Get Outside! Hiking Mallory Cave

A Hike With A Little Climbing Adventure At The End

Distance: 2.5-3 miles roundtrip Elevation Gain: 1,026 feet Location: NCAR, Boulder (specific directions below) Trailhead: Lots of parking, not much else Price: Free Dog rules: Dogs allowed on leash. To go off leash, see Boulder Mountain parks rules

The hike to Mallory cave has been on my "to do" list for a long time, but I always consider going in April or May while I'm waiting for the high country to melt out. But that doesn't work because the cave is closed from April 1 to Oct. 1 to protect nesting bats. This year I found the right time -- a warm and dry day in November.

The hike is along the Mesa trail in the foothills of Boulder. The trailhead is at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, just 3.5 miles off the Boulder Turnpike.

From the parking lot, face the building and walk along the right or north side. You'll see signs for the Mesa Trail and the Walter Orr Roberts Nature Trail. The hike starts along the nature trail. Take the time to read the signs that explain Colorado's weather, including the brown cloud.

Watch for the trailhead sign saying "Welcome to NCAR Mesa." It has a map and an arrow pointing you away from the nature trail and down a trail.

Follow the trail down about 30 feet, then up a couple switchbacks to a water tank and a bit further to a trail split. Here you'll find a big sign saying Mesa Trail. North: Skunk Canyon, Flatirons, Chautauqua Meadow. South: Bear Canyon, Shanahan Ridge and Mesa Trailhead. (Notice, it doesn't say anything about Mallory Cave.)

I decided to try the "North trail." That was a mistake. I ended up hiking down a hill out of my way. Fortunately, at the next trail split, I decided to turn back south. That trail took me to the Mallory cave trail. If you take the "South trail", you'll get to the Mallory cave turnoff in about a tenth of a mile.

This is a pretty area. As you get higher on the trail, there are lots of large rocks and you'll be hiking in and out of the trees. It must have been my day to get lost. About a mile from the trailhead, I took a big 180-degree turn and hiked up a hill. Next thing I know I'm on a trail, but I'm ducking under trees and going down. Fortunately, I ended up right back on the main trail and just started hiking up again. As I was looking around trying to figure out where I went wrong, some hikers passed me and I spotted the turn I missed. A rock area along the trail that was fun to climb

About 1.2 miles from the trailhead, you'll come to a rock formation. This can be a fun place for some climbing. Just remember, never go up anything you can't come back down.

From here, the trail winds between two rock formations, which means it becomes a series of short switchbacks. Lots and lots of switchbacks. The last 0.3 of a mile to the cave climbs about 350 feet in elevation.

This area is very nice. While it's a bit of a tough hike, you can stop and catch your breath often and enjoy the views of the colorful rock formations. At one point, the trail goes right between two large rocks.

I was pretty surprised when I got to the end of the "trail." There was a large rock wall and several people climbing up and down. Some of them had small children! There was even a sign saying "Mallory Cave trail" on a wall of rock with an arrow pointing you up the rock wall. The rock wall you have climb to get to Mallory Cave.

Well, if it's that way, I figured why not? Now you may notice in my photo that I found people climbing the right and left side of the rock wall. It turns out, only one of the two people on the left side made it up that way. The girl turned around, came down and climbed up the right side. I figured if 3- and 5-year-old children could do this, I had to give it a try. Because I did this hike by myself I knew if I went up, it was going to be up to me to get back down.

There are some decent hand holds, but it was a bit scary. I wouldn't suggest doing this in the winter or when it's icy or wet. One article I read said you don't need a rope, but you will find some challenging footwork. I agree. I don't think I would take small children, but that's up to you.

At the top of the rock wall is a boulder/choke stone of sorts. You can shimmy under it on the left side or climb over part of it on the right side. I saw people doing both. I did the crawl. You'll likely have to take your pack off to fit through it.

One of the other climbers told me if you come during the closure season, this is as far as you can get.

Since it was after Oct. 1, I continued on. After the boulder, there's one more short climb to the cave entrance. The entrance to Mallory Cave

Mallory Cave is surprisingly small. I brought a head lamp so I could explore inside. You really don't need one. There were two dark corners. To look around inside, just close your eyes for about 10-15 seconds in the dark, when you open your eyes, you'll be able to see better. Having a head lamp did make it easier to take pictures inside.

Several articles mentioned the graffiti and damage inside the cave. Fortunately, I didn't see any, but I wasn't looking for it either. I was looking at the rocks, the ceiling and the cave. You don't see many caves along the Front Range so I enjoyed it for what it was. Surprisingly, most people who made that crazy climb just looked inside the cave for a few seconds and left. Many didn't even step inside. It's been a dry year so I didn't hear any water dripping inside, but others say they have.

As you exit the cave, enjoy the views of the city below. Then it's time to head back down the challenging rock climb. When I went down, I was the only one on the rock wall. That was nice, but it also meant I didn't have anyone to ask for help or watch. There were people below waiting to go up, so I figured I just needed to be careful and keep moving. I was pretty happy when I got to the bottom. Inside Mallory cave

I was surprised and pleased to find a little adventure at the end of this hike. The trail isn't very long, only about 1.3 to 1.5 miles each way, if you go the right way. I found it to be a moderate trail with about 1,000 feet elevation gain, but I also found lots of families hiking the trail with small children.

If you want more hiking, you can turn on the Mesa Trail and go north or south for several miles.

As always, I welcome your comments on my article and questions about hiking in Colorado. With colder weather coming, I welcome your advice on low elevation hikes with some scenery. Just email me at

Directions: From the Boulder turnpike (Highway 36) West, take the Table Mesa /Foothills Parkway exit. At the "V", follow the signs for Table Mesa. At the light, turn left for Table Mesa. Be careful at the very next light, I caught the sign that warned "red light enforcement camera immediately ahead." While Table Mesa will take you all the way to the NCAR parking lot, watch the signs. There are two places where the left lane must turn left. The speed limit also drops to 25 mph in the neighborhood. Table Mesa ends in the NCAR parking lot.

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

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