Winter is a wild and wonderful season in Boulder, starting as early as October and ending as late as May. During the months in between, we’ll experience every kind of weather imaginable. From whiteout snow and negative temps to bluebird skies and balmy breezes, Boulder winters are a cornucopia of conditions. Fortunately, we live in the age of high-tech clothing and upleveled gear, so you can comfortably and safely hike your way through winter – no matter what Mother Nature dishes out.
There will always be folks who insist that hiking is strictly a summer activity, but their loss is your gain. With a little extra planning and preparedness, winter hiking can be just as enjoyable as hiking in the milder seasons. If you do it enough, you just might find that winter is actually the best season to hit the trails.
What makes winter hikes in Boulder so great? For starters, there are typically way fewer people heading out in the winter months. That means plenty of space at the trailhead parking lots, plenty of peace and quiet along the trails, and plenty of room on the summits. Fewer people also makes for better wildlife watching. And there is nothing more magical than seeing our open space completely transformed by a blanket of snow. A hush falls over the forests and meadows; familiar vistas suddenly look brand new.
The best winter hikes in Boulder await you! Read on for everything you need to know about gearing up and getting out there. As always, be sure to check with the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, as well as Boulder County Parks and Trails, for faint current conditions, temporary closures, dog regulations, and more. Leave No Trace ethics apply in every season, so please stay on the trails, heed any signage, and pack out whatever you pack in.
Gear and clothing can make or break a hike, especially in the challenging conditions of winter. Don’t leave home without these items to keep you comfortable and safe on the trails.
- Warm layers made of breathable, wicking material
- Waterproof outer layer that’s easy to move in and packable
- Warm socks (one pair on your feet and an extra pair in your pack)
- Waterproof or water-resistant trail shoes or hiking boots
- Hat, gloves, neck buff
- Foot traction (such as Kahtoola microspikes)
- Plenty of water and snacks
- Fully charged cell phone (consider a spare battery or recharger)
- Paper map
- Hiking apps (AllTrails, The Hiking Project, etc.)
And maybe these:
- Gaiters, if deep snow is expected
- Trekking poles for balance and stability
- Snowshoes, only if there’s been recent accumulation
- Hand and toe warmers
- Z-Seat foam pad for sitting and taking a break
Get Out There
You’re ready to go… but where? The best winter hikes are accessible in adverse conditions (some trailheads and roads close seasonally), have well-marked trails (navigable even when under snow), and offer diverse scenery.
These Boulder hikes tick off all the boxes. The first three are “all-level” routes suitable for most, including winter hiking novices. The last one is for experienced hikers looking for a winter challenge. Please note that difficulty level can vary greatly based on the presence of snow and ice.
Marshall Mesa Loop
Marshall Mesa Loop (3.3 miles, 230 feet of elevation gain): This unassuming loop off of Highway 170 is small in distance but big on views. To hike the classic clockwise approach, take Marshall Valley to Community Ditch. As the trail rises through the valley, be sure to glance back for impressive views of the Flatirons and the Bounder range to the west. Turn right on Community Ditch and continue to Coal Seam. Turn right on Coal Seam to return to the trailhead.
These are multi-use trails with bikes present, though you’ll encounter fewer bikes (if any) on wintery days. Keep your eyes open for coyotes – they’ve established dens here and are frequently spotted trotting across the valley. If you’re interested in a longer hike, consult the OSMP trail map for additional options.
Woods Quarry (2.6 miles, less than 600 feet of elevation gain): This Boulder classic is usually accessed from Chautauqua Trailhead, though an alternate route is possible out of NCAR. From the Ranger Cottage at Chautauqua, head south on Bluebell Road and then turn left onto Mesa Trail. Continue on Mesa until you see the sign for Woods Quarry on your right.
Ascend the steps (it’s a bit steep, but only for about a ¼ mile) and you’ll top out at the historic quarry. Yes, this was once a real sandstone quarry! Take a rest on one of the stone “sofas” and enjoy sweeping city views to the east. Pro-tip: If you packed a hot beverage, this is the perfect spot to sit and sip.
To return to the trailhead, turn back to the north but take the first right down the other side of the quarry loop. You’ll pass the wooded Roosa Cabin, a gorgeous sight in the snow. Continue on Enchanted Mesa and through the parking area back to the Ranger Cottage where you began.
Sawhill & Walden Ponds
Sawhill & Walden Ponds (multiple options up to 3 miles, mostly flat): This serene network of peaceful ponds and quiet trails is maintained by two different entities – the City of Boulder manages Sawhill Ponds and Boulder County manages Walden Ponds. The properties are adjacent to each other, however, and can seamlessly be woven into one of the beautiful winter hikes in Boulder.
Begin at either Sawhill Ponds Trailhead or the Walden Ponds Trailhead and meander over boardwalks, across meadows, and through forests. There’s a lot to see and enjoy right here (including some great bird watching) but don’t forget to gaze out west every now and then. If you think Flatirons views are breathtaking, you’ll love them combined with the beautiful reflective waters of Sawhill and Walden Ponds.
Hike for as long or as little as you’d like. Take a short out-and-back stroll or explore every inch of trail on these two special properties. Definitely bring your camera for this one!
Green Mountain Summit
Green Mountain Summit (5.7 miles, 2,300 feet of elevation gain): Green Mountain rises boldly over Chautauqua meadow and its eastern flanks are home to the famous Flatiron rock formations. It may not be the tallest of our local peaks at 8,144 feet, but Green Mountain is probably the most heavily visited and photographed. It’s a bit less traveled in winter, when hiking these trails in snow and ice becomes a next-level challenge.
This prominent peak features some of the most breathtaking scenery and jaw-dropping views in town. You’ll have to earn them, but you’ll be glad you did. This is a strenuous hike and conditions on the upper mountain can be challenging in the winter season. Even if it’s dry and clear in town, you should be prepared for snow and ice on these trails.
Begin at Gregory Canyon Trailhead. There are multiple options here, but the classic route takes you up Saddle Rock Trail and continues along EM Greenman. After some huffing and puffing, you’ll top out on Green Mountain’s summit with its iconic marker. Enjoy the 360-degree views, snap all the photos, and have a snack. You can return the same way or complete the classic loop by taking Ranger Trail and Gregory Canyon Trail back to where you began.
Happy wintery trails, Boulderites! What are your favorite winter hikes in Boulder? Let us know in the comments!