Bear Peak is as beautiful as it is tough. Rising sharply to a conical point at 8,461 feet, it’s one of Boulder’s most prominent landmarks. The classic climb to the summit via Fern Canyon is arguably the toughest ascent in Boulder. And as torturous as the journey upward may be, you’ll do it again and again because the views at the top are like no other.
To balance out the brutality of Fern Canyon, pair it with a descent through Bear Canyon. Gentle and restorative, the Bear Canyon Trail heals you after the relentless climb up Fern. This summit loop is the ultimate yin-yang of our trail system. Get ready to experience the satisfying highs and the lows of Bear Peak.
This hike begins and ends at the National Center for Atmospheric Research trailhead (NCAR). Head west on Table Mesa to the NCAR building. There is plenty of parking in the lot.
Begin on the NCAR Trail heading west. You’ll climb past a water tank and wind through some of Boulder’s most unique geological features. (Science nerds: Keep your eyes open for rocks with wavy-looking surfaces… They are remnants of Boulder’s ancient sea floor!)
NCAR will bring you to a junction with Mesa Trail. Turn left. Continue on Mesa to the junction with Bear Canyon Trail. Turn left again to make your way toward Fern. Follow signs for Fern Canyon as you begin the ascent up the mountain. Don’t be fooled by this initial climb. It’s steep, but it’s about to get much steeper.
About 2/3 of the way up Fern, you’ll reach a saddle on the trail. Enjoy this open expanse with lovely views to the north. This is an excellent place for a snack or a picnic lunch. Enjoy a well-earned break. From this point on, the going gets really tough.
Bear’s narrow, pointed summit doesn’t leave much room for switchbacks. The final stretch is nearly straight up the eastern slope. How steep is it, you ask? Well, let’s just say this: If you have a heavy pack on, don’t lean back.
After a grueling final push through pine and aspen, you’ll emerge onto the rocky summit block. You can stop right here and call it good, or carefully scramble your way to the true summit looming precariously above. This is a very exposed scramble and not for the faint of heart.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor and soak in the beautiful 360-degree panoramas from Bear’s summit. When you’re ready to descend, head toward the west side of the summit and take Bear Peak West Ridge Trail. The West Ridge descends steeply at first and then takes a gentler turn. At the junction with Green Bear and Bear Canyon, turn right for Bear Canyon Trail. Bear Canyon rolls beautifully through a wildflower-dotted riparian landscape. After Fern Canyon, it’s a very welcome respite.
NOTE: Bear Canyon Trail has several creek crossings. Expect high water levels in the spring. Some crossings may be impassable after periods of heavy rain.
Continue on Bear Canyon to the junction with Mesa Trail. Take Mesa back to NCAR and the trailhead.
If you’re looking for an even tougher workout (and more breathtaking views), head south from Bear’s summit and tag South Boulder Peak, too. The saddle trail connecting these two peaks is a mere 0.3 miles one-way. Then you can descend via Shadow Canyon Trail or go back the way you came and take Bear Peak West Ridge down to Bear Canyon.
Now you’re ready to enjoy all the “ugh” and the “ahh” that Bear Peak has to offer. No other peak in our system has so much badassery and sweetness rolled into one. Happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo Credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved