Boulder’s open space is full of tough climbs and summits, but there are times when you’re in the mood to meander a gentler course. Luckily for us, we’ve got plenty of that, too. From a quiet neighborhood in South Boulder, the Shanahan and Big Bluestem trails ramble through field and forest just east of where the Boulder range begins its rise. These two trails offer several loop options. This 5-mile loop can be done in under 2 hours, and its easy-going nature makes it ideal for taking photos, bird watching, catching up with a friend, or relishing in some alone time. A variety of flora and fauna keeps it interesting, and the views can’t be beat. Read on for your guide to the Shanahan and Big Bluestem Loop.
Getting there: There are several approaches to this section of the trail system, but the primary one is the Shanahan Ridge Access Point at the intersection of Lehigh and Lafayette Streets. There is no parking lot, but there is adequate street parking and signage.
As always, please consult OSMP.org for trail conditions and possible closures. These trails may be very muddy after a rain or snow. OSMP advises hikers to “get dirty” and walk through the mud, rather than around it, as that causes widening of the trails and can damage the delicate ecosystem.
Hiking the Loop: This circle hike can be done in either direction, but heading south and proceeding clockwise makes for a gentler hike. Just past the trailhead sign, begin on the Lehigh Connector. Enjoy views of the surrounding neighborhood and the plains, as you move through a sparse evergreen forest. At 0.2 miles, turn left on South Fork Shanahan toward the Big Bluestem Connector. In 0.7 miles, you’ll turn left once more. Mountain views begin to rise on the right, while farmland spreads out before you on the left. You’ll pass through the first of two livestock gates. At 1.2 miles, you’ve reached the junction of Big Bluestem. There is no sign here, but turning left puts you on Lower Big Bluestem and turning right puts you on Upper Big Bluestem. For this loop, turn right.
Upper Big Bluestem is arguably one of the most beautiful trails in our system, known for its diversity of both flora and fauna. The trail gradually rises as it skirts past a drainage filled with fruit trees, low-lying shrub, and tall grasses. On a sunny autumn day, you’ll be surrounded by a rainbow of color. The area is home to a great number of resident and migratory birds (be on the lookout for large groups of mountain bluebirds passing through in the spring and again in the fall). It’s also an important habitat for black bears. In 2013, the trail was re-routed for sustainability as part of the West Trail Study Area Plan. In accordance with that plan, dogs on Upper Big Bluestem must remain on-leash on Saturdays and Sundays.
Continue on and pass through the second livestock gate. On the left you’ll see remnants of an old stone wall and a wooden fence. At 2.8 miles in, you’ve reached the end of Upper Big Bluestem. Turn right onto Mesa Trail, which takes you through a clearing where you’ll be treated to unobstructed views of Devil’s Thumb on Bear Peak. Soon after, the trail begins descending (steeply at times) through a peaceful forest lined with lichen-covered rocks and boulders. Turn right on North Fork Shanahan at 3.7 miles. North Fork Shanahan descends east, away from the mountains and back into the neighborhood. At a little under 5 miles, you’re back at the trailhead.
Extra Credit: Consult the map for countless variations. This loop is truly customizable and can be made shorter or longer to suit your needs. Also, hiking it in reverse is much steeper and more challenging, so consider tackling that on a day when you want more of a workout. Happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo Credit: Alli Fronzaglia