Royal Arch in Chautauqua at night. Photo by Jacob Helleckson

The Best Nighttime Hikes in Boulder

In Sports & Outdoors by Aimee Heckel2 Comments

Here’s a different way to experience Boulder’s outdoors: under a quiet canopy of stars with the trail illuminated by the full moon and the circle of your headlamp.

By day, many of Boulder’s best trails are packed with other hikers, sometimes to the point of trail traffic jams. But as soon as the sun creeps behind the mountains, the trails begin to thin out. And by dark, you may very well have the mountains to yourself.

Well, you and all of the wildlife that lives there.

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Fun fact that many visitors may not realize: The city of Boulder’s trails are always open, day and night. 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.

But be careful of which trail you select. Some of the rockier ones (like Boulder Falls) can be dangerous with limited visibility (not to mention a long list of other precautions to take to keep yourself safe when hiking at night). 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.

Before heading out for a night hike, do some research. Know who patrols the trail and consider hiking it in daylight first, so you know what to expect.

Craving a night hike in Boulder? Here are some ways to do it right:

1. Do a night picnic at Chautauqua.

Popular Chautauqua Park is a great starting point, and it’s a fun way to experience the mountains without all of the traffic. The view you score depends on which of the many different trails you choose. Select one of the easier trails, for safety, and pack a picnic in your backpack. Find a rock along the way and enjoy some cheese and crackers under the stars. That’s romance, Boulder style.

2. Take in the view up Flagstaff Mountain.

Flagstaff Mountain has some of the best views of Boulder. But a word of caution: Don’t do this hike alone, because mountain lions have been seen here. Mountain lions are most active at dawn and dusk. Bring a headlamp, stay aware and maybe sing some camp tunes to let the wildlife know where you are.

3. Explore other night hikes.

Other great night hikes include Gregory Canyon, Mount Sanitas and the Centennial Trail.

4. Hike to the Boulder star.

In the winter, you’ll see a huge star made out of holiday lights perched on the east side of Flagstaff Mountain. It’s a tradition for some locals to hike up to see the star firsthand. It’s not against the law, but the city’s open space department doesn’t exactly recommend it, because there is no real trail to follow and the terrain is pretty steep. It can be especially dangerous if there’s snow or ice.

The good news is it’s not a very far hike if you park nearby. People looking for more of a challenge hike from the bottom of the mountain, a steep 1.2 miles each way up Flagstaff Trail, near the Gregory Canyon Trailhead.

Calculate the risk for yourself. If you’re not up for it, don’t hike all the way up, but enjoy the lights from a nearby parking spot. Most night hikers drive up Flagstaff Road and park nearby.

5. Do a guided hike.

This is the safest option (and the only way to hike Boulder County trails at night). Plus, the hikes are led by naturalists, so you can learn something and ask questions. Find info about guided night hikes online. They tend to be pretty short (about a mile round trip).

6. Do a full moon hike.

Plan your night hike around the full moon, which provides a little more light out on the trails. Or pair it with a meteor shower. Check REI’s guided full moon hikes.

7. Participate in other outdoor activities after dark.

Cyclists may enjoy the challenge of night riding. You can also occasionally find night fishing opportunities, like Summer Catfish Night on Stearns Lake, when the waters are usually closed.

Night Hiking Tips

  • Don’t go alone. Make sure you tell someone back home where you are going and hike with a partner.
  • Stay on the trail. You should always stay on the trail, but this is especially important at night when it’s easier to get lost.
  • Dress appropriately. Wear layers and closed-toe shoes or hiking boots. Colorado’s weather can be unpredictable and it can get chilly at night. You’ll be glad if you pack a hat.
  • Go slowly. You don’t want to slip and fall.
  • Bring the right gear. This means plenty of water and a flashlight or headlamp.
  • Beware of your surroundings, including wildlife. Some are more active at night; bears and mountain lions are active at dusk and dawn. Pay attention to wildlife signs and warnings.

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