Hiking in Boulder Colorado is incredible. There are so many hiking trails accessible within minutes of downtown Boulder. Boulder is a hikers paradise. You can wander the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks for days. So, where does one begin? Read on and discover the best hikes in Boulder Colorado that you can do.
In this guide, we show how you can navigate all the best hiking trails around Boulder. The most notable, must-see destinations are the 3 tallest peaks (Bear Peak, South Boulder Peak, and Green Mountain); and the famous Boulder Flatirons.
You can access these hiking hotspots from a number of angles and trailheads. We will show you how. All the hikes are amazing. You can’t go wrong. Let’s dive in and take a look at the best hikes to do in Boulder.
What are the best hikes and hiking trails in Boulder Colorado?
Having done all the local trails many times over, I think it makes the most sense to talk about where you can hike to, and the trails that will take you there.
If you ask me, the most satisfying must-do hike in Boulder is up to Bear Peak Summit.
There are many different routes that you can take. First, I will talk about the most common (and fastest) routes to Bear Peak Summit.
Later on, I will show you some hiking routes that will take you to Bear Peak and some of the other great local mountains.
1) Bear Peak Summit Hike
Bear Peak was the first hike I did in Boulder. It is the second tallest local mountain but most prominent of the Boulder skyline. I think it is the most satisfying and the best hike to do in Boulder. The views are incredible in all directions. Especially West to the snowy continental divide.
There are several different hiking routes and trails that you can follow to get to Bear Peak Summit.
The most common routes to Bear Peak are:
- Fern Canyon Trail (from Mesa Trail)
- Bear Canyon Trail -> Bear Peak West Ridge Trail
- Shadow Canyon Trail -> Bear Peak Summit Trail (see the South Boulder Peak section further down)
Once you get to the summit you can take the same route back or choose a different trail from the list above to do a loop back to your starting point.
The best trailheads to start a hike to Bear Peak Summit are:
- NCAR (to access Fern or Bear Canyon Trails)
- Cragmoor Road (to access Shadow Canyon, Fern or Bear Canyon Trails)
- Shanahan Ridge Trailhead (to access Shadow Canyon, Fern or Bear Canyon Trails)
- South Mesa Trailhead (to access Shadow Canyon Trail)
- Gregory Canyon Trailhead (if you want to do Green Mountain, Bear Peak, and South Boulder Peak)
Fern Canyon Trail
The fastest route to Bear Peak Summit is Fern Canyon Trail.
Be prepared, this hiking trail is very steep in some sections. Fern Canyon is considered one of the most difficult hikes in Boulder. Your fitness level should be above average.
Start at NCAR: Take NCAR Trail to Mesa Trail to Fern Canyon Trail.
Or, start at Cragmoor Road: Take North Fork Shanahan Trail to Shanahan-Mesa Trail to Fern Canyon Trail.
From either of the above trailheads, it takes approximately 30-40 minutes to get to the start of Fern Canyon Trail. At this point, you are about a third of the way to the top of Bear Peak.
From the start of Fern Canyon Trail you will start to gain elevation rapidly. The hike is steep and slower going from here on to the summit. The trail is rocky. Be sure to wear proper hiking footwear to protect your feet and for good traction.
The trail winds and switchbacks Westward for about 30-40 minutes up to a saddle near the Nebel Horn. You will have your first views West to the continental divide, and of Green Mountain to the North. At this juncture, you have completed about two-thirds of the way to the summit.
One more steep push to the top. This section also takes about 30-40 minutes. The trail becomes rockier as you go. Near the summit the trail becomes entirely rock. Carefully scramble to the summit, observe the summit markers, and take in the wonderful views. Here, you can ponder life and the route you will take back.
Bear Canyon Trail
If you want to take a less intense (aka steep) but longer (distance and time) route to Bear Peak Summit try Bear Canyon Trail.
This is a beautiful hiking trail that travels through Bear Canyon and ends up at the intersection of Green-Bear and Bear Peak West Ridge Trails. To the right, Green-Bear switchbacks and winds up towards Green Mountain. Bear Peak West Ridge Trail will take you to Bear Peak Summit.
The journey to the summit via Bear Canyon and Bear Peak West Ridge Trails takes approximately 2-3 hours. Perhaps a little longer if you take breaks, enjoy the scenery and take photos.
Be prepared for some exposure along much of Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. In 2012, parts of the West slopes of Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak were taken by a forest fire. Make sure you have sun protection (sun sunscreen, a sun hat, and sunglasses) for this section of the hike. There is no shade for a good stretch.
This route to the summit seems popular with trail runners due to the steady gradual uphill climb compared to the abrupt steep Fern Canyon Trail.
I often do Bear Canyon, Bear Peak West Ridge, and Fern Canyon trails as a loop. You can do it either direction. Take your pick.
