9 Best Outdoor Activities in Boulder
Year-round, adventurers travel to Boulder, Colorado, a college town nestled at the foot of the iconic Flatirons, tilting sandstone formations, to indulge in a variety of outdoor activities. The name Irons dates back to an earlier time when pioneer women compared these stones to the metal irons they used to iron their clothes. Today, few are aware of this anecdote. Instead, climbers arrive with a wide range of abilities to tackle this focal point of Boulder County’s trail system.
Once you’ve visited, it’s hard not to come back for a second helping. In the 1970s, I arrived in the first year of university. Even though I moved to another state and graduated from another university, I longed to return to this city, less than an hour drive from Denver International Airport . Not only have I visited many times, but I eventually moved to a town between Boulder and Denver. After living in suburban Chicago, how could I have resisted over 300 days of sunshine and a climate that allowed for the outdoors to be enjoyed every season of the year?
Like many other American cities, Boulder has matured and responded to the needs of its residents. None of these changes has altered the immense beauty of the ideal setting of Boulder or the adjacent foothills. Today, visitors are drawn to Boulder’s natural resources as well as the benefits of a sophisticated college town. While most folks use old-fashioned foot strength, the more adventurous are looking for other ways to experience Boulder’s gems.
Both novice and accomplished hikers will delight in the number of Boulder hikes that appeal to both audiences.
Stroll on easier hikes
People who prefer to meander on flat trails or grandparents traveling with young children have plenty of options. It’s easy to push a stroller along the 10-mile, mostly flat, paved path that hugs Boulder Creek. My favorite easy hikes include
Pro tip: Please note that the 10 minute drive from Chautauqua Park to the Flagstaff Nature Center is filled with hairpin bends and switchbacks as you ascend a steep incline.
For a ooh and ah moment, drive west on Boulder Canyon Drive for about 20 minutes. The 0.3 mile walk from the parking lot to Boulder Falls, a 70 foot waterfall, is well worth the trip. I have visited this site many times and have always been inspired by the crash of the water against the narrow cliffs lined with ponderosa pines. This short excursion can be combined with hiking trails around Nederland or Sunshine Canyon.
Tackle difficult terrain
Experienced hikers looking for longer hikes in moderate and expert terrain can explore the second and third Flatirons by taking the accessible Flatirons Loop trail in Chautauqua Meadow. Other challenging routes include
- Bear Peak near NCAR
- the royal arch trail in Chautauqua Park
- Mount Sanitas Trail to Sunshine Canyon
- the Green Mountain West Trail at the base of Gregory Canyon on the perimeter of Chautauqua Park
- the Walker Ranch Loop in Walker Ranch Park
Pro tip: On all of these more challenging hikes, expect some rock scrambling and steep inclines.
If you want more details on Boulder’s trails, check the Open Space & Mountain Parks site for more information, and visit Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks for weather conditions and seasonal closures. Also consider downloading their app for easy reference. Bring plenty of water to combat the arid environment and pack a backpack full of essentials. It is recommended to start early as some parking lots fill up quickly and the trails get crowded.
2. Neighborhood walking tours
Self-guided tours of Boulder’s historic neighborhoods will identify structures built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While the Gold Rush-era shacks were destroyed long ago, these laid-back walks take you back to when neighborhoods had diverse architectural styles.
3. Explore the University of Colorado-Boulder campus
The history of the University of Colorado-Boulder can be experienced while walking around the campus. Starting with the oldest building, Old Main, it is possible to learn more about the history of the university by stepping inside the Heritage Center for a brief tour.
Other notable sites on campus include the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theater, home of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Macky Auditorium, Folsom Field, Museum of Natural History, Fiske Planetarium, and CU Art Museum.
4. Segway Tour
Segway tours allow people (between 100 and 260 pounds) to take an effortless 90-minute tour of many of the city’s key areas – the historic Whittier District, Chautauqua Park and Pearl Street Mall. Friendly and informative guides offer tidbits of information that will enhance your understanding of Boulder’s unique culture.
