The air is a bit crisper, the days are a bit shorter, and our open space will soon be a bit more colorful. Fall is swiftly descending upon Boulder and that’s great news for hikers. Say goodbye to those sweltering summer trail days and say hello to cooler temperatures and brand new scenery. Move over wildflowers – it’s time for blazing red sumac and golden cottonwoods.
It’s the best time of year to be a hiker in Colorado. You can go at any time of the day – the crowds have thinned and mid-day heat is no longer an issue. Enjoy a lighter pack now that you don’t need a gallon of water just to make it from the parking lot to the trailhead. And since snow and ice are not an issue (yet!), there’s no need for traction or gaiters. The only gear you really need is a fleece.
The best part is that you don’t have to be a hardcore trekker to soak it all in. Within the City of Boulder, we’re fortunate to have a variety of trails to suit anyone and everyone. No matter your age, experience, or fitness level, there’s a fall hike out there with your name on it. Here are 3 perfect fall hikes in Boulder (easy, moderate, and strenuous) and one “all level” fall hike that’s just a short drive away.
Before heading out, please consult OSMP.org for trail conditions and temporary closures.
Wonderland Lake features a 1.5-mile loop trail that’s ideal for kids, out-of-towners, beginning hikers, or anyone looking for a peaceful, easy going stroll. The flat, well-maintained trail encircles a serene wetland habitat while offering gorgeous views of the foothills and the plains.
In the fall, wildlife is abundant at Wonderland Lake. Migratory birds pass through in droves, herds of deer graze openly, and even bears may be spotted as they fuel up for the upcoming winter. Meanwhile, cottonwoods and other deciduous trees provide colorful foliage and amber prairie grasses blow in the autumn breeze. Wonderland is, indeed, a wonder-full place to be this time of year.
In September and October, it doesn’t get any better than the Mesa Trail. This 6.9-mile trail may be accessed from Chautauqua Trailhead or South Mesa Trailhead. It begins and ends at roughly the same elevation, but gains and loses over 1,000 feet as it rolls this transitional zone between the foothills and the plains.
Mesa Trail can be incorporated into a variety of hikes. It can be done by itself from one end to the other, if a ride is arranged at the finish. Some may opt to hike a shorter portion of Mesa as an out-and-back. Others may choose to make it part of a loop hike featuring Towhee, Homestead, Shanahan, or the Big Bluestem Trails. Consult the OSMP map for all the options.
What makes Mesa so great in the fall? One word: Sumac. It lines the trails, clings to hillsides, and turns an intensely deep red this time of year. (Don’t worry – this isn’t poison sumac.) It’s a sight to behold and it only lasts a few weeks, so hit the trail and catch it while you can.
Bear Peak is a real bear of a hike, but that’s why it comes complete with stellar views and bragging rights. In the fall, it also comes with great foliage. The standard route up Fern Canyon is a lung buster, but near the top you’ll see one of the only natural aspen groves in the city. It’s just a small cluster to the left of the trail, but it’s a welcome sight as you painstakingly scramble the last few feet to the summit.
Once you’re on the summit, take a moment to admire the city’s fall foliage as seen from 8,461 feet. And as you wind your way down the burn zone on the west ridge, you’ll see a variety of leafy shrubs in orange and yellow. It’s a very dramatic landscape. Upon reaching Bear Canyon, be alert for wildlife. Yes, bears reside here as the name suggests and they’re very active in early to mid fall. Bobcats and foxes may be spotted, too. The full Bear Peak loop is approximately 8 miles and over 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
There’s nothing like the high country in autumn. And if Boulder isn’t high enough for you (wink, wink), simply hop in the car and head north to Rocky Mountain National Park. With bugling elk at every turn and aspen groves a plenty, RMNP is sure to delight. The 1.8-mile hike to Emerald Lake (one-way) is suitable for most levels and features some truly incredible fall scenery. Note: Definitely check for weather and trail conditions before heading out. Conditions in the park can be vastly different from conditions in Boulder.
Happy fall and happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo Credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com – all rights reserved