Here is the route starting from NCAR. In this particular instance, I went up Fern Canyon Trail and came back down via Bear Canyon Trail.
So, we’ve covered the most obvious routes to Bear Peak.
Now it is time to shift the focus to the tallest local mountain, South Boulder Peak. When I do South Boulder Peak, I usually do Bear Peak too since they are close together. It takes only about 30 minutes to descend South Boulder Peak and pop over to Bear Peak. So, I will show you a couple of loops that include both of these summits.
2) South Boulder Peak Summit Hike
The most common route to South Boulder Peak is to hike up Shadow Canyon.
Shadow Canyon Trail
Every time I venture up Shadow Canyon, I enjoy it more.
However, it is a tough hike. Like Fern Canyon, Shadow Canyon has a long steep section. It is like a rocky staircase to the top.
For the quickest route to the start of Shadow Canyon Trail begin at South Mesa Trailhead. Follow the Homestead Trail and then take Shadow Canyon South Trail to Shadow Canyon.
If you want a more scenic route to the start of Shadow Canyon Trail, I recommend starting at Cragmoor Road or Shanahan Ridge Trailhead. There are some great views along Mesa and Shadow Canyon North Trails as you hike South.
The first half of Shadow Canyon is a nice shady trail that winds through forest and around giant boulders. Gradually, the hike gets steeper and more challenging.
Keep your eyes open for Devil’s Thumb to your right about halfway up the canyon.
Towards the top of Shadow Canyon, you will find yourself more exposed and in direct sunlight due to the burnt out area caused by the forest fire in 2012. The trail switchbacks through the burnt forest to a saddle where you get your first views of the Continental divide and the Rocky Mountains to the West. Turn left up South Boulder Peak Trail for South Boulder Peak summit. To the right, Bear Peak Trail leads to Bear Peak Summit.
3) Green Mountain Summit Hike
I think that the hiking trails of Green Mountain are the most beautiful in Boulder. So many great views in all directions. The classic Green Mountain loop hike is one of the more shaded hikes in Boulder which is very welcome in the hotter months. Green Mountain is great for beginners and for more advanced hikers.
Sometimes, I combine Green Mountain Summit with Bear Peak Summit. Other days, I will do a big loop around Green Mountain.
Either way, start at the Gregory Canyon Trailhead. There isn’t much parking at this trailhead, so if you can, get dropped off. Or, Park near Chautauqua and make your way over to Gregory Canyon Trailhead.
There are several routes that you can take to Green Mountain Summit:
- Saddle Rock Trail -> E.M. Greenman Trail -> Green Mountain Summit
- Gregory Canyon Trail -> Long Canyon Trail -> Ranger Trail -> Saddle Rock Trail -> E.M. Greenman Trail -> Green Mountain Summit
- Gregory Canyon Trail -> Long Canyon Trail -> Ranger Trail -> E.M. Greenman Trail -> Green Mountain Summit
- Green Mountain West Ridge Trail -> E.M. Greenman Trail -> Green Mountain Summit
The first route is the fastest, most direct route to Green Mountain Summit from Boulder. The second two routes that take you up Gregory Canyon Trail are longer routes to the summit. The last route (drive up Flagstaff road to this trailhead) is the easiest route to Green Mountain Summit via Green Mountain West Ridge Trail.
One option is to do a loop and explore most of the Green Mountain trails all at once. Take Saddle Rock and E.M. Greenman Trails to the Summit. Continue on E.M Greenman to Ranger Trail, to Long Canyon Trail, and finally down Gregory Canyon Trail back to the Gregory Canyon Trailhead.
Here is a slight variation of the loop discussed above. It starts at Chautauqua.
If you are up for a longer hike you could do Green Mountain and Bear Peak on the same day. If you are feeling really ambitious you could also do South Boulder Peak. Whatever you decide, just be conscious of your ability, elevation gains, distance, and how you will get back. To ensure that you don’t run out of time it is a good idea to get out on the trails early. Sunrise if possible.
Here are some routes that I have recorded that include Green Mountain and Bear Peak.
More Green Mountain loops (recordings and routes) to come this Spring.
4) Royal Arch Hike
This is a very popular hike in Boulder. The best place to start this hike is at Chautauqua Park.
There are some steep sections to the hike, but not nearly as intense as hiking the big three peaks in Boulder. All skill levels can do this hike. I rate this as a moderate hike to do in Boulder.
The Royal Arch hike is an in and back hike along the same path. It is not a loop.
The trail ends at the Royal Arch an incredible rock formation in the shape of an arch. It is massive and very cool. Go through the arch and sit on the rocks in and around the end of the trail. Be careful, to the South of the arch is a sheer drop off.
5) First /Second Flatiron Hike
The first and second Flatiron hike is my favorite “short hike” in Boulder. If you are traveling here from lower elevations, this is a great introductory hike to get adjusted. This hike provides a quick glimpse of what hiking in Boulder is all about.
