The City of Boulder boasts five beautiful peaks. Each one offers unique challenges and gorgeous scenery. From the diminutive but tough Mount Sanitas (6,863 feet) to the towering, windswept summit of South Boulder Peak (8,549 feet), our hometown range has something for everyone.
Bear Peak is Boulder’s second tallest mountain at 8,461 feet, but its combination of beauty and brutality has made it an ever-popular challenge among locals.
Don’t be fooled by its scenic vistas, wildflower-dotted hillsides, or seemingly Disney-inspired forest critters, because this Bear is a real beast. With routes ranging from 4.7 miles to 9 miles, Bear Peak’s strenuous trails beckon to Boulderites looking to test themselves without leaving home.
And it gets better. Come to Bear Peak for the physical challenge and the incredible views, but stay for some of the best people watching in Colorado. On a busy Saturday morning, world-class ultrarunners and mountaineers mingle with beginner hikers and weekend warriors. Given Bear’s vast appeal, you’ll share the summit with first timers and record holders alike. So don’t be stingy with those high fives, because you never know who you’ll bump into up there. This is your guide to tackling the baddest and the boldest of Boulder summits.
All approaches detailed below have 2,800 – 3,000 feet of elevation gain except where noted.
NCAR Approach, Clockwise (aka The Classic), 8.1 miles
This is the Classic approach to Bear Peak’s summit out of NCAR Trailhead. The full loop makes for a beautiful hike with lots to see along the way. The descent via Bear Canyon Trail is particularly pleasant, complete with babbling creek and wildlife watching opportunities.
Begin hiking west on the NCAR Trail toward Mesa Trail. Turn south (left) onto Mesa Trail. Continue through forest, meadow, and over a small bridge to the junction with Fern Canyon on your right. (Keep your eyes open – it’s easy to miss!) Turn right onto Fern Canyon. The real ascent begins here.
Fern Canyon is arguably the most strenuous trail in our system. For the first 2/3 of the trail, expect moderate steepness and a few switchbacks. Once you hit the saddle (a lovely clearing), the final 1/3 of the trail steepens dramatically and you’re about to enter Crazy Town. The switchbacks inexplicably disappear, the grade seems impossibly steep, and it just keeps going.
Fortunately, Fern Canyon does come to an end. When it does, you’ll be standing on the summit block of Bear. The last stretch to the summit marker involves scrambling up a series of boulders.
If you have a fear of heights, it’s perfectly OK to skip that part. But if you can handle it, the rewards are great. Enjoy the 360-degree views of the plains, the foothills, and the high country beyond.
To complete the loop and return to NCAR, head west to the other side of the summit. Take Bear Peak West Ridge and carefully descend the rocky slope.
Continue over the ridge and down to Bear Creek. From here, you’ll connect with Bear Canyon Trail (do NOT take the hairpin turn for Green Bear). At the end of Bear Canyon, continue onto Mesa Trail, over the small bridge, and don’t miss the left turn as Mesa climbs back up. Yes, there is some elevation gain on the return, but it’s short-lived. Now simply retrace your steps from Mesa back to NCAR Trail and finally to the parking lot.
A slight variation of this route may be done from Bear Mountain Drive, just south of NCAR.
NCAR Approach, Counter-clockwise (aka The Punisher), 8.1 miles
This approach is exactly same as above, but in the reverse. Why is it called the Punisher? Well, you’re making it a lot harder on yourself than it needs to be. The approach up Bear Canyon and Bear West Ridge is long and arduous (5 miles just to get to the summit!) while the descent via Fern is rough on the knees. There’s really no reason to attempt this loop unless you happen to be a glutton for punishment. But far be it from us to judge.
Cragmoor Approach (aka The Fast & the Furious), 4.7 miles
This out-and-back approach is strenuous but short. It includes Fern Canyon, but with a very direct approach and almost no elevation gain on the return. Because of this, the Cragmoor Approach can be mastered and done fairly quickly if desired. Due to the descent down Fern, this route is not ideal for anyone with knee or ankle issues.
Begin at the Cragmoor Access Point (take Table Mesa Drive to Lehigh Street to Cragmoor Road). Head up Cragmoor Connector to Shanahan North Fork. Continue west on Shanahan North Fork through two junctions. Then the trail bends to the north and briefly descends to a creek bed before rising again and turning west. From this 3rd junction, you’ll see the sign for Fern Canyon Trail.
Ascend Fern Canyon as described in the Classic approach. Remember that the section after the saddle is much harder but it’s also very short (less than 0.4 miles to the summit). Once at the summit block, climb up to the marker if desired and celebrate! When you’re ready, return to the trailhead as you came.
South Mesa Approach (aka “I Hate Fern Canyon”), 8.2 miles
This approach is about the same length as the Classic, but it helps you avoid Fern Canyon if you absolutely hate Fern Canyon. (Please note that trail work is still being completed near South Mesa Trailhead. Consult www.osmpprojects.org before heading out.)
Shadow Canyon is essentially Fern’s cousin. Shadow is a badass just like Fern, rising up to the saddle between South Boulder and Bear Peaks, but it’s almost twice as long as Fern so the grade is easier to handle.
At the saddle, turn right (north) to traverse the last 0.3 miles to Bear’s summit.
Be sure to hike around to the east side so you can scramble up to the marker and savor all the views. Return to the trailhead as you came.
Green West Ridge Approach (aka Gorgeous But Grueling), 9 miles
This non-traditional approach is for the person who’s looking to mix it up. It’s also a great way to include Green Mountain if you’re looking for an even bigger challenge. Elevation is gained on the way out and the way back, but it’s less elevation than the other Bear approaches (2,100 feet total).
Begin at Green Mountain West Ridge Trailhead, 5 miles up Flagstaff Road. Take the trail southeast and heed signs to avoid private property. After 0.9 miles, turn right (south) onto Green Bear Trail. This is one of Boulder’s most beautiful and least travelled trails. Green Bear continues for 1.5 miles with gentle switchbacks and peaceful scenery. At its end, do NOT bear left onto Bear Canyon Trail. Instead, make a sharp right turn to Bear Peak West Ridge.
Take Bear Peak West Ridge up, up, up for nearly 2 rocky miles to the summit. You’ll top out on the west side – continue around to the east side for the full experience. Savor the fruits of your unconventional approach and return the way you came. (On the return, you can include the summit of Green Mountain by taking a one-mile detour at the end of Green Bear Trail.)
That’s Bear Peak in all its beautiful, terrible, sweet, ridiculous glory. Whether you’re looking to embrace the suck or just spend a beautiful day in Boulder’s open space, it’s out there waiting. And now you’re ready! Happy trails, Boulderites!