Pro tip: Note that these tours are suspended until Spring 2023. Come back before your visit.
5. Bike rides on the rocks
Bikes and e-bikes can be rented from shops in town so cyclists can take advantage of the 300 miles of bike paths and trails. Some of these paths are paved and relatively easy to navigate. Many other routes are designed for more experienced riders who like bumpier, more unpredictable rides. Guided bike tours appeal to people who have ridden a bike before and are aimed at e-bike and standard bike users.
Pro tip: Boulder’s hilly, high-altitude terrain can be challenging for people accustomed to riding on flat surfaces at or near sea level. If you plan to explore on your own, select a bike shop near your destination.
6. Nautical activities
Inland locations are considered lucky when they have water resources. Boulder has two – Boulder Creek and Boulder Reservoir or “The Rez”. With a path adjacent to Boulder Creek, it is possible to find several places to start a tubing, kayaking, rafting or river adventure. Local stores sell and rent equipment.
Pro tip: To visit The Rez, a 700-acre lake, you’ll need to travel to the less populated northeast part of Boulder. It is a popular spot for boating, swimming, fishing, pontoon boating and paddle boarding. Be prepared for an entrance fee during the summer season.
Anglers come to Boulder to take advantage of the year-round fishing opportunities. Front Range Anglers and Rocky Mountain Anglers sell gear, offer advice and book excursions. Many come to fish for brown trout, a native species found at Boulder Creek.
Pro tip: Note that snow accumulations change from year to year. It is always advisable to check the current conditions of Boulder Creek. When flows exceed a certain level, the stream is closed. Wetsuits may be advised to mitigate freezing water temperatures.
8. Paragliding, hot-air ballooning, etc.
If you suffer from acrophobia, an intense fear of heights, I recommend that you avoid any activity that takes you above ground – paragliding, gliding in an unpowered aircraft, or scenic hot air balloon adventure. That said, beginners, as well as experienced thrill seekers, are welcome to enjoy these exhilarating and memorable experiences in Boulder.
Boulder Free Flight uses a GoPro to record beginners and experienced paragliders. Lifecycle Balloon Adventures, Aero-Cruise Balloon Adventures and Fair Winds Hot Air Balloon Flights take young and old aboard their hot air balloons. Daredevils who want to experience a motorless plane can take a 35-mile high flight that offers incredible views of the surroundings.
Pro tip: Paragliding and hot air ballooning are offered from spring through fall, while heated cockpits make Mile High Gliding a year-round activity. Advance reservations are required during peak summer season.
Locals and visitors who want to avoid the crowds at the big ski resorts will drive 20 minutes to Eldora Mountain, where they can experience Eldora’s 350 skiable acres, a small fraction of Vail’s incredible 5,317 skiable acres.
Day trips are a must for avid skiers and snowboarders. Unless there is an unpredictable traffic problem, it is possible to drive to Winter Park, Loveland Ski Area, Keystone Resort, Breckenridge Resort, Copper Mountain Ski Resort, Arapahoe Basin or Vail in less than 2 hours. Beginners can make online reservations for ski lessons and pick up rental gear in Boulder or at the ski resort. Dining options and amenities vary from location to location. If time permits, stop at Genesee Park to see bison grazing or visit the town of Golden.
Always carry enough water to combat the adverse effects of high altitude environments. High altitude sickness can become severe, especially when traveling in the mountain communities of Summit County. Be aware of the symptoms, which include headache, nausea, vomiting, loss of energy, dizziness and shortness of breath.
Pro tip: It is recommended to start early on peak ski days. Crowds are inevitable. Since the Eldora car park may reach capacity, consider taking the RTD bus or shuttle from Boulder. Accessing major ski areas via the I-70 corridor can be a nightmare if your commute coincides with inclement weather or traffic jams during the holidays or weekends. Plan accordingly.