Mountain Biking at Betasso Preserve. Video by Michael Gough.
Boulder is well known as a hub of outdoor sports and mountain living. Every year, thousands of people travel here for access to famously great climbing, hiking and skiing. That’s not all we have, though; we’re also lucky enough to have access to hundreds of miles of the best mountain biking around, right in our own backyard. As we get into the start of the mountain biking season, here’s where to go and what to know for your visit.
Local tip: Don’t forget the sunscreen on this ride. The gorgeous, wide-open views of the Flatirons and Front Range also leaves you pretty exposed.If you’re new to mountain biking, start at the Marshall Mesa trails. Right at the southern tip of Boulder off of Highway 93, there are options for every level in this sprawling trail system.
Stay on the east side of the highway for a build-your-own-adventure beginners’ ride. You can piece together a long or short route from the Dirty Bismark, Community Ditch and Marshall Valley trails. The front area is pretty mellow on climbing but has plenty of fun, low, rocky areas to cut your teeth and feel out your suspension. Head across the highway to the west side, including the Spring Brook Loop and Doudy Draw Loop, for a little more varied terrain.
Things to know from our friends
Etiquette for All:
Don’t use wet trails.
If you are leaving prints (hoof, tire, or boot), the trail is too wet to use. When approaching muddy spots, go through the center of the mud to keep the trail narrow. Visit bouldermountainbike.org to find or update current trail conditions.
Stay on the trail.
Do not go off trail (even to pass), create new trails, or cut switchbacks. Narrow trails mean less environmental impact and happier critters.
It’s a simple concept: if you offer respect, you are more likely to receive it. All user groups have rights and responsibilities to Boulder’s trails, and to each other.
Don’t block trail.
When taking a break, move to the side of the trail.
Smile. Greet. Nod.
Every user on the trail is a fellow nature lover. Be friendly and expect to see other folks around every corner.
Local tip: No mountain biking on Wednesday or Saturday on this one, so plan accordingly. When you get to the trailhead, signs will indicate which direction the trail’s running. It reverses roughly twice per month. Lastly, if you’re a beginner or coming from sea level, be prepared: The last section of the trail is a climb no matter which direction you’re going. Save a little energy for that last stretch, or you’ll be feeling it later in the day.When we think of Betasso Preserve, it always means Super Betasso. One of the best things about Betasso is how easy it is to ride to the trailhead from downtown — just hop on the Boulder Creek Path and it’s actually a pretty great warm-up. After that, it’s a little more than 16 miles of beautiful, wooded singletrack and more than the average amount of climbing and descending, so you’ll definitely be ready for some food and local beer afterward.
Aside from its proximity to downtown, the other great thing about Betasso is that like Marshall Mesa, you can create the ride that suits you. It’s definitely a couple of grades more strenuous, but with the Betasso-Canyon Loop and the Benjamin Trail right there, you can ride for as long as you want or keep it pretty short by just doing the Canyon Loop on its own. Either way, you’ll be traveling through some pretty areas with creeks and trees along the route. The whole loop was renovated after the Boulder floods in 2013, so it’s a jewel these days.
Local tip: If you’re a real expert rider and feel like a long, challenging ride, head in through Eldorado Canyon State Park. That extra stretch turns it into a nearly 14-mile loop. The Walker Ranch Trails are daytime use only, so don’t get too late of a start, and be prepared for some stairs along a short section. There are some cliff-condition sections, too, so look out for stunning views and sightings of fishermen down below.Walker is a local favorite, mostly for the more experienced riders out there. Tucked in the southwest corner of Boulder by Eldorado Canyon, it’s a 7.7-mile loop that can really wear you down. For out-of-towners, go clockwise, or you’ll be spending a fair amount of time on ascending switchbacks that can really put the burn in those quads.
If you ask a local about the Walker Ranch Loop, what they’ll describe is actually made up of four smaller trails: Eldorado Canyon, Columbine Gulch, Crescent Meadows and South Boulder Creek. Regardless of the direction, this is not a trail recommended for beginners; some really gnarly climbs make it a tough one at any level, and few non-pro riders can get through it without walking their bikes for at least a little while. For experienced riders (or those of us who are least in good shape by the end of the season), it’s a killer workout that you can do in just a couple hours and is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Heil Valley Ranch
Local tip: While the wildlife sightings are a big draw, it also means that no dogs are allowed on the Heil Valley Trails, so leave the pups at home. This trail, like most in Boulder, also allows horses, so keep an eye out. They’re more common here than at most of the other trails. Finally, this trail system is fairly vulnerable to weather closures, so be sure to check the current status before heading out.The Heil Valley Trails are among the most popular rides in the Boulder area, but despite the high traffic levels, they’re more than worth a visit, especially for beginner-to-intermediate-level riders. Accessible from both the Boulder side and Lyons side, Heil Valley is a “lasso” trail, so named because you’ll ride up one trail, do a loop, then exit on the same trail you rode in on. From the Boulder side, this means 2.5 miles on the Wapiti Trail before you hit Ponderosa Loop, which you can extend with the adjoining Wild Turkey Trail if you’re in the mood for a long ride.
Aside from moderate, fun rides, Heil Valley is known as one of the better trails in the area for wildlife sightings. Riders here have run into everything from deer and coyotes to the occasional bear, elk or mountain lion. Ponderosa Loop also has a couple of great pull-offs with picnic tables, so bring lunch or a snack and put those to good use. Another feature that’s great for beginners is the long, flowy downhill on the way back to the lot. Watch out for rocky sections, but have fun with a little speed.
Valmont Bike Park
All right, this one’s a little bit of a curveball. You won’t find the Valmont Bike Park on a lot of outdoor travel sites, but it warrants mentioning because it really sums up how serious this town is about mountain biking. Only a couple miles from downtown, it includes 40 acres of cross-country trails, a slopestyle park, a dual-slalom race course, cyclocross courses and a couple kids-only courses for the little ones. For a lot of Boulder kids and transplants, this place is their first introduction to off-road biking, and it’s a ton of fun, especially if you’ve never jumped a bike before.
Local tip: Valmont Bike Park has Twitter and Facebook accounts you can follow, always a great idea for keeping up-to-date on conditions, but also a perfect way to find out about cool events, which can include demos from major bike brands.
Rules and Regulations
This part isn’t as fun, but in Boulder, it’s important to know the guidelines before you head out. This town takes biking seriously. That means safety and etiquette, too. Here are some good starting points before you hit the trails:
- Communicate. Letting people know where you are is really important. Coming up fast on another biker, a hiker or most of all, someone on horseback can be risky without knowing what to do. Let them know early, clearly and always pass slowly once you’re on the same page.
- Stay on trail. Most Boulder trails are under the umbrella of Open Space and Mountain Parks and are protected by law. In many places, this means what’s off trail can be the habitat of some cool plants and wildlife, so be respectful.
- Check for closures. Riding on wet or muddy trails can do a lot of damage. Trails sometimes get closed for their protection, and it’s our job as bikers to respect that. Also, some trails have sections that are off limits to bikes. Boulder does a good job with the signage, so look out for those.
- Know your etiquette. If you’re a serious rider, you probably know a lot of these guidelines already. If you’re new to riding, bouldermountainbike.org is a great resource for learning how to be a friendly, safe and courteous rider.
- Do your online research. One last thing before you get out there: One of the best resources available to riders around here is the Boulder County Parks and Trails website. It has links for every trail, with maps, rules, closure information and even some great info about what wildlife is in the area. Check that out, and then get on your bike and explore.