The onset of spring in Boulder is a highly celebrated phenomenon. In a city where outdoor pursuits are practically a religion, warmer temps and longer days have everyone singing from the rooftops (and mountain tops).
One caveat, of course, is that it’s only “sort of spring.” Yes, we’ve had some picture perfect days, but locals know better than to pack away their snow boots at the end of March. Historically, Boulder has some of its biggest snowstorms in spring. So go ahead and plan that hike for next weekend, but there’s no way of knowing whether it will be 70 and sunny or 30 and snowing.
The unfortunate side effect to Boulder’s erratic spring weather is mud. Yes, mud is what happens when you take warm, sunny days and throw a bunch of snow into the mix. And mud does more than trash our shoes; it wreaks havoc on our trails. Each spring in Boulder, mud is responsible for multiple trail closures.
So what’s a hiker to do? While we rely on foot traction and gaiters to combat snow and ice on the trails, there is no easy fix for mud. But fear not, Boulderites! The key to happy hiking in mud season is knowing where to go and what to do. Read on for all the dirt on hiking through mud. (You knew that was coming, right?)
Option 1: Avoid It
This is your first line of defense. It sounds so simple, right? Duh, just avoid the mud! Go hike where the trails are dry! Sounds great… except it’s not always that easy.
With ample sun and warmth, the trails will begin to melt rather quickly after a spring snowfall. The stages of a thaw-out are: snow, ice, mud, and finally, dry dirt. But unfortunately the trails don’t melt at the same rate, and one trail may be in the midst of all four stages at once. This is where some basic knowledge comes in handy.
Trails facing east and south receive the most sun and will be the first to melt. Trails facing north and west get less sun and will be the last to melt. Use this to your advantage. In the early stages of a thaw-out, hit the north and west facing trails with appropriate traction and you will have great snow conditions. Then when those begin to get messy, hit the now-dry south and east facing trails.
Trails at the bottom of slopes and in basins will receive the bulk of the snowmelt and runoff. As a result, these will be muddier and messier than trails higher up. This is why the Chautauqua meadow trails and South Boulder trails are always a nightmare during a thaw-out. When lower trails are a mess, opt for the upper mountain trails. In addition, trails that are comprised of rock more than dirt will naturally be drier.
Option 2: Hike Through It
If you have no choice but to hike on a muddy trail, please hike right through the mud. Bypassing the mud by hiking off trail is the worst thing you can do for our trails and our wildlife.
Boulder’s open space receives 5.3 million visits per year. With this much foot traffic, staying on trail is crucial to maintaining and preserving the land. Hiking around mud causes trails to widen and destroys critical habitat. It’s a big problem that OSMP must combat every year, so let’s do our best to minimize it. Presumably you are out hiking because you love our trails and our open space, so it just makes sense to do the right thing by protecting it.
That being said, hiking through mud can be unpleasant and slippery business. Novice hikers worry a lot about ice, but experienced hikers know that mud can just as treacherous. Wear sturdy hiking boots, step with care, and do not use foot traction such as Yak Trax or micro-spikes. While traction devices are lifesavers on snow and ice, they are a major liability in mud. Rather than provide extra grip, they simply turn your boots into mud magnets and make hiking nearly impossible (albeit hilarious to passersby).
Trails that are simply too muddy to hike through, or those that are at risk for significant damage, will be closed by OSMP until they firm up. Before you head out, be sure to check for any mud-related closures. Please heed any closures to prevent further damage to these trails.
Local Pro-Tip: The Driest Trails in Town
These moderate-level trails meet some or all of the criteria from Option 1, and therefore are the quickest to dry out. When trail closures abound and much of the system is a mess, head over to one of these.
Red Rocks and Anemone Trails: Though the wide trail just west of Red Rocks is prone to mud in the initial thaw out, it seldom lasts more than a day. The rest of this network is rocky and sun-drenched and usually dry as a bone.
Crown Rock Trail: While many of the trails on Flagstaff are north facing and covered with denser forest, Crown Rock is south facing with sparser tree cover. This ensures that it receives plenty of sun and dries out early. Be sure to avoid its muddy counterpart on the north side, Viewpoint Trail.
Hogback Ridge: The qualities that make this trail unbearable in August, happen to make it ideal in April. With virtually no shade and complete exposure to the elements, this trail dries out within a day or two and then stays dry while the rest of the system is catching up.
And there it is, trail warriors. Mud season is no match for you! Now you are prepared for whatever trail conditions our crazy spring weather may deliver. Happy trails, Boulderites!