Snowy wonderland tempts skiers and snowshoers to get out and play
By Sharon Cutler
For a few magical days each winter, Boulder County’s celebrated hiking trails are transformed into a snowy wonderland tempting cross-country skiers to get out and play. For that handful of dazzling days, skiers can bundle up and embark on amazing adventures that may be found no farther than the end of their street. Read on for tips regarding trail selection and suggestions—and a word of caution.
First the caution: While that white blanket covering the trails looks soft and fluffy, remember that it’s concealing rocks and other hazards. Be careful! You could damage your skis or worse yet, injure yourself. Don’t go bombing down trails if you don’t know what’s hidden beneath that alluring blanket of snow. Choosing the right trail is the key to a successful ski outing.
Taking recon hikes when trails are free of snow is the easiest way to determine which will be best for cross-country skiing. Fire roads and parks are always a solid choice, because the base is typically flat and free of rocks. That means with as little as a foot of snow, there will be plenty of the white stuff for your adventure. Experiencing your favorite hiking trails on skis is amazing, but trails are likely to be rockier than fire roads, and deeper snow will make for better skiing. Regardless, be prepared to shoulder your skis if you encounter areas where the snow is thin to protect yourself and your equipment.
Trails with northern exposure tend to hold the snow longer.
And get out early; it’s much more enjoyable to hit the trail before it’s trampled by hikers.
Other tips to ensure success: Trails with northern exposure tend to hold the snow longer. And get out early; it’s much more enjoyable to hit the trail before it’s trampled by hikers. Finally, keep an eye on the temperature. Once the sun hits the snow, it gets heavy and slow.
Not every significant snowfall produces a frosty winter playground. If the snow falls when the ground is warm, for example, it will melt as it hits the ground, and the base layer will turn to mush, which is definitely not conducive to a satisfying ski. Good things come to those who wait, so be patient. When Mother Nature gifts us with a big dump after a few cold days, the snow will blanket the ground and you’ll be in Boulder County ski heaven.
5 Tried-and-True Ski Options in Boulder County
When the snow falls and the temperature drops, the list of trails you can explore on skis is almost endless. Here are a few of my favorites to get you started.
1. CU South Tennis Complex
From Table Mesa and Broadway, head east on Table Mesa to S Loop Circle. Turn right on S Loop Circle (which is right before the entrance to eastbound 36). You’ll find plenty of parking ahead. This area is a wide-open playground for skiers. It’s fairly flat and the trails are relatively clean, so you can safely ski here safely with a minimal amount of snow. There are several loops you can explore, all with magnificent Flatirons views.
2. Chautauqua Park
From Baseline and Broadway, head west on Baseline to the park entrance. Turn in at the park entrance and follow Kinnikinnick to Morning Glory, then park behind the Auditorium. Ski up the Enchanted Mesa Trail for access to a number of trails, including Kohler Mesa, Skunk, the Mesa Trail and even the Bluebell fire road. Conditions vary from one storm to the next, so take it upon yourself to ski around and find out which trails are best. These trails can be rocky, so wait for a big dump before heading out.
3. Bear Canyon Trail
From Broadway and Table Mesa, head west on Table Mesa. Turn left on Lehigh, then right on Bear Mountain Drive. Park on Bear Mountain Drive by the tennis courts at Wildwood Road. Carry your skis the short distance from the trail-access sign to Bear Canyon Trail. If you want to get your heart rate up, this is the place. The gentle grade provides a great workout, and it’s a fire road, so not too much snow is needed for a great ski. On a good day, you can make it up to the weather.
4. South Mesa Trail /Doudy Draw Trail
From Boulder, take Colorado Highway 93 south to Eldorado Springs Drive and turn right to reach the South Mesa and Doudy Draw trailheads. If you park at the South Mesa trailhead (on the north side of Eldorado Springs Drive) you can ski up the Mesa Trail toward Shadow Canyon. If you park at the Doudy Draw trailhead (on the south side of Eldorado Springs Drive) you can ski toward the Community Ditch Trail or explore some of the mountain-bike trails in the area. Both are great choices, but it seems like the South Mesa trail is more sheltered and holds the snow better.
5. Waneka Lake
Head east on Baseline, past 95th Street, to Waneka Lake Trail (which is a road). Turn right and follow it around to the lake. Park at the intersection of Waneka Lake Trail and Caria Drive. The trail around the lake is about one mile, so ski laps around it until you’ve had enough. This is fast and flat and loads of fun. The trail is clean, so not much snow is needed here. It’ll melt off fast, though, so get out early.
