Get Outside! To Top Of Bear Peak

Loop Trail Takes Hikers To One Of 3 Highest Peaks In Boulder

The basics: Bear Peak, 8,461 feet Boulder Open Space & Mountain Peak Trailhead: NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) Distance: 7.6 miles (a mistake added another 2.2 miles to my day) Directions: See below

The good: Close to town The views from the top Forest setting Plenty of parking at the trailhead Strenuous hike

The bad: Strenuous hike Very steep at the top

When you look at the Boulder Flatirons, there are three major peaks: South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak and Green Mountain. Today's goal was the middle peak, Bear Peak, 8,461 feet up. It's quite a climb. From the trailhead at the NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the trail is going to climb over 2,000 feet in about 3 1/2 miles.

NCAR is easy to reach. From the Boulder Turnpike driving into Boulder, exit Foothills Parkway/Table Mesa. Follow the signs for Table Mesa and head West toward the foothills. Table Mesa goes all the way to NCAR, ending at the parking lot, which also serves as the trailhead. As you face the building, go to the right side and follow the nature trail (Walter Orr-Roberts Weather trail) to the sign for the Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail is a major thoroughfare in the Boulder foothills. It starts south at Eldorado Springs Drive (the road into Eldorado canyon) and snakes its way North to the Flatirons. To get the Mesa Trail, you'll need to drop down a bit off the NCAR plateau. Then head back up the trail to a Water tower and back down to the main part of the Mesa trail.

Here you actually have options. You can go north to Chautauqua, south towards Eldorado (and Bear Peak) or west towards Mallory Cave. While Mallory Cave is a short detour, just six-tenths of the a mile, it is closed from April 1 to Oct. 1 to protect bats in the area.

So head south. This is a nice jaunt downhill to let you warm up for the climb ahead. After about one mile of total hiking distance, you'll come to a junction with a sign pointing you towards Eldorado or Bear Mountain Drive. Do not make the mistake I made and head for Bear Mountain.

Watch for this sign and make the turn toward Eldorado. This will take you east to a neighborhood and it's a roundtrip of 2.2 miles out of your way. Go towards Eldorado. Within a few minutes you'll see the sign indicating the Mesa trail is entering Bear Canyon. This is what you want. You'll follow the road up about .3 of a mile to the trail junction to the actual Bear Canyon. Turn right here and hike under the huge electrical lines-- you'll be following those up the canyon for awhile. This is also where the serious elevation change begins.

Taking the Bear Canyon trail to Bear Peak means a slower elevation gain; the trail takes 3.5 miles to get to the top. There is another option. You can follow the Mesa trail another tenth of a mile to the Fern Canyon trail. That trail also takes you to the top of Bear Peak, but it's much steeper, getting you to the top in just 1.4 miles. I and most others on the trail chose Bear Canyon.

As you're hiking up Bear Canyon, you'll feel much further away from the city than you actually are. There are nice rock formations to look at, the trail crosses Bear Creek several times, there are large trees and shade; it's very peaceful.

Expect to see other hikers, trail runners and people with dogs. This trail can be busy, but I also found long periods of solitude as I hiked this section in the afternoon.

After hiking 1.7 miles up Bear Canyon (the total distance three miles for most people, 5.2 for me with my wrong turn), you'll come to another trail junction. Now your options are Bear Peak, 1.8 miles, or Green Mountain, 1 mile. Feel free to take the Green Bear trail to Green Mountain, then return to this trail junction and head for Bear Peak.

This is where the hike gets really interesting. At this point you start getting occasional views of Bear Peak (the one to the left from this side) and South Boulder Peak (the one to the right from this side). I really wondered if I was going to make it to the top. Both of those mountains looked much higher than where I was. So I keep slogging along. One step after another, a few short drops and some long climbs, and you get to the last section of climbing to Bear Peak. It's not easy here. This is a steep, twisty trail that is very rocky. Start climbing. Take a lot of breaks. Drink a lot of water. When you get to the scree rocks, you know you're getting close. This is the scree field you climb through on the backside of Bear Peak. I had a big black bird watching me from the top, I kept wondering if he was laughing or just wanted to know if I was going to take his spot on top.

Just before the summit, there's a trail sign directing you towards South Boulder Peak and Shadow Canyon; that's an option. Not the one I wanted, so I turned around and kept climbing the scree. Within a couple minutes I saw the sign pointing towards Fern Canyon or the summit. I took the summit.

Wow. What a view from the top! Make sure you have your camera. Also, be prepared for some scrambling. You'll need to do some scrambling/climbing to get to the actual peak. Looking east, enjoy the views back to your car at NCAR, some 2000 feet below. The view from Bear Peak looking back towards the trailhead at NCAR. You can look across the Eastern plains past Boulder, to downtown Denver and beyond depending on the weather. Turn around and enjoy the views to the west; mountain peaks, Eldora ski resort and Gross reservoir. Try to pick out various landmarks. Also take a look over at Green Mountain to your north and South Boulder Peak to your south, decide if you'd like to summit one of those.

After a snack, photos and a rest, it was time to head down. It seemed many hikers chose to return via Bear Canyon. The elevation change is much easier on the body if you take Bear Canyon. I decided I wanted to see something different and headed for Fern Canyon. It was getting late in the afternoon, 4 p.m., but I was still surprised to only see two people in the next 1.4 miles. I think that tells you just how tough this trail is. Expect steep sections where it's tough not to slip on the rocks and hard-packed dirt.

Fern Canyon is also a treat. It's a narrow canyon that's very lush. Lots of trees, shrubs, vegetation. There are rock formations where you may spot a climber depending what time of year you hike. The climbing routes are closed part of the year to protect nesting areas, while the hiking trail remains open. This is a nice place to be in the heat of the day.

Pass the Shanahan Trail junction and continue back to the Mesa Trail, past the Bear Canyon turnoff, back to the sign saying Mesa Trail, NCAR. At this point, you're just pme mile from the trailhead.

Bear Peak is a great hike if you can handle the elevation change. I saw trail runners with no gear or water and hikers with full packs. Bring a lot of water; you'll be glad you did.

  • For a map of the NCAR hiking trails, click here.

  • For a list of the trails starting at NCAR, click here.

    As always, if you have questions, comments or hiking suggestions, E-mail me

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