Love hiking? Then you have got to plan a visit to Boulder, Colorado! As many of you know, I’ve lived in Boulder for about a year and a half now, and I am constantly singing her praises. This town has it all: charm, mountains, numerous microbreweries, a reservoir where you can swim and paddle, good food, walkable and bikable streets… I could go on. But most importantly (to me), Boulder has some incredible trails, both within the city limits and only a short drive away.
I absolutely live for summer in Colorado! The trails are just unmatched in most other places I’ve been before, and I’ve spent the vast majority of my free time since moving here exploring them. I’ve learned a great deal about where to go and when (though I’m definitely still learning and always open to suggestions!); some you can hike all year round, while others very quickly turn into snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails as soon as the first snow hits up in the mountains (which could be as early as September or October). For the sake of this article, I’d like to share five of the best summer hikes that I’ve found within an hour of Boulder. I’m sure that my list of favorites will continue to evolve, but this is a start. Some are accessible in winter as straight up hikes (as opposed to snowshoeing), but most are not, so be sure to do some research first if you’re looking to do them in other seasons.
King Lake Trail
Hiking to King Lake was one of those beautiful, serendipitous occasions where I was aiming for another trailhead and destination entirely, but circumstances threw me off course and brought me here. And boy was I happy that things worked out the way they did. On this particular day, my hiking buddy Carolyn and I were intending to hike out of the 4th of July trailhead in Eldora. However, upon arriving at 7:45 am, we found the trailhead to be completely full and a Forest Service ranger sitting at the entrance of the parking lot waiting to hand out tickets. After debating whether to just park illegally and risk paying the ticket in order to get our planned hike in, we dejectedly decided to be responsible citizens and turned the car around and headed back toward Nederland. En route, we passed by the Hessie Trailhead, which is typically even more busy than the 4th of July trailhead. But as luck would have it, we found a parking spot only about a quarter mile down the road, so we decided to snag it. Once arriving at Hessie Trailhead on foot, we took a quick look at the map, eyeing two lakes that we had not been to before: King Lake and Woodland Lake. On a whim, I chose King Lake as it was a bit longer and I had some steam to blow off from the unsuccessful ride out to 4th of July mixed with some too-strong coffee that morning.
This out-and-back hike was an absolute delight, and the destination was a dream. The trail took us on an easy, six-mile(ish) gradual climb up to the lake through beautiful pine forest. The trail followed a roaring creek of snowmelt, and fields of yellow wildflowers distracted us from any monotony. The last three-quarters of a mile had a bit of a steeper grade, some slushy snow to slosh through (yes, even in the summer), and a (very cold) creek crossing, but we were rewarded for the extra work by reaching the absolutely stunning King Lake—crystal clear and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was the perfect place to grab a quick bite and take in the view before turning around and continuing on back to the car.
Bonus: we barely saw another soul on the trail all day, which was a pleasant surprise given the popularity of the trailhead. Even at the lake, we only had to share the view with a few other people.
Trail length: 12.2 miles roundtrip from the Hessie Trailhead, according to AllTrails.
Driving distance from Central Boulder: 59 minutes.
Getting there: You can find directions to this trail, as well as the others mentioned in this post, from AllTrails. This one begins at the Hessie Trailhead in Eldora, which also comes up when you search in Google Maps and Apple Maps.
Additional information: Boulder County provides information on where to park, how to shuttle if need be, and more.
Lake Isabelle Trail
The Lake Isabelle Trail begins at one of my very favorite local hiking areas: Brainard Lake Recreation Area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area features several insanely gorgeous trails (another of which I’ll mention in this article), a campground, several alpine lakes, and the Indian Peaks which inspire the name of the wilderness. Bonus: it’s known locally as a great place to spot moose (your best bets are near the lakes at dawn and dusk, and I don’t need to tell you to respect the space of these massive creatures).
The trail to Lake Isabelle begins at the Long Lake parking area. From there, you’ll hike a mild mile to Long Lake, and keep right when the Jean Lunning trail splits off to the left, which you’ll pass twice. The Jean Lunning trail takes you around Long Lake, which is a nice option to get some new scenery on the way back from Lake Isabelle. From Long Lake, it’s just over a mile to Lake Isabelle. Again, this is mostly an easy, benign trail that meanders through pine forest and patches of wildflowers, and across a trickling creek here and there. You’ll catch a view of Navajo, Apache, and Shoshoni peaks as you approach the lake, according to ProTrails, as Lake Isabelle sits in their valley.
At the very last bit of trail before the lake, you do have to cross a rather tricky, slippery creek, but take it slow (and use trekking poles if you have them) and you’ll soon be seated in front of one of the most gorgeous lakes I’ve ever seen. As you approach the lake, keep a watch to your right, and you may see marmots scurrying about in the rock fall.
This is a fantastic out-and-back hike to take visitors on as it is little effort for a great reward, and those not yet used to elevation should be able to handle it with ease.
Trail length: 4.2 miles roundtrip according to ProTrails
Driving distance from Central Boulder: 50 minutes.
Getting there: Head up to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and begin your hike at the Long Lake Trailhead.
Additional information: There is an $12 fee to enter Brainard Lake Recreation area. You must pay this in cash or have an annual national parks pass. Note: the road to the trailhead is only open seasonally from about mid-June to mid-October, so be sure to check and make sure it’s open before you go.
Although not my absolute favorite of Boulder’s five peaks (that award goes to South Boulder, which you can easily add on to this hike for only an addition 0.6 miles), I’m including Bear Peak on this list because it’s probably the most dramatic and picturesque, and is certainly a local favorite. I will warn you, this peak is challenging, so if you’re out of shape or not used to elevation, just give yourself more time than you might think you need, as well as lots of breaks and grace. (It’s hard for me and I live here!).
There are a few different routes you can take, but I think the most straightforward begins at the South Mesa Trailhead. You can make a loop from here. Take the Mesa Trail for about 1.3 miles until the Shadow Canyon Trail veers off to the left, which you will then follow. The Mesa Trail is a moderately difficult, wide trail that provides you with some nice views of the Flatirons. Once you move on to the Shadow Canyon Trail, this is where things get more difficult. The trail gets steeper, rockier, and just plain more challenging for the next 2.2 miles to the top of the canyon. From here, the trail splits. If you go left, you’ll climb another 0.3 miles to South Boulder Peak (which has incredible views and smaller crowds, by the way). Go right here to reach Bear Peak; it’s just 0.3 miles to the top. Once you’re close, you might sit and wonder if you’re really supposed to keep climbing up the steep rock. The answer is yes, but proceed with caution of course. Don’t forget to look back as you’re climbing, as the rock of Bear Peak towering up over Boulder provides a dramatic view that you wouldn’t want to miss, and makes the laborious climb worth it.
Take the Fern Canyon Trail down from here (which is steeper but less rocky than Shadow Canyon) until it hits the Mesa Trail once again. Take the Mesa Trail southeast back to the trailhead. There tend to be a lot of birds in this area, so if you are a birder, this will likely be an area you’ll enjoy!
Trail length: About 8 miles.
Driving distance from Central Boulder: 16 minutes.
Getting there: Park at Boulder’s South Mesa Trailhead and take the Mesa Trail from there.
Additional information: Find trail maps and descriptions at the Boulder Open Space Mountain Park (OSMP) website. Note: Boulder gets HOT in the summer and we also get a lot of afternoon thunderstorms, so I’d recommend starting this one early in the morning!
Okay okay, my GPS actually says this trailhead is an hour and four minutes from my apartment in Central Boulder, but it’s too good not to include just because of a measly little four minutes of extra driving time. Let me first say, this hike is amazing. And then let me say that it is always harder than I expect, because it’s on the shorter side at only 6.5 miles, but it does pack a punch.
The Crater Lakes out-and-back hike begins at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal Trailhead in the James Peak Wilderness in the Roosevelt National Forest in Rollinsville, Colorado. This is a lovely forested trail that features wildflowers, mountain views, and, once you reach the top, twin alpine lakes! As you begin at the East Portal Trailhead, take the Boulder Creek Trail for 2.2 miles until the Crater Lakes Trail splits off to the right, which you’ll then take. From here, you have just over a mile to the lakes. This trail is fairly steep (though very much doable), but it is definitely worth it to get up to Crater Lakes!
Once you’ve hit the lakes (one off to the left of the trail and one off to the right), you’ll have the option to continue straight on the trail. While the trail goes straight up the side of the mountain, I’d highly recommend taking it as you’ll be rewarded with some incredible views of the lakes below. I’m told if you continue to the very top, you’ll hit an upper lake, though I have not personally ascended that far. This mountainside is a favorite place of mine to take photos of wildflowers when they’re in bloom. They just look so stunning with the lakes in the backdrop! I have also seen moose in this area (a family of four!), though not on this trail.
Trail length: 6.5 miles (add on a little more if you continue on to the upper lake)
Driving distance from Central Boulder: 1 hour and 4 minutes
Getting there: Start at the Moffat Tunnel East Portal Trailhead in the James Peak Wilderness
Additional information: The forest service provides driving directions and further information on their website.
Blue Lake is another out-and-back hike that begins at the Brainard Lake Recreation area (so once again, do not forget your $12 entrance fee). This one is just as spectacularly gorgeous as the Lake Isabelle Trail, but it begins at a separate trailhead (the Mitchell Lake Trailhead) and is longer (6.2 miles roundtrip versus Lake Isabelle’s 4.2) and definitely harder. If you’re debating taking visitors that are not used to elevation to either Blue or Isabelle, I’d go with Isabelle.
This hike takes you to two large alpine lakes—Mitchell, first, then on to Blue—as well as past some smaller ponds and rushing streams. The wildflowers along this route pop brilliantly in the summer, marmots abound among the rocky hills that you’ll climb, and you will not be lacking for incredible scenery. If you’re tempted to turn around after Mitchell, don’t! Blue Lake is aptly named and worth the trek. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts by a sapphire blue alpine lake surrounded by snow-dotted mountains. It’s an Instagram-worth place if I’ve ever seen one!
Note: Brainard Lake gets incredibly crowded on the weekends, so I’d recommend only going during the week.
Trail length: 6.2 miles roundtrip according to AllTrails.
Driving distance from Central Boulder: 50 minutes.
Getting there: Head up to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and begin your hike at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead.
Additional information: There is an $12 fee to enter Brainard Lake Recreation area. You must pay this in cash or have an annual national parks pass. Note: the road to this trailhead is open seasonally from mid-June to mid-October, so be sure to check to make sure it’s open before you go.