The 4 Best Winter Hikes in Boulder

In Sports & Outdoors, Things to do by Aimee Heckel1 Comment

Mother Nature doesn’t close down when the temps drop. And you don’t necessarily need equipment, like skis or a board, to explore the snowy outdoors.

All you need is your two feet and knowledge of where to go. OK, and maybe some extra traction for your shoes.

Many of Boulder’s 151 miles of trails stay open year-round.

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This article is part of a larger series. To see all the articles in this Ultimate Guide, click here.

Here are four of our favorite winter hikes, complete with the inside scoop on how to get the most out of them.

These hikes are all easily accessible in winter and typically stay open during all kinds of weather. That means they get plenty of sunshine to help melt the snow and dry out the mud and they don’t tend to be too icy, windy or too steep to enjoy, even during a cold spell. They all boast fantastic views for travelers and should be appropriate for hikers of all levels.

Before heading out on any winter hike, consider stopping by the Chautauqua Ranger Cottage to get a free trail map, plus find out the latest trail conditions from a volunteer or staff member. And don’t forget to read our winter hiking tips.

Boy Scout Trail sign. Photo by Isaac Nagel-Brice

Boy Scout Trail/Mays Point

Location

This short, family-friendly loop circles Flagstaff Mountain. Head up to the Flagstaff Nature Center; although the center itself closes over the winter, the trails remain open.

Look for the Realization Point sign for a good place to park. The Flagstaff summit itself may be closed during the winter, due to snow, but you can still park at Realization Point. Your next choice is to hike along the closed Flagstaff road or the short Ute Trail up to the summit, where you will have a choice of heading west to circle back, for a beautiful view of the Front Range, Indian Peaks and Continental Divide, or you can continue onto the Boy Scout Trail, which will ultimately loop you back to your car.

Trail Stats

Length One-mile round trip.
Difficulty Easy
Elevation gain 20 feet
Dogs allowed No
Bikes Allowed No

Parking is free for locals and cheap (about $5) for visitors.

Why it’s awesome: Boy Scout Trail provides amazing views without heavy crowds.

The details: This trail is ideal for winter because it starts and ends in a parking lot.

Take the Boy Scout Trail to the spur that leads to May’s Point, which will bring you to a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the entire Front Range and as far as the Continental Divide. Along the way, you’ll run across a large field of boulders that kids enjoy climbing on.

At other points along the Boy Scout Trail or from the amphitheater, you can see the University of Colorado campus, the canyon and Mount Sanitas.

“It’s a lot of bang for your buck; a way to take advantage of the views from elevation without actually having to climb to elevation,” says Lisa Melli Gillespie, of Boulder, a volunteer with the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks. She has also volunteered at the Flagstaff Nature Center and as a park patroller.

Want more? Head to Sensory Trail, a nearby interpretive hike that is great for kids and is also handicap-accessible, although weather conditions may make that irrelevant. You can get good views from the Sensory Trail, but the plants along it may be dead in the winter.

In warmer weather (generally mid-May through mid-October) on Fridays through Sundays, a great add-on to the hike is a visit to the free nature center with scavenger hunts, art and outdoor activities for kids.

Always be prepared for when the weather roles in. Pictured here: Mesa Trail to Quarry. Photo by Isaac Nagel-Brice

Mesa Trail/Woods Quarry

Location

Start at the Chautauqua Ranger Cottage and head up Bluebell Road (about three-tenths of a mile), the most direct route to the Mesa Trail. Bluebell itself isn’t as exciting as a backcountry trail, but it tends to have less ice than windier trails and will get you up the mountain quickly.

Hike the Mesa Trail for less than a mile, when you reach the Woods Quarry intersection. Here you will see a small stone house called Roosa Cabin (a former homestead residence). Follow that spur.

There’s also a closer turn-off at the intersection of Mesa Trail and Enchanted Mesa. This spur off of the trail is slightly longer than the Roosa Cabin one, but not quite as steep.

Why it’s awesome: Although this is located in busy Chautauqua Park, this stretch of the mountain is lesser known and a quirky hidden gem. Woods Quarry is best visited in cooler months, because it gets super hot in the summer.  

Trail Stats

Length 2.6-mile loop
Difficulty Easy
Elevation gain Roose Cabin to Woods Quarry to Mesa to Bluebell and back 964 total elevation gain
Dogs allowed Yes
Bikes Allowed No

However, depending on weather, the spur from Mesa Trail may be icy or muddy, so be prepared.

The details: Woods Quarry is a slight climb up makeshift stairs, but nothing intense. Just take your time if you are new to the altitude.

Note: You will see a large tree with a sign, and the quarry is located just left and behind that tree. You must go past the tree to uncover the final destination.

The trail will take you to an old quarry, where they got the sandstone used to build the red University of Colorado buildings and some of Boulder’s sidewalks in the 1800s. What remains today is a massive cutout of the rock, where people take shards of sandstone and use them to build structures, such as rock couches and chairs. Maybe a footstool or a piece of rock holding the position of a remote control. The scene changes daily.

