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Eldorado Canyon’s Back Door. Photo courtesy of Michael Banks

Avoid Crowded Trails With These 3 Hikes Near Boulder

We mapped out under-explored routes by linking paths through Open Space and Mountain Parks and Eldorado Canyon State Park.

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Much of the 155-mile trail network in Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks went unexplored even before COVID-19-related restrictions limited Coloradans to their own communities. When those rules loosen, see the area’s unbeaten bounties on three hikes we created by linking existing trails.

The NCAR Loop

Distance: 3.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Illustration by Sean Parsons

1. Head to the intersection of Vassar and Table Mesa drives to find an unmarked access point for NCAR – Table Mesa Bear Trail. Hike south on the trail for about half a mile.
2. Take NCAR – Bear Canyon Trail branching right. Enjoy views of the plains, the Flatirons, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research Mesa Laboratory, a modern, geometric building designed by famed architect I.M. Pei.
3. Continue west through Bear Canyon. Keep going about 100 yards past the Mesa Trail turnoff to reach a knee-deep, pup-friendly pool.
4. Double back and head north on Mesa Trail. Along Dinosaur Mountain, the ridge to your left, rocks shaped like a giant’s fingers jut toward the sky.
5. At the second fork, turn right onto Skunk Canyon Trail, a path leading through a meadow of spring beauties, mahonia, and other wildflowers. A final right onto NCAR – Skunk Canyon Trail leads you to the end of the loop.

Big Bluestem–Shanahan Loop

Distance: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: Moderate

Illustration by Sean Parsons

1. Find the Shanahan Ridge access point near the intersection of Lehigh Street and Lafayette Drive, then hike uphill 200 yards along Lehigh Connector – North. Turn left on North Fork Shanahan Trail and continue on South Fork Shanahan Trail.
2. At the split, take Bluestem Connector.
3. Hang a right on Lower Big Bluestem Trail and spot wild irises and the rocky ears of Mickey Mouse Wall in the distance.
4. At the fork, keep right along Upper Big Bluestem Trail to reach Brammeier Homestead, where logs and stone walls mark the remains of a (possibly haunted) 19th century ranch house—a neighbor murdered 20-year-old Fred Brammeier there in 1902.
5. Before turning right onto Mesa Trail, pause to enjoy the hike’s best vantage of the knifelike Maiden, the slimmest Flatiron.
6. After 0.9 miles on Mesa Trail, follow North Fork Shanahan Trail back to Lehigh Connector – North and return to your car.

Eldorado Canyon’s Back Door

Distance: 7.2 miles (out and back)
Difficulty: Moderate

Illustration by Sean Parsons

1. Exit west off CO 93 onto CO 170 near Eldorado Springs and follow it for 2.4 miles. Make a left on County Road 67. When you reach a closed road gate, park and use the adjoining pedestrian gate to follow the dirt road uphill on foot. (Note: This access point has limited parking.)
2. Merge onto Fowler Trail, a portion of the hike that runs atop an unfinished railroad grade.
3. Continue along Fowler for views of grassy Shadow Canyon and South Boulder Peak. At 8,549 feet, it’s the tallest of the five major peaks in Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks.
4. When you arrive at the sheer, golden sandstone partitions of Eldorado Canyon, look closely for rock climbers scaling Redgarden Wall, a cliff across the gorge. Then turn left onto Rattlesnake Gulch Trail.  (Be sure to purchase a Colorado State Park pass ahead of time.)
5. The steep, 1.4-mile climb along Rattlesnake Gulch Trail leads you to the Crags Hotel site, ruins of a lodging that burned in 1912. Vistas span from Eldorado’s colorful cliffs in the foreground to the snowy Continental Divide beyond.

Visit the City of Boulder or Colorado Parks and Wildlife websites for maps, trail closures, and dog regulations.

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