It is a great intermediate hike that shows off incredible views of the Flatirons, Boulder below, and the Indian Peaks (continental divide) to the West.
6) Mount Sanitas Hike
Mount Sanitas is probably the most popular hike in Boulder. It is a go-to trail for trail runners, and also a popular hike to do in Boulder with dogs.
Is it the best hike in Boulder? Maybe not. But it is super accessible to downtown Boulder and a good hike to do if you have less than 2 hours.
The West side of the loop (Mount Sanitas Trail) is more difficult than the East side. The West side of the loop rises at a decent grade and is rocky. The East side of the loop (Sanitas Valley Trail) is essentially a road down a valley. I usually take the Dakota Ridge Trail instead of Sanitas Valley Trail which runs parallel to the East.
The views of Green Mountain and Boulder itself are superb.
An alternative route that will take you to Mount Sanitas Summit is Lion’s Lair Trail. Drive up Sunshine Canyon Road and park at the trailhead. This is an easy hiking trail that switchbacks through beautiful coniferous forest.
7) Settler’s Park
Settler’s Park is more of a destination or a very short hike in Boulder.
The main attraction of this park is the red rock formations.
Access the park at the West end of Pearl Street and do a quick loop. You could also pop over and do the Mount Sanitas hike since they are side by side. Or, just hang out at the rocks and take in the view of Boulder.
8) Skunk Canyon Hike
Skunk Canyon is an easy hike in Boulder that is often overlooked. I think it is one of the best hikes in Boulder. It is most popular with locals who live in the area.
It is a short loop that presents some incredible views of Bear Peak and the Flatirons.
If you are visiting Boulder this is a beautiful hike that is perfect to get your legs and lungs adjusted to the higher altitude.
You can extend this hike by doing the short Woods Quarry loop, or a loop around Enchanted Mesa and McClintock Upper Trails. These trails are just to the North of Kohler Mesa Trail.
9) Lower Chautauqua Park
We already discussed the higher elevation trails (Royal Arch Trail, First and Second Flatirons Trail) that you can do starting out at Chautauqua Park.
However, there are also several easy hikes to do in Boulder located in the lower area of Chautauqua. These are pleasant hikes to do if you are not in the greatest shape, are hiking with kids, or if you are short on time.
Do a loop around Bluebell-Baird and Bluebell Mesa Trails for great views of the Boulder Flatirons.
Or, just to the East, do a loop of Enchanted Mesa Trail and McClintock Upper. This is a nice shady hike.
10) Boulder Skyline Traverse Hike
This hike ties almost all the hikes in Boulder together into one huge all-day long outing. Let’s call it hiking in Boulder extreme!
The Boulder Skyline Traverse hike covers all the five major peaks in Boulder: Mount Sanitas, Flagstaff Mountain, Green Mountain, Bear Peak, and South Boulder Peak.
Start out at the South Mesa Trailhead and hike all the way to Mount Sanitas.
You will cover almost 15 miles of trails and more than 5000 feet of elevation on this epic hike.
If you choose to tackle this hike from one end of Boulder to the other, be sure that you have an abundance of food and water to keep you going.
The Best Day Trip Hikes Near Boulder Colorado (Bonus)
There is so much hiking in Boulder to do. We have covered all the best local hikes that are immediately accessible. However, there are many more notable areas to hike that are a short drive from Boulder.
I will definitely cover these hiking destinations in greater detail. But for now, it is important that you are aware of these bonus options. During your stay, you might like to reserve a day or two and branch outside of the city proper.
Eldorado Canyon State Park
From here you can hike a few trails:
- Rattlesnake Gulch Trail
- Eldorado Canyon Trail
If you want to do a long day hike, follow Eldorado Canyon Trail to the Walker Ranch Loop.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
If you are visiting Boulder in July or August and are interested in some more difficult, higher elevation hikes, in cooler temperatures, consider the Brainard Lake Recreation Area that is part of the Indian Peaks Wilderness area.
The most popular trails and hikes are:
- Long Lake Loop
- Isabelle Glacier Trail
- Mitchell Lake Trail
- Mount Audubon Trail
- Pawnee Pass Trail
If you plan to do a hike at Brainard Lake, be sure to arrive by 6AM or well before sunrise. Parking is limited and fills up fast.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) is really an entire hiking trip in its own. The park is 415 square miles in size and has over 100 trails that you can explore.
If you are visiting Boulder you can easily do a day trip. RMNP is a one hour drive from downtown Boulder. Take a drive on Trail Ridge Road, or do a day hike.
Just like Brainard Lake, RMNP gets busy early. We recommend getting to your trailhead before sunrise.
This concludes our guide to the best hikes in Boulder Colorado.
Photos From The Best Hikes In Boulder Colorado
Okay, let’s take a look at some photos of what you can expect to see while hiking in Boulder.