Length: 2.3 miles round-trip, which can easily be extended
Why we love it: Forest and foothills scenery and a modest elevation gain make this a great early-season choice.
When to go: April to October
Pre-hike buzz: Conveniently located on North Broadway (U.S. 36) in Boulder, Amante Coffee serves up a great selection of tea and coffee to enjoy on your way to the trailhead, as well as cocktails, beer, and old world wines to savor afterward.
Restrooms: Outhouse at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: 40 miles
Dogs: Not allowed due to wildlife concerns
Heil Valley Ranch, a beautiful Boulder County Open Space unit between Boulder and Lyons, offers hikers and bikers 5,000 acres of rolling hills covered with patches of vibrant ponderosa forest and sunny, open hillsides. Completed in August, the Overland Loop—the ranch’s newest trail—winds through the parcel’s southeastern corner, where the undulating terrain and foothills views make for an enjoyable and relaxing stroll.
From the Corral Trailhead, follow the short connector trail south for 0.1 miles to a T-junction, which marks the start of the Overland Loop. Because bikers must travel counterclockwise around this loop, I prefer to turn left and hike it clockwise so that I can see them approaching. The first part of the loop climbs a gently inclined trail beneath a burned section of hillside, which provides an opportunity to observe how nature bounces back after forest fires.
As you hike, keep your eyes peeled for spring wildflowers, including stalks of purple Penstemon and white Easter daisies, as well as wild turkeys, which are frequent visitors here. Continue along the Overland Loop as it winds its way up and down the hillside to another T-junction at the loop’s northern end. Here you must choose whether to turn right to return to your car or to veer left and follow the sign to the Main Trailhead to reach the Lichen Loop and complete a great “Figure 8” that takes you deeper into the forest (and adds another 1.5 miles to your hike). Bikes are not allowed on the Lichen Loop.
No matter your decision, keep your eyes peeled for a variety of wildlife that call Heil Valley Ranch home. According to Boulder County Open Space, more than 50 species of mammals—including black bears, mountain lions, elk, and mule deer—and nearly 100 types of birds, such as great horned owls, golden eagles, dusty grouse, and even wild turkeys, can be found within the area. Talk about a walk on the wild side.
Getting there: From Denver take I-25 North to U.S. 36 West, and follow this north of Boulder to the junction with Lefthand Canyon Drive just past the Greenbriar Inn. Turn left (west) and follow Lefthand Canyon 0.6 miles to Geer Canyon Road. Turn right and follow Geer 0.3 miles to the Corral Trailhead parking lot. If this is full, drive another mile up this road and park at the Main Trailhead.