See you on the trails!
Sharon Cutler has been exploring Boulder’s phenomenal trail system for almost 30 years. She loves discovering new trails and figuring out how to link trails together to form new routes with her husband and two daughters.
Ski options beyond Boulder
Trails reported to allow leashed dogs are marked with a D
Take Colorado Highway 7 west from Lyons or Colorado Highway 72 north from Nederland to Colorado Highway 7. Continue north about 5 miles.
ROCK CREEK ROAD (easy) Enter Allenspark via the old highway at the top of the hill and head east through town to County Road 107 (Ski Road). Follow the road south, then west to where it’s no longer plowed. Start skiing here and bear left at all forks. The common turnaround for the 5-mile round-trip is the old ski area.
From Boulder Canyon Drive (Highway 119), take Colorado Highway 72 north to Ward and turn west onto the Brainard Lake Road. Travel 2.5 miles to the Brainard Gateway Trailhead and parking lot. The bathrooms and warming hut are open for public use. There are no trash facilities available, so all trash, including pet waste, must be carried out. During the winter months, dogs may not be on any of the trails, but are allowed on the road. Trails are marked with blue diamonds or brown-and-white cross-country trail markers. Snowshoe trails are separate from those for skiers to minimize conflict between the two user groups. Wilderness trails and two designated “ski-only” trails are prohibited to fat biking. There is no maintenance on trails during the winter, so be aware of adverse conditions. Groups of more than eight people need a permit to enter the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and groups are limited to 12 people. Permits are available at the U.S. Forest Service Office, 303-541-2500. The Colorado Mountain Club’s Brainard Cabin is typically open on weekends from 10:30am-2:30pm, with coffee and hot chocolate through March, for $1 donation per visitor. Colorado Mountain Club: 303-554-7688, www.cmcboulder.org/cabins.html, on Facebook (Brainard Cabin, CMC Boulder Group).
Access the Sourdough, South Saint Vrain, Waldrop, CMC, Snowshoe and LIttle Raven trails from the parking lot. It is approximately 2 miles from the parking lot to Brainard Lake.
BRAINARD LAKE ROAD (easy) Stay on the main road for an easy 2-mile snowshoe or ski to Brainard Lake. The snow is not always good enough for skiing but often is hard-packed enough to walk on. Although it’s sometimes quite windy and blown bare or icy in spots, the views are spectacular. Snowshoers can combine the road and the snowshoers-only trail for a loop between Red Rock Lake and Brainard Lake. Dogs are allowed only on the Brainard Lake and Lefthand Park Reservoir roads. D
CMC North (WALDROP) Trail (moderate) For skiers only. Start at the Gateway trailhead and follow signs to this rolling and sometimes tricky trail on the north side of Brainard Lake Road. At the 1.5-mile mark, the left fork crosses the Brainard Lake Road; the first left connects to the snowshoe trail back to the Gateway Trailhead; the second left connects to the south CMC Ski Trail. Or, stay on the Waldrop Trail for a half mile to the intersection with the South St. Vrain Trail. A left turn goes to the trailhead for Long Lake and Mitchell Lake tours (below) at 2.9 miles. Continue south on the road to CMC South Trail (below) for a 5.5-mile round-trip.
CMC South Trail (easy/moderate) Begin just past the winter road closure gate. The skiers-only trail follows a level-to-rolling course 2.8 miles to Brainard Lake. At the lake, a left turn onto the skiers-only Little Raven Trail (advanced) takes you back 3.3 miles to the parking area. Go left at the intersection with the Lefthand Park Reservoir Road. After about a half-mile, take a right from the Lefthand Reservoir Road to the Little Raven Extension Trail for about a half mile, and another left onto the Sourdough Trail takes you back to the Gateway Trailhead in another half-mile.
LeftHand Park Reservoir Road (moderate) Begin just past the winter road closure gate and follow the winding uphill road to Left Hand Park Reservoir, crossing cutoffs for the CMC Trail and Little Raven Trail on the way. The last quarter-mile is exposed to severe winds off Niwot Ridge. Then return for a 4-mile round-trip.
