Why we like it:

Boulder’s classic uphill hike ends on a surprisingly craggy summit with sweeping panoramic views from the Indian Peaks to the plains.

 When to go: 

Spring through fall, when you want a rewarding workout and the temperatures have been warm enough to melt any lingering ice off the shady trail.

This steep and strenuous 5.6-mile round-trip route climbs 2,250 vertical feet to the summit of the Boulder foothills’ most prominent mountain, 8,461-foot-high Bear Peak. A welcoming saddle about a half mile below the summit offers an idyllic picnic spot with beautiful views and serves as the perfect turnaround point for those not wanting to tackle the final climb.

From the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) parking lot, follow the undulating Walter Orr Roberts Trail west past several interpretive signs, a saddle, and a green water tank to the intersection with the Mesa Trail.

At this junction, about 0.6 miles from your car, turn left (south) on the Mesa Trail and follow it to the Bear Canyon fire road. Continue right (west) to cross Bear Creek, an important source of water for local wildlife. From here the trail climbs southward, passing the junction with the Bear Canyon Trail.

Where the Mesa Trail diverges from the fire road, follow the path south along a slightly flatter section to the junction with the Shanahan Ridge and Fern Canyon trails, about 1.8 miles from the parking lot. Turn right (west) to head steeply up shady Fern Canyon, where you’ll pass enormous boulders and cliffs of the 300-million-year-old Fountain Formation—the debris shed off an older mountain range that once stood in nearly the same spot as today’s Rockies.

After climbing steadily, the trail briefly levels off at the saddle—elevation, 7,405 feet. Please honor the signs that mark closures for peregrine falcons that nest in this area. After you’ve caught your breath, continue up the somewhat rubbly slope for another 1,000 vertical feet. Just before the treeline, the trail passes through scars from the 2012 wildfire that ravaged the area. The path ends at the base of Bear Peak’s rocky summit, which you can carefully scramble up to drink in the incredible views.

When you’re ready to descend, either retrace your steps or head west down the back of Bear Peak, following the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail to the Bear Canyon Trail, which intersects the Mesa Trail about 0.3 miles above the Bear Canyon fire road.

Getting there:

From Denver take Highway 36 to Boulder. Exit at the CO-157 N/Foothills Parkway Exit, then stay right for the ramp to Table Mesa Drive. At the end of the ramp, turn left (west) on South Boulder Road, which turns into Table Mesa Drive. The huge parking lot for NCAR is 2.8 miles down. The trailhead is located on the north side of the main building.


In most of this area, dogs must be on a hand-held leash unless they have a City of Boulder Voice and Sight tag. Mountain biking is not allowed.

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.