Get Outside! Climbing South Boulder Peak

It Takes Determination To Conquer This Summit

Basics: Distance: 6.8 Miles RTElevation Change: Nearly 3,000 Feet!Dog Rules: Dogs welcome but must be leashed in one section. Location: Boulder foothills near Eldorado Canyon State Park. Directions and map below.Trail head: Come early to find parking. There are 2 restrooms at the trail head and a map on a board.

While I wait for the snow to melt out in the mountains, I like to try a peak hike in the foothills. Last year it was Bear Peak in Boulder. This year I chose South Boulder Peak. While it's 0.7 trail miles south of Bear Peak, the trails to South Boulder Peak are completely different.

Let's just start by saying, if you're not in shape this is a hike that will take all of your determination. I haven't been working out, but I decided I had all day to make this hike, so why not give it a try.

The hike starts at the South Mesa trail head near Eldorado Canyon State Park (see directions below). This is a popular trail head so make sure you arrive early. When I got to the parking lot at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, there were four spaces left. By the time I hit the trail, there were no spaces left. When I left later in the day, there were more than a dozen cars parked on the highway.

When you start this hike, there are three different trails to choose from. From the parking lot, cross the bridge, then choose the Mesa trail by going straight. Turn left to the Towhee or Homestead Trails; both are about the same distance, both are about the same elevation gain and both are tougher than you'd expect. I choose to take Towhee up and Homestead on the way back.

The Towhee trail allows dogs, but the sign says they are supposed to be on a leash. The Towhee trail winds up a small drainage. I thought it was nice to walk along a stream and I was surprised how loud the birds were on this June morning. A nice treat.

Along the trail I found two trail splits that were unmarked. Both times I choose the left junction. I was concerned at the second unmarked junction, because both trails looked pretty heavily used, but it appears staying in the drainage and not climbing the ridge was correct.

I don’t know why I expected the first mile to be pretty easy, but it had some tough spots where the steps were knee high. There’s just so much elevation gain on this hike that it starts in the first half mile.

I followed the Towhee trail to a junction where it meets the Homestead trail and then to a junction with the Mesa trail. I believe taking the Mesa trail from the bottom adds about 1.6 miles to this hike. Along the Mesa trail on the left you'll see the remains of a small building (possibly an outhouse) and a cabin. This is the McGillivary cabin, likely built as a homestead in the late 1800s.

Stockton Cabin near the entrance to Shadow Canyon

The Mesa trail takes you to the entrance of Shadow Canyon. You’ll know you’re almost there when you see a cabin in the trees just off the right side of the trail. Boulder's Web site calls this the Stockton Cabin. One of my hiking books says it was likely built as a miner's lodge in the late 1800's.

The entrance to Shadow Canyon is about 2 miles from the trail head and it’s well marked. Take a deep breath here, because this is where the real climbing begins. I have been to this spot twice before, I knew this time I had to make it all the way up. (I came this past winter through the ice and snow and I came on a moonlight hike a few years ago.)

Shadow Canyon is only 1.1 miles, but you’ll gain about 1,600 feet in that 1.1 miles. You’ll find yourself climbing up rocky steps, trees carved with steps, even occasionally holding onto trees to climb up. This place is steep!

I was passed by three people in Shadow Canyon. (I ended up catching one of them when he got tired from all the climbing.)

All I can say is -- take it easy! There were times I would take a few steps, catch my breath, take a few steps and catch my breath. I knew I had all day for this hike.Climbing Shadow Canyon. Note the hiker ahead of me on the trail.

The guy who passed me thought the hike was only 2,000 foot elevation change. I took a GPS on this hike so I knew how much I had climbed and how much I still had to go.

When you reach the saddle at the top of Shadow Canyon, take a moment to celebrate. You’ve finished the hardest part. Now it’s just 0.3 of a mile to the summit of South Boulder Peak, or turn the other way and climb Bear Peak, 0.4 of a mile away. There’s still some climbing to the summit of South Boulder Peak, but knowing it’s close may help. This section was steep but didn’t seem too bad.

At the top, take a breath before you climb the scree to the summit. My legs were pretty rubbery by the time I tried to tackle the rocks/scree. It would be easy to slip and get hurt. I climbed to the top and talked with some of the people there.

Within minutes of sitting down on the rocks at the summit, more than two dozen other people arrived. One of them wanted to sign the summit register. It took some searching, then he found it embedded in one of the rocks. It had a scarf of sorts attached to it when I was there, that may help you find it. Scree at the top of South Boulder Peak

Now let’s talk about the summit. This is the reason for doing the hike after all. The view from this summit is great. To the south you can see the railroad tracks across the valley above Eldorado canyon. Directly west of the summit is Walker Ranch. To the west in the distance is Gross Reservoir and then the Indian Peaks. Look North and see Long’s Peak and nearby Bear Peak. Oh yeah, and if you crawl over the rocks to the east, you can see back to Denver. Unfortunately, it was hazy the day I was there, so I couldn't see downtown Denver.