Long lake/lake Isabelle trail (moderate/advanced) Follow CMC South Trail (above) west of Brainard Lake to Long Lake trailhead. At approximately 1.5 miles, the trail splits. The left fork, the Jean Lunning Trail, loops around Long Lake for a 7-mile round-trip. The right fork also loops the lake. At the far end of the loop is the cutoff for the Pawnee Pass Trail with a steep 1.6-mile climb to Isabelle Lake.
Mitchell Lake/Blue Lake Trail (moderate/advanced) Follow CMC North Trail (above) west of Brainard Lake, turn right and continue 1 mile to Mitchell Lake trailhead. Climb steadily through the trees to Mitchell Lake for a 7-mile round-trip from the trailhead. Blue Lake is another 1.3 miles up the trail.
Red Rock Lake Trail (easy) This very short, easy trail is a scenic out-and-back, great for families with very young children.
SNOWSHOE TRAIL (easy/moderate) This trail was developed especially for snowshoers. It’s marked with blue-diamond trailblazes and snowshoer symbols. Start on the Lefthand Park Reservoir Road. In 30 yards watch for the Snowshoe Trail fork. Follow the signs for about 1.5 miles to the Brainard Lake Road. The old snowshoe trail from here to Brainard Lake is now closed.
Eldora Mountain Resort
Take Boulder Canyon Drive (Colorado Highway 119) to Nederland and continue south to the Eldora turnoff (County Road 130, a right turn). Turn left at the sign for Eldora Mountain Resort. Eldora Mountain Resort Nordic Center offers groomed trails and snowshoe-only trails that also connect to trails on U.S. Forest Service land. Rentals, lessons and guided snowshoe tours are available. The parking lots are for paying guests; those without a ticket or pass should park their vehicles outside the resort’s gate. 303-440-8700; www.eldora.com. The ski area is the jumping-off point for trails that access Yankee Doodle Lake and the CMC’s Arestua Hut atop Guinn Mountain. Colorado Mountain Club: 303-554-7688, www.cmcboulder.org.
Guinn Mountain Trail (advanced) Follow Jenny Creek Trail (below) to the Guinn Mountain Trail sign. From here the right-hand fork leads 4 steep miles up Guinn Mountain to the Arestua Hut.
Jenny Creek Trail to Yankee Doodle Lake (moderate) The trail begins at Eldora Mountain Resort’s lower parking lot and follows blue-diamond markers left of the Little Hawk lift and along the eastern edge of the bunny slope. At the top, turn left and follow trail signs through the woods. After 2 miles, the trail merges with Jenny Creek Road. A short, steep climb takes you around the south side of Guinn Mountain and 3 miles to Yankee Doodle Lake.
Town of Eldora
Take Boulder Canyon Drive (Colorado Highway 119) south through Nederland to County Road 130, and go west through the town of Eldora to the berm at the end of the pavement and the sign that says “End of Winter Maintenance.” Parking fills up early; make sure you don’t block the road or residents’ access. Illegally parked cars are towed. Groups over eight people need a permit to enter the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Permits are available at the U.S. Forest Service Office, 303-541-2500. Groups are limited to 12 people.
Fourth of July (moderate) Take the road west of the town of Eldora to the fork at the 0.8-mile mark and continue right for 5 moderate uphill miles on County Road 111 to the campground in the valley below Mount Neva and South Arapaho Peak. D
Jasper Lake/Devil’s Thumb Lake Trail (moderate/advanced) Take the road west of the town of Eldora to the fork at the 0.8-mile mark and continue left past Hessie townsite. Take either the Devil’s Thumb Bypass trail or the Devil’s Thumb trail; they soon merge. Jasper Lake is 4.5 miles. The trail climbs past Jasper Lake another mile to Devil’s Thumb Lake. D
King Lake Trail (advanced) Take the road west of the town of Eldora to the fork at the 0.8-mile mark and continue left past Hessie town site. Follow the King Lake Trail signs along the south fork of Middle Boulder Creek to King Lake, 5.2 miles from Hessie town site. D
Lost Lake (moderate/advanced) Take the road west of the town of Eldora to the fork at the 0.8-mile mark and continue left past Hessie town site. After another easy half-mile of road, cross the bridge. The road becomes steeper as it curves up the hill. Not far after the next bridge, turn left (south) and follow the trail 0.5 miles to Lost Lake. Total distance from Hessie trailhead is 2.8 miles one-way. D
I-70 Corridor and Berthoud Pass
For information on cross-country skiing and snowshoeing near Mount Evans, check with the Clear Creek Ranger Visitor Center on Colorado Highway 103 (Exit 240 off I-70), call 303-567-3000, or visit www.fs.fed.us.
