Length: 3.2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: It’s a short but heart-pounding climb among Boulder’s Flatirons, which ends at a dramatic rock arch and a perfect rest spot to soak up some of the area’s best views.
When to go: This trail is at its best from mid-spring through mid-to-late fall, before the ice builds up.
Pre-hike buzz: At the Baseline and Broadway junction just west of U.S. 36, you can choose between several options, including Brewing Market, Starbucks, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Whole Foods. Just steps from the trailhead, the Chautauqua Dining Hall offers more upscale options as well as picnic baskets, which must be ordered 48 hours in advance.
Restrooms: Flush toilets in the ranger station at the trailhead; outhouse at the junction with the Mesa Trail 0.6 miles from the start.
Dogs: Must be leashed unless they have a Voice and Sight tag.

The Royal Arch Trail begins at Boulder’s Chautauqua Park, the historic complex established in 1898 as a summer school for Texas schoolteachers. It was part of a movement that swept across the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on adult education and enrichment via a series of lectures, music performances, and other cultural activities. The tongue-twisting name comes from the first chautauqua, which was organized a couple decades earlier at a campsite along the shores of New York’s Chautauqua Lake.

The nonprofit Colorado Chautauqua Association is one of only four such groups that have operated continuously since the movement’s peak in the 1920s, and the only one located west of the Mississippi River. Boulder’s Chautauqua is also the only one that operates year-round, offering a steady stream of performances, lectures, and films in a group of lovingly preserved buildings situated just below Boulder’s stunning Flatirons.

From the trailhead adjacent to the Chautauqua Park ranger station, this route initially heads south, climbing steadily up Bluebell Road alongside several historic cottages that have hosted Chautauqua visitors since they replaced the original canvas tents. At the junction with the Mesa Trail (where an outhouse is located), head right for 0.1 mile to the Bluebell Shelter. Just past the shelter, turn left at the sign to start up the Royal Arch Trail.

From this junction, the route crosses a small riparian corridor, passes a couple of ideally situated picnic tables, and then begins to climb steeply through the forest, predominantly vegetated with ponderosa pine. After 0.25 miles, the trail passes a spur route that accesses the second and third Flatirons. From here the trail crosses, then parallels a steep gulch that experienced tremendous damage during the 2013 floods. Most of this section has since been rerouted and rebuilt.

About 1.25 miles from the start, the trail leaves this gulch and climbs even more steeply for 0.25 miles up to rocky Sentinel Pass. While you stop to take a breather, be sure to look north, where you can often spot climbers precariously perched on the third Flatiron. From the pass, the route descends about 200 feet, then all too soon begins the final ascent to the rock arch in the Fountain Formation, the reddish 300 million-year-old stone that also forms the dramatic backdrop at Morrison’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

Clamber up beneath the arch, where you can carefully seat yourself on large rock slabs with close-up looks at the Flatirons and amazing distant views that extend from Lyons to the skyscrapers of downtown Denver. Once you’ve soaked up the scenery and rested your legs, return along the same route to Chautauqua, where you can enjoy a picnic in the central meadow, a meal at the Dining Hall, or perhaps a performance in the community whose cultural roots extend back more than a century.

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 1.5 miles. Just after the junction with 9th Street, turn left into the trailhead parking area. If this is full, park on Baseline Road.

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.