It doesn’t take much for Coloradans to go into a complete and total fall frenzy. The daytime temps dip below 80, coffee shops add pumpkin spice to the menu, someone posts an Instagram photo of a single yellow leaf, and BAM… it’s on. Cue the onslaught of cars heading steadily toward Kenosha Pass and Rocky Mountain National Park.
But what if we told you it’s possible to enjoy fall without leaving Boulder? While there’s so much autumnal beauty to enjoy throughout the state, there’s actually plenty of it right here. Being a mere 5,430 feet above sea level, Boulder lacks the expansive aspen groves of the high country. It makes up for that, however, in historic neighborhoods lined with oaks and maples, creek beds brimming with cottonwoods, and trails bursting with flaming red sumac.
Anywhere in Boulder’s 45,000 acres of open space is a great place to observe the changing of seasons. And when it comes to fall, the southern part of the trail system is the crown jewel. South Boulder’s canyons and mesas play host to a variety of microclimates that enable an impressive diversity of plant life. In other words, fall foliage is slammin’ down in SoBo, and you can savor it all without ever leaving the bubble.
The Shanahan and Big Bluestem trails provide the opportunity for a “Choose Your Own Adventure” fall foliage hike. Nestled in the forest and meadow just east of Bear and South Boulder Peaks, this network of trails features minimal elevation gain and maximum scenery. Short on time or energy? Take a shorter 2-mile loop. Want to soak it all in? Take the full 5-mile loop. Read on for your guide to one of Boulder’s fall favorites.
As always, please consult the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks for trail conditions and temporary closures. As of September 2017, trail closures are in effect Monday through Friday for the region just south of Shanahan and Big Bluestem. This impacts lower Shadow Canyon, Homestead, Towhee, and the South Mesa Trailhead. Please note Upper and Lower Big Bluestem Trails are subject to leash regulations for dogs.
There are several approaches to these trails, but a classic one is the Shanahan Ridge Access Point at the intersection of Lehigh and Lafayette Streets. On Google maps, use 1903 Lehigh Street. Parking is available on the street. Please be mindful of driveways and private property.
Shanahan Trail is comprised of the North Fork Shanahan and the South Fork Shanahan. Likewise, Big Bluestem Trail has an upper section and a lower section. Both Shanahan and Big Bluestem can be turned into loops via Connector trails and the Mesa Trail. Consult the Open Space map for all possible loops and additions.
To do the full 5-mile loop, begin at Shanahan Ridge Access Point and head west. You’ll soon enter the forest and begin a modest climb. Continue west through 3 junctions before arriving at the Mesa Trail about 1.3 miles in. Turn left (south) onto Mesa. This is where the foliage starts popping up. Fiery red sumac mixed with a variety of low-lying shrub and prairie grasses create a palette of fall color.
Hike south on Mesa Trail for 0.9 miles while enjoying views of Bear Peak and Devil’s Thumb to the right. Go through the junction with South Fork Shanahan to Upper Big Bluestem. Turn left (east) onto Upper Big Bluestem. This section takes you out of the forest and into a clearing where more vibrant color awaits. This is also an excellent area for bird watching.
After 1.6 miles on Upper Big Bluestem, don’t miss the left turn onto the Bluestem Connector. Take this trail for about a mile through the peaceful farmland. Continue heading north through two junctions (one for South Fork Shanahan and one for additional neighborhood access) until you’ve reconnected with North Fork Shanahan. At this point, turn right and you’ll be a few steps from the road where you began.
Happy colorful trails, Boulderites!
Photo credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved