bluffs around the foothills. Except for the second Flatiron, most of these rocky areas are closed from February through July to protect the delicate habitats the birds nest in during that time. You might spot these raptors flying high above the canopy, duking it out for airspace, or soaring with undulating or circular flight patterns to impress their mates.
- Third Peak’s the Charm: To spot one of the birds, Hatfield recommends the Arch trail at the southern boundary of the third Flatiron, as well as Skunk Canyon, Fern Canyon and Bear Canyon.
- Ears Wide Open: “Most people will hear them before they see them,” says Hatfield. Find a quiet trail and listen for shrill, repetitive peeping. Then look up.
- Don’t Overthink It: You may encounter bird-watchers on the trails with binoculars and spotting scopes, but Hatfield says the eagles, which fly above the canopy, are still visible to the naked eye.