Boulder Hike of the Month: Skunk Canyon

boulder skunk canyon 1
Spring has officially arrived in Boulder. As long time residents will tell you, that doesn’t necessarily mean the wintery weather is over. Spring brings a little bit of everything to Boulder: sunshine, rain, snow, and mud. (And sometimes that’s all in one day!) But even as the wacky weather keeps us guessing, the plants and animals in our open space are clearly on track.

Wildflowers like spring beauties are some of the first to pop up. Pasqueflowers, mahonia, and chiming bells are soon to follow. Seemingly overnight, bursts of color begin to decorate the trail’s edges. With plant life reawakening, our local animals become more active as well. Migrating birds are passing through or returning to their summer home. Hibernating mammals are reemerging and refueling.

Indeed, Boulder’s open space is teeming with spring activity and we’re fortunate to have over 145 miles of trails from which to observe this annual phenomenon.  Boulder’s peaks rise sharply from the plains and feature a multitude of canyons that allow for an incredible array of plant and animal life.

One of Boulder’s most beautiful but lesser known canyons is Skunk Canyon. Even though the canyon is easily accessed from both NCAR and Chautauqua, it maintains a refreshingly low profile and neighborhood vibe. The Skunk Canyon Trail, at 1.3 miles and 550 feet of elevation gain, is easy going and unassuming. It lacks any steep climbs or far-off mountain views. It’s often bypassed by hikers and runners on their way elsewhere. And that’s the beauty of it.

Predominantly used by locals from the surrounding neighborhood, Skunk Canyon is the perfect spot for a quiet spring hike. Plant and animal life is abundant and easy to observe. The all-level trail can be hiked on its own or connected with a variety of nearby trails. And while it lacks vistas beyond Boulder, Skunk Canyon features a breathtaking backdrop that includes the Flatirons, Bear Peak, and Devil’s Thumb.

skunk canyon boulder hike 2
Read on for all you need to know about your soon-to-be favorite spring hike, Skunk Canyon.

Please consult OSMP.org for trail conditions and temporary closures. The City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks is currently embarking on multiple restoration projects that will impact several areas of the trail system in the coming months. Always check the interactive map (updated daily) before heading out.  

This area includes trails with seasonal dog regulations. For more info, visit Dogs on OSMP.  

Get there

Skunk Canyon Trail can be accessed from multiple points. For easy neighborhood access, take Table Mesa to Kohler Drive to Deer Valley Road. Parking is limited and please be mindful of private property. For open space access, approach from the McClintock Trailhead at Chautauqua or the NCAR Trailhead.

Hike it

Skunk Canyon can be hiked by itself as an out-and-back, it can be hiked as a loop with Kohler Mesa, or it can be incorporated into countless other possible combinations with nearby trails. Here are three classic Skunk Canyon routes. Please consult the map for additional options and variations.

Option 1: An out-and-back from Deer Valley Road is the simplest and quickest way to experience Skunk Canyon. From the end of the road, take the connector west to the beginning of the Skunk Canyon Trail. Once you reach Skunk Canyon, take the trail all the way up to the link with Mesa Trail. Then you can return exactly the way you came or take a slight detour (bearing left) and take Kohler Mesa to reconnect with Skunk Canyon and return to where you started. Whether you do it as an out-and-back or form a loop with Kohler Mesa, it’s about 2.8 miles with 550 feet of elevation gain.

Option 2: Begin at the McClintock Trailhead behind Chautauqua Auditorium. Take Upper McClintock for 0.6 miles to Mesa Trail. Continue on Mesa for another 0.8 miles to the junction with Skunk Canyon. Take a hairpin left onto Skunk Canyon and you’ll head northeast for 0.7 miles. Then turn left onto Kohler Mesa to complete this small loop, reconnect with Mesa, and return via Upper McClintock. This hike is about 3.8 miles with 650 feet of elevation gain.

Option 3: Begin at NCAR Trailhead. Take the NCAR Trail west for about one mile to the junction with Mesa Trail. Turn right (north) and continue for 0.4 miles to the start of the Skunk Canyon – Kohler Mesa Loop. You can take this loop in either direction, though counter-clockwise is a bit more challenging. Choose your own adventure and loop back to the junction with Mesa. From there, backtrack to NCAR. This hike is about 3 miles with 650 feet of elevation gain.

boulder hike skunk canyon 3

Extra credit

A fun detour to Woods Quarry can easily be tacked onto any Skunk Canyon hike. This adds about 0.4 miles and 230 feet of elevation.

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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