This is a place where it’s good to have a panoramic setting on your camera. Consider bringing your lunch and spending some time here, as long as you don’t see storms approaching.

Then it's decision time. If you have enough energy, consider climbing Bear Peak and maybe even returning to the South Mesa trail head via Fern Canyon. Hiking this loop is about 8.2 tough miles.Register in the rocks on the top of South Boulder Peak

After a snack, lots of pictures and talking about favorite trails with some of the other people on top, I decided to start back down the same trail I came up.

The hike down was a lot more fun for me. It was tough at times, but in a very different way. The hike is steep, so I found myself holding onto trees and rocks at times on the way down to keep myself from falling. But I also wasn't huffing and puffing and wondering if I was going to make the climb.

As I worked my way down the Shadow Canyon trail, I saw a lot of people heading up. I met one hiker who was doing 3 peaks in one day! South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak AND Green Mountain! He said he parked at Chautauqua and expected the roundtrip hike to be about 15 miles. WOW! I plan to do 3 peaks in 3 years and this guy was doing them in one day! Amazing.

Trails Illustrated Boulder / Golden Map. National Geographic Maps. Evergreen, CO

A few minutes later a runner passed me carrying only one bottle of water. I had to ask fast about his day since he was running.

His answer?

"I'm doing five peaks."

As he ran away I yelled, "Five peaks?! I know what three are, what are the other two?"

I heard him say Sanitas. I don't know what the fifth one was, I assume it was Flagstaff. I have no idea how many miles that is, but it's more than I’m ever going to do.

On the hike down Shadow Canyon, stop occasionally and enjoy the view. It looks much better on the way down than it did when I was struggling on the way up. At the bottom of Shadow Canyon, you can turn left and circle around to the Mesa trail adding about 0.9 miles depending on the trails you choose, or you can go back the way you came.

I did make a "circle" hike of sorts by taking the Homestead trail back down instead of the Towhee. The Homestead trail follows a different ridge than the Towhee trail. While I found lots of different wildflowers on the Towhee trail, there were FIELDS of flowers on the Homestead trail. I was pleased I came down this way. The bad news about the Homestead trail? The stairs! This trail seemed even steeper than the Towhee trail. I did some grunting on the way down, my knees were pretty sore at this point.

At the bottom of the trail, just before the parking lot, I stopped at the Doudy-Debacker-Dunn House. The City of Boulder Web site said Sylvester (Andrew) Doudy was the first settler in this area and built the original wooden portion of the house sometime around 1858. Doudy raised cattle and operated both a sawmill and a gristmill. The homestead was sold to John DeBacker in 1869 for $500, he added the two-story stone section we see today. When John DeBacker retired in 1901, he turned the property over to his daughter Emma and her husband John Dunn. There is a sign explaining this at the house.

One book I read suggested this hike would take 3-5 hours. It took me 4 hours, 54 minutes.

It's kind of funny that I would choose a hike with 3,000 foot elevation gain, when I normally don't choose trails with 2,000 feet elevation gain, but this was definitely worth it. I hope to tackle Green Mountain next year.

If you have questions or hiking trail suggestions, please e-mail me

If you're looking for a reason to get out and hike, how about the "Hike for Hospice." It's Sunday, June 22nd and hikers will climb 7,600 feet to the top of historic Olinger Mount Lindo to benefit Porter Hospice and St. Anthony Hospice. Participants can release a dove in honor or memory of a loved one at the summit while overlooking downtown Denver and the foothills.

Directions: From the Boulder turnpike, take the Superior/Louisville exit (Highway 170). Turn left at the light on the exit ramp. Go over the highway and turn right at the second light. (Follow the signs for Eldorado Springs) 4.5 miles from the freeway exit you'll come to the intersection of Highway 170 and Highway 93. Go west across Highway 93. (There's a gas station here for gas and last minute snacks). About 1.7 miles from the intersection you should see the South Mesa trail sign and a parking lot on your right.

Web sites I used to plan this hike:

  • Protrails Web site.
  • City of Boulder's Web site on the South Mesa Trail head.

    Previous hiking reports:(lower elevation hikes have a star) Boulder: Caribou Ranch*, Mallory Cave*, Marshall Mesa,Heil Valley Ranch* Forsythe Canyon*, 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

    South Boulder Peak trail map

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