Boulder County is restricted to “shelter in place,” banning all non-essential activities outside of the house. However, outdoor exercise, such as walking, hiking, biking, running and walking your dogs, are all considered “essential activities.” Just make sure you follow social distancing guidelines, remaining a full six feet apart from others.
However, just because the trails remain open doesn’t necessarily make them the safest place to be. Walk up busy Mount Sanitas at noon and you’re likely to encounter more people than if you went to the grocery store right now. It can be hard to maintain a safe distance on the narrow trails, so it’s best to avoid Boulder’s busiest outdoor destinations during the quarantine.
Of course, the best choice right now is to stay home.
But sometimes getting exercise can be a true matter of mental health, not to mention the physical benefits.
Here’s how to practice social distancing in open space.
Know the Rules
Boulder parks and open space remain open to the public, but golf courses, playgrounds, basketball courts, tennis courts, picnic areas and other public gathering spaces are closed. You also need to avoid group sports.
Likewise, the city doesn’t allow group hikes right now, as it’s too difficult to maintain a safe distance apart.
The city offers other guidelines for visiting open space right now, such as:
- If you are sick, stay home.
- Plan carefully and know your limits, so first responders don’t need to come rescue you during this busy time.
- Practice good hygiene. Just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your hands clean and cover your mouth if you cough.
- Visit OSMPTrails.org or the Boulder Area Trails App for up-to-date information for possible restrictions or closures in response to trail and park conditions and the COVID-19 virus.
Time It Right
If you must get out, one of the best ways to avoid crowds is to consider your timing, no matter where you go.
Plan a sunrise hike. That’s how Drew Rossi, a local adventurer and hiker, does it. He says not only do you get to watch the sun rise from a beautiful destination, but he never sees people on the trails at that time. Even on popular trails.
Another idea is to play it safe and hike at night. Yes, the city of Boulder’s trails remain open after the sun goes down. Many trailhead parking lots remain unlocked (but not all of them; some close at 5 p.m.), so you might be able to still park there, too — as long as you don’t leave your car parked overnight. Camping in city parking lots is prohibited. Also not exactly “shelter in place.”
Also make sure it’s not a county trail. Boulder County’s trails are closed from dusk to dawn (unless you participate in a county-sanctioned guided night hike event, which aren’t happening right now).
Read more about where to go for a less-busy nighttime hike and how to stay safe here.
Strategically Pick Your Trails
Don’t just head to your regular, go-to trail. Strategically pick the least-busy open space areas and avoid the busiest ones, which you can determine by viewing the traffic at different locations online here.
For example, Bluebell Road sees a ton of visitors (175,000 a year). In March, that’s usually 15,000 people. You can see the busiest times of day (it typically peaks at noon, but before 5 a.m. and after 9 p.m. barely registers). Weekends are typically the busiest, with Tuesday the least busy.
While the quarantine makes the historical data less accurate for today, it can point to trends, such as the most popular destinations and times of day.
Another great filter to find the least-busy trails is to choose the dog-free ones. Boulder loves its furry friends, and 90 percent of the city’s trails allow dogs. Those 10 percent that are pet-free are usually less traversed.
In addition, although flatter, wider trails may not make as good of a workout, they are better choices for social distancing. Consider more spacious trails, like those in far north Boulder off U.S. 36 and Neva Road. Ideas: Left Hand Trail, Eagle Trail, Sage Trail around Left Hand Valley Reservoir and those around Mesa Reservoir and Boulder Res. Some of those are good on bikes, too.
New: Open Space just launched a new feature on its trail maps. It has color-coded trailheads to show which trails get the highest usage. Also, trails indicated with a thicker green line are wider and best for social distancing. The catch: This is based on last year’s data, but is still helpful.
Hidden Gem Trails
Here are some of the area’s hidden gems and least-busy hikes. And yes, we see the irony of sharing a less-busy trail, which can make it busier. But the hopes are by getting more people off the packed trails and spread out better in the mountains, we can lessen the risk for the community at large.
Just make sure: If the parking lot looks full and the grounds look busy, enjoy the scenic drive and drive away.
Note: Many of these hikes — especially those at the top of Flagstaff — still require traction and could be slushy or muddy. Be prepared.
Boy Scout Trail (Flagstaff summit): One of the trails classified as “very low” traffic, according to the city’s data, is the Boy Scout Trail. It’s also a favorite hidden gem of Lisa Melli Gillespie, a local hiker. If the gate isn’t open for Flagstaff Summit road, park at Realization Point Trailhead and either hike up Ute Trail or walk up the Flagstaff Summit Road to the main Flagstaff parking area.
You can put “Flagstaff Nature Center” into your GPS to get you to the right area. The trail’s across the street.
Boy Scout Trail is great for families and boasts lovely views. The climax is the lookout at May’s Point. Look for the Sensory Trail, which parents can incorporate into their new homeschool curriculum. This guided walk will tell you what to smell, listen and look for in the surrounding nature. Just resist the urge to scramble over the rocks and touch too many surfaces.
Goshawk Trail: This is best accessed from the Fowler Trailhead in Eldorado Springs and from that point is a pleasant 3.1-mile loop, says Melli Gillespie. If the parking area is full, there are other access points. Goshawk Trail is packed with cool cultural and historical elements, making it another ideal option for some outdoor learning. Look for the Red Rock Cola Cabin, remnants of the railroad days and an interesting area known as “Forest Park.” Read along with this website as you hike. No dogs allowed here. Note: Make sure you check trail closures before hiking here, as Boulder’s southern trails are intermittently closed in the spring due to mud. Fortunately, there’s an app to keep everything updated.
Long Trail: Usually accessed by Realization Point and hiking on connecting trails, Melli Gillespie recommends accessing it from Flagstaff Road instead, where parking may be more forgiving (continue up Flagstaff road another 0.5 miles or so, past the Lost Gulch overlook. The trailhead will be on the left/east side of the road).
This 1.6-mile trail is lovely and quiet — often good for wildlife viewing as no dogs or bikes are allowed. It’s relatively unknown because it has no connections, it’s a loop and doesn’t offer any impressive views. But if you want some peace in nature, Long Trail is a good bet.
Chapman Drive Trail: If you want to hike with your dog, Chapman Drive tends to be less crowded, although you should still arrive early. There are two ways to access the trail: One off of Boulder Canyon Drive, which travels up the back side of Flagstaff, and the other end of this trail is at the south end of Realization Point on Flagstaff. The Boulder Canyon access tends to be less crowded.
This trail is 2.6 miles one way, and averages a 7 percent grade. Sections of it are dog-on-leash only. If you want to incorporate some history into your hike, it was built in the ‘30s to link Flagstaff Road with Boulder Canyon. Look for historic rock walls and structures, a cattle guard and a switchback.
Meyers Homestead Trail: Here’s another trail that permits dogs. It’s out-and-back (5.3 miles one way) and a bit of a haul to get to, Melli Gillespie says. It’s farther up Flagstaff Road, just this side of Walker Ranch. But that distance is one big reason why it’s less crowded. Melli Gillespie says it was quite snow-packed a few weeks ago, but it’s still a stunning location. And the terrain itself is classified as easy.
A fun resource to bring with you is this Birds of Walker Ranch checklist. Print it out and check off the ones you see on your hike.
See the county’s charts on the Walker Ranch visitation (below). Meyers Gulch accounts for only 10 percent of the annual visitors.
Anemone Trail: If you pull up to Mount Sanitas and it’s busier than a Whole Foods parking lot, consider (with caution) the nearby Red Rocks Trail/Anemone Trail instead. This trail actually shares a parking lot with Sanitas, and it’s easy to access. Red Rocks starts at the Centennial Trailhead and is a network of short trails, continuing to the end of Settler’s Park (so beware, the area still could be busy). Take Sunshine Canyon Trail up Sunshine Canyon until you reach the Anemone Trail. Follow it up Anemone Hill. This part is usually pretty empty. Still, local hikers caution that Anemone gets pretty tight along parts of it and the trails are pretty heavily used.
Olde Stage Open Space: Skip the city parks and head up Olde Stage Road to this lesser-known stretch of open space. Chances are, you’ve driven past this before and never noticed it: a small parking area that brings you to a short (just over 2 miles there and back) trail that goes into Buckingham Park. How to get here: Look for the turn-off at the north end of Olde Stage Road, just south of where Lefthand Canyon meets Old Stage.
Anne U. White Trail: This trail has been closed since 2013 due to flooding, which took it off the radar of many hikers. But it reopened this past fall. This three-mile trail follows the Fourmile Canyon Creek, going back and forth over the water multiple times. It’s appropriate for all levels and even includes a waterfall. However, there are portions of this trail that are narrow and it can be tough to keep a proper distance when it gets steep and due to an adjacent creek and oncoming traffic. So choose this one during not-busy hours. Note: While the upgrades improved the parking from only five spaces to 28, if the lot is full, go somewhere else. Neighbors here don’t appreciate overflow parking.