Devil’s Canyon (advanced) Take Colorado Highway 103 (Exit 240 off I-70) approximately 10 miles south from Idaho Springs. The trailhead is on the east side of the highway, 0.25 miles past the Ponder Point picnic area. It’s a 6-mile round-trip. D
grizzly gulch (moderate) Take I-70 west to Bakerville (Exit 221) and park at the turnout on the south side of the highway. Ski up the road to Grays and Torreys peaks, staying right at the 1-mile fork to end up in the cirque below Torreys Peak. It’s a long, 8-mile cruise. D
Herman Gulch (advanced/avalanche danger) Take I-70 west to Exit 218. The trailhead for the remote 6.2-mile round-trip to Herman Lake, just below the Divide, is on the north side of the highway. D
Old Squaw Pass Road (easy/moderate) Take Colorado Highway 103 (Exit 240 off I-70) south from Idaho Springs to Echo Lake (16 miles). The trailhead is approximately 5 miles beyond Echo Lake on the south side of the highway. It’s a 7-mile round-trip. D
Seven Mile Run (moderate/WARNING: considerable avalanche danger) Take I-70 to U.S. Highway 40 and leave one car at the turnout on the north side of the road at the second switchback north of Berthoud Pass. Drive a second car to the Berthoud Pass parking lot. From here, ski 0.2 miles north down Hell’s Half Acre to U.S. Highway 40; stay right above the road and drop into the Seven Mile Creek drainage. Continue down 1.2 miles to the second car. D
Stevens Gulch (moderate/advanced) Take I-70 west to Bakerville (Exit 221) and park at the turnout on the south side of the highway. Ski up the road to Grays and Torreys peaks, bearing left at the 1-mile fork. Continue up the road through the valley to the head of the Grays/Torreys cirque. It’s an 8-mile round-trip. D
James Peak Wilderness
Take Colorado Highway 119 approximately 5 miles south of Nederland to Rollinsville and turn west on County Road 16 (Rollins Pass Road) for 7 miles. The road is well-maintained, but icy at times. At the T-junction with the road that continues over Rollins Pass, turn left for another mile. Park at the trailhead at the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel. It is always windy here, but gets better in the trees. The trail starts on the right (north) side of the tunnel. The James Peak Wilderness has no permit system, but groups over 12 people are prohibited. For information, call the U.S. Forest Service Office, 303-541-2500. Pets must be leashed at all times. D
Forest Lakes (moderate/advanced) The Forest Lakes Trail junction is 1.2 miles up the South Boulder Creek Trail. Recent trail construction has greatly improved this trail, which follows an old road and the creek. It’s a 6-mile round-trip. From the largest of the Forest Lakes, a quarter-mile trail leads to Rollins Pass Road. D
SOUTH BOULDER CREEK TRAIL (moderate/advanced) The first mile of the trail is easy. In a large meadow, the Forest Lakes Trail forks to the right. Continue on the main trail to Rogers Pass Lake and Heart Lake at 4.2 miles, both above tree line. Stretches of the trail are rocky and quite steep, making for a fast descent on skis. D
Peaceful valley and Beaver Reservoir road
Peaceful Valley is approximately 5.5 miles north of Ward on Colorado Highway 72. Park at the turnout at the bottom of the hill. Beaver Reservoir Road (County Road 96) turns west off Colorado Highway 72 approximately 2.5 miles north of Ward. Park on the north side of the reservoir. Dogs are allowed, but leash laws are firmly enforced because of an increase in wildlife. Groups of more than eight require a permit, and no groups of more than 12 are allowed. D
Coney Flats Trail (moderate) Coney Flats trail starts just west of Beaver Reservoir on the north side of the road. Stay right at trail junctions and wind 3 miles through pine trees to the descent to Middle St. Vrain Road, the turnaround. D
MIDDLE ST. VRAIN VALLEY/Buchanan Pass (moderate/advanced) Take the trail on the north side of Middle St. Vrain Creek just west of Camp Dick/Peaceful Valley campground, which joins the Middle St. Vrain four-wheel-drive road. To the pass is a 14-mile round-trip. D
Sourdough Trail (advanced) This trail’s northernmost access is 200 yards east of Beaver Reservoir. It leads 5.1 miles south over rolling hills to Brainard Lake Road, then continues another 5.8 miles to Rainbow Lakes Road, east of the CU Mountain Research Station. Park a second car accordingly. D
Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway
To get to Caribou Ranch Open Space, head north on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway, Colorado Highway 72, from Nederland. Turn west a couple of miles out of town on County Road 126 at the sign and follow the dirt road to the trailhead. For the Sourdough Trail and Rainbow Lakes, drive 7 miles north of Nederland on 72, and turn west at the sign for the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station. The parking lot is about a half-mile up the dirt road on the left.