“You can sit there and have a little snack and look out over south Boulder,” says Gillespie. “It’s a beautiful view from these crazy homemade chairs and benches.”

Double back the way you came and return to the trailhead via the Mesa Trail, or hike through the woods a little longer. There is a whole mess of trails to choose from, depending on your mood, the weather, and your abilities. Enchanted Mesa is a rewarding add-on.

Need to warm up? Stop by the historic Chautauqua Dining Hall or nearby General Store for a warm beverage to take the chill off, Gillespie recommends.

NCAR cafeteria

Stop at the NCAR patio for lunch after your hike. Photo courtesy of Lisa Melli Gillespie

NCAR Nature Trail/Connector Trail

Location

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, is more than a science research facility. It’s also the trailhead for one of the city’s best, lesser-known winter hikes.

At the top of NCAR is a free, interactive science museum that is great for kids.

 Why it’s awesome: This trail is super versatile and can be short or as long as you want. Bonus: NCAR’s cafeteria offers breakfast and lunch (check the open hours, cash only), so you can grab food or a hot chocolate after your hike. Eat on an outside picnic table for one of the most beautiful, unexpected dining views in Boulder. If it’s too cold, eat indoors, where the views are still impressive via floor-to-ceiling windows. The cafeteria is lined with art from the employees of NCAR.

“NCAR provides a lot of variety. You can go hiking, see a science museum, and eat in a comfortable cafeteria filled with art exhibits,” Gillespie says. “It’s another cool, hidden gem in Boulder, perfect for kids and adults alike.”

Trail Stats

Length The first part of the trail is just over a half a mile round trip
Difficulty Easy
Elevation gain The first part is only 180 feet
Dogs allowed On Leash
Bikes Allowed No

The details: This short nature trail is easy to access in the winter, because it starts at the research center. Look for interpretive signs along the trail to learn more about the region.

The nature trail is about a half of a mile there and back, but if you want to continue, follow the NCAR Connector Trail that will take you to the Mesa Trail (6.9 miles long with a 410-foot elevation gain). All forks in the road will take you to Mesa. Be sure to head north on the Mesa Trail, as the southern section near NCAR is currently under construction.

The Connector and Mesa trails have greater elevation gains and drops than other recommended winter hikes, but they’re still doable in all seasons.

Hike as long as you want, all the way to Chautauqua Park. Highlights include Skunk Canyon (1.3 miles, 550-foot elevation gain), which crosses a creek and ends in a lovely meadow; Mallory Cave (a half mile, 740-foot elevation gain); or all the way into Woods Quarry, from the south. Make sure you check out the interactive Open Space and Mountain Parks map to plan your route before you go.

Lion’s Lair Summit. Photo: Isaac Nagel-Brice

Lions Lair

Location

The best place to park is up Sunshine Canyon, about 1.8 miles past Fourth Street. The road will make a sharp turn, and you will see a gate and parking lot on the right. The trailhead is not well marked.

 “You have to know where to look to find this trailhead,” Gillespie says.

You can also park in the popular Centennial Trailhead parking lot and hike a bit more than a mile up Sunshine Canyon, but this is not as scenic, exciting or convenient. And it can be a bit icy in the winter.

But for people who want to do a longer loop, combining the Lions Lair with the Sanitas Trail, the Centennial parking lot may be a better place to park.

Trail Stats

Length About 2.2 miles, one way
Difficulty Moderate-Easy
Elevation gain 711 feet. If you do the full Sanitas hike: 1,343 feet.
Dogs allowed No
Bikes Allowed No

Why it’s awesome: Hiking Mount Sanitas is a quintessential Boulder outdoor hike. But this trail can be extremely packed with hikers. This new, smooth, local-secret trail gets you to the top of Sanitas from the back side, without the traffic. This is hand’s down one of the finest trails in Boulder, and yet (or maybe because) it’s relatively unknown.

The details: Because Lions Lair doesn’t allow bikes or dogs, it’s significantly less crowded than the Sanitas trail, and because it’s newer and designed to weather floods and erosion, the trails are in much better shape. This trail was built after the 2013 floods, which were hard on Sanitas.

Because  Lions Lair starts midway up Mount Sanitas and runs along switchbacks instead of a steep grade, it’s better for travelers who aren’t as conditioned.

Because it’s not as busy, you’re likely to see deer and other wildlife here, too.

“It’s one of the quieter trails in Boulder,” Gillespie says. Especially during the week.

At the top, you’ll intersect with Mt. Sanitas and will be rewarded with one of the best views in Boulder. Look south for a breathtaking view of the foothills and Boulder’s famous Flatirons. To the west is a view of the Front Range and beyond.

Head back the way you came or add another few miles and a workout to your hike by taking the rugged, steep Mount Sanitas Ridge Trail or the Sanitas Valley Trail to make a loop back to the Centennial parking lot.

Comments

  1. Another good winter hike is the backside of Green Mountain to the summit. Parking is easy and the trail is moderate with great views at the summit

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