Why we love it: This quintessential foothills loop features gorgeous granite scenery, refreshing stretches along a gurgling creek, and even a glimpse of snowy high peaks.
When to go: Mid-spring through late fall is the ideal time to enjoy this loop.
This 7.6-mile loop explores the southern half of historic Walker Ranch, once one of the largest cattle ranches in the region. Back in 1869, James Walker, on the advice of his doctor, traveled to Colorado from Missouri with the hope that the high, dry climate would help cure a life-threatening illness. Walker’s health did improve, and in 1882 he and his wife, Phoebe, filed a 160-acre homestead claim and gradually built a large barn, outbuildings, and ranch house near a perennial spring on this property. Through the years the Walker family gradually expanded the ranch to more than 6,000 acres, nearly twice its present size.
From the Walker Ranch Loop trailhead, I prefer to turn right and follow the loop counter-clockwise because it offers a pleasant flat stretch (instead of a sharp climb) at the very end. The loop in this direction begins with a steep, mile-long descent through open, nearly treeless slopes still healing from the Walker Ranch/Eldorado Wildland fire, which burned more than 1,000 acres over five days here in 2000. As you descend, it’s easy to notice how quickly the vegetation has returned to this area, thanks in part to many staff and volunteers who cut down dead trees and built rice-straw wattles to reduce the flow of water over the naked and vulnerable slopes.
The easy-to-follow trail briefly levels out along South Boulder Creek, where several picnic tables clustered beneath tall ponderosa pines make an idyllic picnic spot. Refresh yourself here before the first of the loop’s two steep climbs, which together gain more than 900 feet in elevation. Next, about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you begin another steep descent to return to South Boulder Creek. This includes the notorious knee-busting staircase that is the bane of every mountain biker riding this route.
The descent again ends at the creek, where there are more excellent picnic spots tucked amongst piles of pinkish-gray granite boulders. After crossing the creek on a sturdy bridge and enjoying views of a tumbling cascade, you leave the water and almost immediately reach the junction with the Eldorado Canyon Trail. From here the route climbs for the next 1.5 miles, passing an old ranch outbuilding, glimpses of the high peaks, and the junction to the Ethel Harrold Trailhead. The trail then crosses a lush, grassy meadow before cresting at a saddle, where a bench with a perfect view awaits your tired legs just to the left of the trail. After this climb the last, mostly level mile back to your car seems like a walk in the park.
Getting there: From Denver take I-25 North to US 36 West and exit at Baseline Road in Boulder. Turn left onto Baseline Road/County Highway 56 and follow this west through town, then up the very steep Flagstaff Mountain. About 7 miles from the edge of town, turn left (east) onto the short dirt road that leads to the Walker Ranch Loop trailhead. If this lot is full, the Ethel Harrold parking lot also accesses this loop.
Logistics: Walker Ranch is open from sunrise to sunset. Hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and leashed pets are all allowed on this trail.