CARIBOU RANCH OPEN SPACE (easy) The lollipop trail system is a total of 4.5 miles round-trip from the parking lot. The trail partially follows a historic railroad bed and passes an old homestead and mining camp. The conditions are usually better for snowshoeing than skiing.
RAINBOW LAKES ROAD (easy) Take the left fork about a quarter-mile west of the Sourdough Trailhead to ski or snowshoe to Rainbow Lakes. The route is gradual and open, rolling up- and downhill. It is often windblown, bare and icy in patches, but makes a good trip for novices in favorable snow conditions. It is 4.5 miles to the Rainbow Lakes Campground. A trail continues west from the campground for 1 mile to Rainbow Lakes.
Sourdough Trail (easy/moderate) This trail runs north-south from the Mountain Research Station road all the way to the Middle St. Vrain. Access the trail across the road from the parking lot and head uphill through a series of switchbacks. After about 3 miles it flattens out and circles along Niwot Ridge. This is a great trail for snowshoers and skiers alike as an out-and-back. The trailhead at Brainard Lake is 5.8 miles, the Beaver Reservoir trailhead is 10.6 miles, and Peaceful Valley is 12.6 miles. D
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountain National Park Beaver Meadows entrance and the Visitor Center on U.S. Highway 36 offer maps detailing 40 miles of marked trails near Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge, plus 88 miles of mostly unmarked trails in Wild Basin (accessed off Colorado Highway 7, a mile north of Allenspark). 970-586-1206; www.nps.gov/romo.
Black Lake (moderate/advanced) From the Beaver Meadows entrance, take U.S. Highway 36 to the Glacier Gorge Junction parking lot. Head up Alberta Falls/Mills Lake Trail, taking the right fork at the 1.3-mile point. At the next junction, take the left fork to Glacier Gorge (the right fork leads to Loch Vale). At Mills Lake, you have a choice. The snow is usually reliable through the trees on the east shore, but if the lake is frozen under snow, ski right across it. Pass Jewel Lake and climb to the alpine cirque of Black Lake. It’s an 8-mile round-trip.
Emerald Lake (easy/moderate) From the Beaver Meadows entrance, take U.S. Highway 36 to Bear Lake Road and the Bear Lake parking lot. From there, follow trail markers past Nymph and Dream lakes to Emerald Lake. It’s a 3.6-mile round-trip.
Lake Helene (moderate) From the Beaver Meadows entrance take U.S. Highway 36 to Bear Lake Road and the Bear Lake parking lot. The trail heads northeast for 0.4 miles. At the Bierstadt Lake Trail, go left for 0.9 miles to the intersection with Flat Top Mountain Trail. Take the right fork 2.9 miles to Lake Helene.
Wild Basin (varying difficulty) Take Colorado Highway 7 for 1 mile north of Allenspark. Turn west at the Wild Basin entrance. From the winter parking lot, the road connects with moderate trails to Calypso Cascade (3.6-mile round-trip) and Ouzel Falls (6.2-mile round-trip), and strenuous jaunts to Bluebird, Thunder or Lion lakes (each an 11.6-mile round-trip).
From Nederland, head south on Colorado Highway 119 for about 0.75 miles. Turn west onto County Road 132W. Continue 1 mile west and turn south through the second Forest Service gate to the main trailhead parking area. The West Magnolia trail system was developed mostly by mountain bikers, but it can provide fun skiing or snowshoeing immediately after a good snowstorm. Navigating the area’s numerous trails can be tricky and frustrating, so take a map and keep a sharp eye out for trail markers and the occasional map kiosk. Recent fire mitigation has left much of the area more open and susceptible to sun and wind. From the trailhead, take your pick of routes (varying difficulty) and let the snow and trail conditions be your guide. D