• Length: 3.3 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Why we love it: It’s a classic Chautauqua-area loop hike with plenty of options for extending it for those who still crave more.
  • When to go: The trail is at its best from mid-spring through mid-to-late fall, before the ice accumulates.
  • Pre-hike buzz: At the Baseline and Broadway junction just west of U.S. 36, you can choose between Brewing Market, Starbucks, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. Less than a mile from the trailhead, the Chautauqua Dining Hall offers more upscale options.
  • Restrooms: Outhouses at the trailhead
  • Dogs: Must be leashed or under voice and sight control along the trails. In addition, there is a ladder along this route that is not recommended for dogs.
  • Distance from Denver: 29 miles

One of the Boulder area’s best autumn hikes is this beautiful loop through the foothills on the northwest side of Boulder’s Chautauqua Park. Portions of the route parallel small streams with lush riparian corridors filled with trees and shrubs where foliage turns vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red for an all-too-brief period each fall.

To minimize the steepness of the ascent, which totals about 1,300 vertical feet, I recommend hiking this loop counter-clockwise. From the Gregory Canyon trailhead, follow the Gregory Canyon trail along the creek, keeping a sharp eye out for poison ivy. Fortunately, this is much easier to spot in autumn, when its infamous “leaves of three” turn bright red.

The vegetation soon becomes more open and the trail rockier as it climbs steadily uphill for about a mile through the sparkling, 1.7-billion-year-old granite. As you approach the top, the gradient briefly levels out, providing a welcome breather. After crossing a small creek, along which wildflowers linger long into the summer, you’ll arrive at a junction with the Ranger Trail. Turn left and follow it 0.2 miles to a large stone shelter, which has several welcoming picnic tables ideal for a trailside snack.

From the shelter, continue left on the Ranger Trail an additional 0.3 miles through the majestic ponderosa pine forest to the junction with the E.M. Greenman Trail. Veer left again here to climb another 0.6 miles to the junction with the Saddle Rock Trail and begin to follow this downhill. The openings between the trees near this junction offer nice views down to the city and the northern foothills, and there are even better views, including up to the Continental Divide, a short distance ahead.

Continue to descend the Saddle Rock Trail, which in places is quite steep. In one notable spot, there is a ladder that Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) has installed to replace a section of the path damaged in the 2013 floods. Although tall, the ladder is inclined into the slope and easy to get on and off, so I had no difficulty navigating it even carrying hiking poles.

As you continue downhill, stay left at the next two junctions to remain on the Saddle Rock Trail, which will bring you back to the dense vegetation in the bottom of Gregory Canyon. Here you can enjoy one last look at the fall colors before reaching your vehicle.

Getting there: From Denver head north on I-25 to U.S. 36. Follow the highway west for 25 miles and exit at Baseline Road in Boulder. Turn west (left) onto Baseline and continue straight for 1.8 miles, passing the junction with 9th Street. At the first right-hand bend (just after the stone bridge), turn left into the Gregory Canyon parking area. If this is full, turn around and park at one of the meters along Baseline Road. Trailhead parking for cars with out-of-county plates costs $5 per day.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.