A hike on any Boulder trail is a hike back in time. From geological formations to remnants of ancient civilizations, our open space is full of clues to this land’s rich history. Boulder’s trails invite us to take a break from our busy modern lives, enjoy fresh air and exercise, and connect with the people and events that came here long before us.
A hike on Marshall Mesa does all this and more. Best of all, its network of short, gentle, multi-use trails make it accessible to most ages and fitness levels. Marshall Mesa is a great place to take kids, seniors, out-of-towners, or beginner hikers. Those looking for a tougher hike can simply add one of many connecting trails on to their sojourn.
Got a reluctant hiker? Two words: Underground fires. History and geology buffs will be delighted, and even the apathetic can’t deny the appeal of Marshall Mesa’s incredible history. Read on for your guide to this unique and historic hike.
As always, please consult www.osmp.org for trail conditions and temporary closures.
To access Marshall Mesa Trailhead, head south on Highway 93. Turn left at the intersection with Marshall Road (170). The entry for the trailhead comes up immediately on your right.
Marshall Mesa, formerly known as the town of Marshall, is the site of the earliest coal discoveries in the Colorado Territory. Coal mining began here in 1859 and continued until the 1940’s. The once thriving community had a schoolhouse, several saloons, and a railroad.
When the coal mines closed, most of the miners and their families left for jobs elsewhere. Bits of foundation and other artifacts may still be seen if you look closely. In addition, a handful of underground coal fires continue to burn – over 100 years later! They are no longer visible above ground, but some say you can still see tiny wisps of smoke rising on a very cold day.
The Marshall Mesa area is also notable for being adjacent to Boulder County’s largest remaining parcel of tallgrass prairie. Years ago, tallgrass prairie stretched uninterrupted for miles and miles across America’s heartland. After decades of development, only 2% of it remains. The prairie at Marshall Mesa is one of the last standing and it’s now a protected wildlife habitat. As a result, hiking off-trail at Marshall Mesa is not permitted.
The main loop at Marshall Mesa is between 2.4 and 3 miles, depending on the exact route. There is very little elevation gain. To hike the loop, turn left (east) from the trailhead. Continue for 0.8 miles on the Marshall Valley Trail until you come to the junction with the Mesa cut-through. You can turn right here and head up the steps for a shorter hike, or continue straight. If you continue straight, in 0.3 miles you’ll reach the turn for Community Ditch Trail.
Turn right (southwest) onto Community Ditch Trail. Enjoy the view of the Boulder mountain range looming ahead. Don’t forget to scan the prairie for coyote, fox, deer, and other wildlife that frequent the area.
Community Ditch meanders along for 1.4 miles in total, and then you’ll turn right (north) onto Coal Seam Trail. In 0.5 miles, you’ll be back at the trailhead.
Be sure to read the interpretive signs at the trailhead and along the trails as you hike. They tell the incredible story of Marshall Mesa and provide a fascinating context for your walk.
The Cowdrey Draw, Greenbelt Plateau, and Community Ditch trails all connect with the Marshall Mesa loop and provide countless options to extend your hike, run, or bike. Please consult the interactive map to plan your exact route.
Happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED