Get Outside! Circling Heil Valley Ranch

A Weekday Visit Finds Solitude, Parking Spaces


Distance: 1 mile to 9.7 miles, I did 7.8 miles.

Location: Between Boulder and Lyons. (See directions below)

Trailhead: Bathrooms, trash cans, picnic tables. The parking lot fills early on weekends.

Dogs: No dogs allowed, not even on leash.

Entrance fee: None

For years, I've heard that Heil Valley Ranch and Hall Ranch are packed with bikers on the weekends. When I suddenly found myself with a weekday off, I thought I should try one of these popular parks.

Heil Valley Ranch is near Boulder, while Hall Ranch is near Lyons. Heil's loops are a bit short, so I choose Heil.

Boulder's Open Space Web site says Heil Valley Ranch has 4,923 acres. Depending on how you loop the trails together, you can hike 1 mile to about 9.7 miles. I chose to take the Wapiti Trail to the Ponderosa Loop and back down the Wapiti Trail.

I arrived at the trailhead just before 9 a.m. on a Friday and was surprised to find just three other cars. I took the parking space closest to the trailhead sign and packed up.

At the parking lot, you have to make your first trail decision; Lichen Loop or Waptiti Trail. Lichen Loop is hikers only. The first half mile of the Wapiti Trail is a dirt access road. If you don't mind the extra 1/2 mile, Lichen Loop is a good choice. It meets the Wapitit trail, so you can continue on or turn back.

I took the Wapiti Trail up the dirt access road. At the 1/2 mile mark, the trail becomes single track. After a turn, a sign describes the prairie dog habitat in the area, but I didn't see or hear any prairie dogs. A short distance later, I found a bench. While you may not need a break, this is a good spot to stop and take in the view. A trail volunteer told me the two tallest peaks in the distance are Bear and Green Mountains.

As you hike on, you walk into a forest area. This was a sweet treat so close to the city. It was perfectly peaceful, quiet and beautiful. You'll even see the ruins of a home along the trail. 

At the 2.5 mile mark, there's a sign for the Ponderosa Loop. I decided to take that trail because the map showed an overlook. About a 1/4 mile from the trail junction, I got a good reminder of why you shouldn't look at your feet when you hike, I suddenly looked up and spotted two deer near to the trail. It appeared to be a momma and a baby deer. The baby wasn't too happy to see me and started backing away. Mom didn't seem too concerned and kept eating her grassy breakfast. I pulled out my camera, took a few pictures and quietly continued on the trail. It was great seeing them so close.

The next trail junction is for the Wild Turkey Trail. A volunteer told me it was his favorite trail and has good views of the city. Well, I get enough of the city views, I prefer the forest, so I stayed on the Ponderosa Loop heading for the overlook. There were a couple places on the Ponderosa loop where the trees opened up and you could see east to the plains, but it wasn't too often.

The Wild Turkey Trail rejoins the Ponderosa Loop just before the overlook. There's a bench at the overlook and a view. Honestly, it didn't do much for me. The overlook was a nice spot to take a break, the view just wasn't very impressive.

Since it was a bit windy, I didn't stay long. I took a few pictures and headed off. From here, you can continue around the Ponderosa Loop or back track to the Wild Turkey Loop and head down the Wapiti Trail.

I was so pleased to finally hike this trail. The forest area was nice getaway, but I was disappointed with the overlook. I consider myself a destination hiker -- I like to hike to something. This is really more of a hike for people who just like to hike.

A parks volunteer said he has counted 80 bikers in a four hour hiking shift on a weekend. On a Friday, I saw 5 bikers, 5 hikers, 2 trail runners, 2 deer, 1 volunteer and 1 group of senior hikers.

(Update:) Anne in Boulder wrote to say she's hiked Heil many times and I missed the best part. Anne said "Although the Lichen loop can just be a cutoff to the Wapiti trail, the backside of it goes through a long hilly meadow. Whether the wildflowers are blooming or there's just tall grasses, it's one of those places that just makes you want to run like Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie." Anne also stressed that on the weekends, no one goes this way.

Directions: From the Boulder Turnpike, drive through Boulder on U.S. 36. From the end of town, drive about 4 1/2 more miles towards Lyons to Lefthand Canyon Drive. The Greenbriar Inn is on the corner. Turn left. At About 0.7 of a mile, turn right on Geer Canyon Drive. Travel 1.4 miles to the trailhead. (1 mile of this road is dirt.)

It's almost time for my annual list of my favorite hikes and I’'d love your help. Send me your top five favorite hikes in Colorado and why you like each location so much. I'll include your list with your name and hometown. Just e-mail me at I also welcome your e-mails if you have any questions or comments about this hike or my previous reports.

Previous hiking reports:(lower elevation hikes have a star) Boulder: Caribou Ranch*, Mallory Cave*, Marshall Mesa, Forsythe Canyon*, South Boulder Peak*, The Boulder Flatirons*, Walker Ranch*, Bear Peak*, Rabbit Mountain*, Bald Mountain*, Betasso Preserve*, Wonderland Lake* Golden area: Forgotten Valley, Chimney Gulch*, Apex Park* Jefferson County: Mt. Falcon*, Elk Meadow* I-70 area: Herman Gulch, Chicago Lakes, Chief Mountain Rocky Mountain National Park: Granite Falls, Twin Sisters, Bierstadt Lake, Chasm Lake, Lulu City & Little Yellowstone, The Loch, Andrew's Glacier, Sandbeach Lake Indian Peaks/James Peak Wilderness: King, Bob & Betty Lakes, Forest Lakes, Arapaho Lakes, Mitchell & Blue Lakes, James Peak Area, Heart Lake Northern Colorado: Homestead Meadows, Devil's Backbone*, Lake Agnes Summit & Eagle Counties: Booth Falls, Missouri Lakes, Mohawk Lakes & Continental Falls Grand County: St Louis Lake, Waterfall At Snow Mountain Ranch, Granby Ranch Other: Exploring Fulford Cave, Our Favorite Hikes, Our Favorite Bike Rides


Print this article Back to Top