Boulder Field Trip: Hike Button Rock Preserve

button rock preserve hike boulder 4
Summer days are long and ideal for exploring new places. While Boulder is home to 150 miles of trails and 45,000 acres of open space, this is the perfect time of year to leave the bubble and see what lies just beyond it.

Enter beautiful Button Rock Preserve. Located just seven miles west of Lyons, this protected watershed is managed and maintained by the City of Longmont. The preserve is comprised of pristine forest, meadow, and both the Longmont and Ralph Price Reservoirs, which provide water to the City of Longmont.

A lollipop-shaped trail allows visitors access to this peaceful sanctuary and all of its surprises. Hikers will enjoy the sights and sounds of North St. Vrain Creek, glimpses of majestic Mount Meeker and Longs Peak, the serenity of Ralph Price Reservoir, and the chance to observe the inner workings of a powerful dam.

Button Rock Preserve offers all this and more, in exchange for a scenic 45-minute drive from Boulder. Bonus: You’ll pass Oskar Blues Grill & Brew in Lyons on your way back to town. This is the perfect place for a post-hike lunch featuring some of Colorado’s best local beer.

Let’s leave the bubble and hike Button Rock Preserve.

Button Rock Preserve sustained severe damage in the September 2013 floods. The area has since undergone significant recovery and restoration efforts. After being closed for 643 days, Button Rock Preserve reopened to the public in June 2015.

Please observe the posted notices and DO NOT swim in the reservoirs. Ralph Price Reservoir is stocked and fishing is allowed with a license and permit.

Get there

From Boulder, take Highway 36 north to the town of Lyons. Continue for 4 miles as Highway 36 veers to the west. Turn left at Boulder County Road 80 and continue for 3 miles to the gate for Button Rock Preserve. Limited parking is available. Consider getting an early start on busy summer weekends.

Hike it

At Button Rock Preserve, the natural world meets modern civilization in a unique and beautiful way. Visitors can observe a diverse array of wildlife and mountain views alongside critical water management facilities.

The Sleepy Lion Trail, at 4.7 miles round trip and 680 feet of elevation gain, provides an easy to moderate hike through the preserve.

sleepy lion trail boulder hike

You’ll absolutely want to include the short but steep jaunt to Ralph Price Reservoir (this is arguably the best part of the hike), which adds another ¾ of a mile total and 300 feet of elevation.

spur button rock preserve hike boulder

Begin hiking west on the wide, flat service road that runs parallel to the North St. Vrain Creek. At 0.75 miles, you’ll arrive at the Sleepy Lion junction. From here, the trail bends south and rises swiftly through a mixed evergreen forest dotted with rocky outcrops. Be sure to enjoy the mountain and reservoir views as you continue up. Shaded little nooks provide great resting places.
ralph price reservoir boulder hike

At approximately 1.3 miles, you’ll emerge from the forest into an expansive meadow. This is a fantastic wildlife watching spot. Bighorn sheep were reintroduced into this area in the 1980’s and may still be occasionally be viewed here.

The trail intersects the meadow and re-enters the forest, eventually turning north and descending to the base of the dam at 2.8 miles. Take a moment to enjoy up-close views of the dam and the powerful water spouting from it.

button rock preserve boulder hike dam

Before proceeding to the service road, take the steep spur to the left that brings you to the top of the dam wall.

(Cue all the dam jokes!) The views from the top of this little offshoot are well worth the detour. From here, enjoy a panorama of the entire watershed and the mountains beyond. And while the sparkling waters of Ralph Price Reservoir are extremely inviting, please heed the “no swimming” signs.

ralph price reservoir boulder hike 2

Head back down the spur as you came and take the service road to return to the trailhead at 5.4 miles total.

service road button rock preserve hike boulder

This satisfying hike is best when savored over the course of an entire morning (allow at least 3 hours) with ample snack breaks, wildlife watching, and photo opportunities. Once you leave the bubble for Button Rock Preserve, you’ll find yourself making the time for it again and again.

Extra Credit

Button Rock Preserve may be connected to Boulder County’s Hall Ranch property via the 2-mile Button Rock Trail.

Happy trails, Boulderites!

Photo Credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved

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Alli Fronzaglia

Alli Fronzaglia

Alli Fronzaglia is a hiking guide, naturalist, and community volunteer. Originally from New England, she and her family have settled down in Boulder for the long haul. When she's not hiking or running on Boulder's trails, Alli is hitting the water with her standup paddleboard. She writes to inspire others to get outside and play. Alli serves on the board of the PLAY Boulder Foundation and she's the co-founder of Boulder Hiker Chicks.
Alli Fronzaglia

Alli Fronzaglia

Alli Fronzaglia is a hiking guide, naturalist, and community volunteer. Originally from New England, she and her family have settled down in Boulder for the long haul. When she's not hiking or running on Boulder's trails, Alli is hitting the water with her standup paddleboard. She writes to inspire others to get outside and play. Alli serves on the board of the PLAY Boulder Foundation and she's the co-founder of Boulder Hiker Chicks.

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