The iconic Boulder mountain range provides the scenic backdrop for our daily lives. We gaze upon it while sitting at a traffic light, we photograph it endlessly, and we flock to it for countless outdoor pursuits. We never get lost because we know it’s always to the west. We consider its view when we’re buying a home or even choosing a restaurant for dinner. The Boulder range is the anchor of our city and its anchored in our hearts as well.
While the range consists of five main peaks, only four are visible from most points in Boulder. Surprisingly, it’s the tallest of the five that is obscured. South Boulder Peak (8,549 feet) lies southwest of its slightly shorter mate, Bear Peak (8,461 feet). Bear Peak, with its conical summit and prominent location, gets all the attention. It looms loud and proud over NCAR and the rest of the city. Its trails are bursting with hikers and runners throughout the year.
But sitting quietly behind Bear, South Boulder Peak awaits. Its summit trail sees less foot traffic. Its ponderosa pine forest is teeming with mountain chickadees and nuthatches. Its summit is peaceful and airy, far from any crowd. South Boulder Peak is Boulder’s highest summit and also its least traveled. Or as we hikers like to call it: JACKPOT.
The journey to South Boulder’s summit is not an easy one. The approach is long, steep, and relentless. Fortunately, the rewards are great and more than worth your while. Read on for your guide to bagging Boulder’s biggest and baddest summit.
The classic route for South Boulder Peak begins at South Mesa Trailhead. From Highway 93, take Highway 170 toward Eldorado Springs. Follow Highway 170 for 1.7 miles and the trailhead is on the right.
South Mesa Trailhead gets very crowded in the summer. Additional parking may be found across the street at the Doudy Draw Trailhead. Your best bet is to arrive early.
As always, please consult Open Space and Mountain Parks for trail conditions and temporary closures. Note: In spring, there are seasonal wildlife closures in place for Shadow Canyon, but these closures do not typically impact the trail itself.
This hike is about 6 miles round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Begin at South Mesa Trailhead. Take Mesa Trail for 0.4 miles to the junction with Towhee Trail. From here, you may take Towhee (no dogs allowed) or continue on Mesa. The distance is nearly the same. Enjoy the gentle landscape as it meanders through wildflowers and sumac with great views of the Boulder range and the plains.
At about 1.2 miles, the trail splits. Mesa Trail heads north toward NCAR and Shadow Canyon Trail heads west toward South Boulder Peak. Take Shadow Canyon as you enter the ponderosa pine forest.
You’ll pass two historic cabins. The first is the McGillivary Cabin, built in the 1870’s by homesteader Seth Pruden. The second is the Stockton Cabin, a mining shack built in the 1890’s. Rumor has it that there are two mining tunnels in the nearby hillside leftover from the land’s mining days.
Continue on Shadow Canyon Trail as it moves deeper into the forest and begins ascending steeply. You’ll soon realize how Shadow Canyon got its name. The canyon is deep, densely covered, and much cooler and damper than the surrounding areas. Through the tree canopy, you’ll catch glimpses of views to the east and The Matron to the north.
As you progress, the trail turns from dirt to large rock steps. Some steps are rather unwieldy and footing is precarious. This was always the case on Shadow Canyon Trail, but even more so after the flood. The 2013 flood turned Shadow Canyon into a virtual blender of boulders and debris. It has since been cleaned up quite a bit, but the landscape is noticeably changed.
The trail eventually mellows out and switchbacks less steeply through a burn zone. Keep your eyes and ears open for woodpeckers, particularly the American three-toed woodpecker.
At approximately 3 miles from the trailhead, you’ll reach the open saddle between South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak. This is a welcome sight and the perfect spot for a short break before the summit push. Have a snack and enjoy the views. Then turn left (or south) to travel the remaining 0.3 miles to the summit.
The summit is rocky and requires some scrambling, but the route is relatively safe with minimal exposure. That’s a good thing, because you’re going to want to spend some time here. This is a summit to be savored. Two prominent boulder stacks make for natural chaise lounges. The mountain views stretch from Long’s Peak all the way to Pike’s Peak. The Instagram junkie will be overjoyed. Soak it all in and reap the rewards of your hard work.
Arguably, the toughest part of this hike is the descent. Those giant steps that had your thighs screaming on the way up will have your knees weeping on the way down. Step carefully and take your time. Hikers with knee issues should take extra special care.
As you near the bottom of Shadow Canyon, take either the South Spur or the North Spur. From either spur, be sure to take Mesa Trail going southeast and not heading north. Follow Mesa or Towhee back to the trailhead.
- At the start, take Homestead Trail to Shadow Canyon instead of the Towhee or Mesa route described above. Homestead is a beautiful trail that adds only a tenth of a mile to your trek.
- After summiting South Boulder, head back to the saddle and continue north for 0.3 miles to the summit of Bear Peak. Then return the way you came or descend via Bear Peak West Ridge and Bear Canyon to end at NCAR. Arrange a ride ahead of time or take Mesa Trail from NCAR back to South Mesa Trailhead.
Photo Credit: Kari Armstrong & Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved