The Best Things To Do in Boulder, Colorado: Hiking Trails, Where to Eat and Where to Stay
July 20, 2021
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Boulder, Colorado is an incredible city known for its vibrant downtown areas dedicated to pedestrians, iconic flatiron rock formations overlooking the city and a major historic university. The city is often overshadowed by Denver to the southeast and Rocky Mountain National Park to the northwest, but you can’t skip out on Boulder during your Colorado vacation. During your visit, be sure to hike a trail or two, explore the restaurants and shops along Pearl Street and visit the lovely Boulder Falls. This guide includes some of Boulder’s best hiking trails, stunning scenic drives, delicious vegetarian-friendly restaurants and a unique place to stay during your trip.
Are you visiting Denver in addition to Boulder? Check out my guide for visiting Denver.
Basecamp Boulder is a unique hotel that evokes a feeling of adventure with outdoors-inspired details. The rooms are simple but include some camp-like touches. You’ll find a cooler instead of a mini fridge, a yellow lantern, a book about Colorado and a warm blanket with a pop of orange. The rec room attached to the lobby is especially impressive. It includes a rock climbing wall, table tennis, picnic tables and a fireplace. Outside, there is comfortable outdoor seating and fire pits where you can roast marshmallows (s’mores kits are available for purchase.) There is also a bar with great deals at Happy Hour. Finally, there is a well-designed indoor sauna and hot tub for all guests to use. This unique hotel is perfect for families or anyone looking for an adventurous yet simple hotel as a basecamp for outdoor adventures.
In addition to the standard room at Basecamp Boulder, they offer a “Great Indoors” room. It includes four twin beds sunk into the ground with mountains on the walls and a green carpet that feels like the forest floor. It’s like camping without going outside!
- $10 per vehicle entry
- 20 minutes outside of Boulder
- You can only fill up water inside of the visitor center and it has limited hours
- There are many picnic areas available
- No camping is allowed in the park
- Dogs are allowed on leash
Eldorado Canyon is a stunning state park full of adventure and incredible views. The park’s small scenic road follows Boulder Creek through the park with rocky pink ledges rising up on both sides. The park is a premier rock climbing destination and has over 500 technical climbing routes. It is also the perfect place for a picnic; there are at least 10 large picnic areas along the creek that include tables, grills and beautiful views (arrive early to get a spot).
There are two separate units of the park: the Inner Canyon area and the Crescent Meadows Area. Crescent Meadows is undeveloped and reached by either a 4.5 mile hike or a 30 minute drive.
There are three main trails in the Inner Canyon portion of Eldorado: the Fowler Trail, Eldorado Canyon Trail and Crags Hotel Ruins, and Continental Divide Trail. The Fowler Trail is the most family friendly trail with a wide path and no technical areas. The trail totals 4 miles out and back but the most scenic part of the trail is in the first half of the hike, so feel free to turn back early. The trail has amazing views of the rocky canyon and you may see rock climbers on the iconic Bastille Crack as you pass.
The Crags Hotels Ruins and Continental Divide Trail begins at the same trailhead of the Fowler Trail but you’ll soon turn off of the Fowler Trail and begin climbing. The trail is 2.9 miles with 728 feet of elevation gain. You will first reach the ruins of the Crags Hotel; a hotel from the early 1900’s that burnt down in 1912. A little further, there is an amazing view of the Continental Divide.
The Eldorado Canyon Trail is 6.6 miles with 1,994 feet of elevation gain. It has lots of ups and downs that make it a workout. There are beautiful views throughout the hike and a flowing river when you reach the end. Beware that it is common to see mountain lions on this trail.
Eldorado Canyon State Park is absolutely worth visiting for anyone who loves hiking and exploring the outdoors! If you need to fill up on gas, water and snacks, go to the Eldorado Corner Market, a quirky gas station with an interesting display of animal statues and wacky vehicles. The town outside of Eldorado Canyon, Eldorado Springs, does not have services.
I visited Eldorado Canyon on a weekday and the crowds weren’t bad. However, it gets very crowded on weekends and holidays. Use the park shuttle offered on weekends (it goes all the way to Boulder with other stops along the way) or arrive very early to get a parking spot.
- Free entry, paid parking on the weekends
- Six minutes from downtown Boulder
- Restrooms and water available
- No camping is allowed
- Dogs are allowed on leash
Chautauqua Park is another popular and beautiful hiking area that has access to the Flatirons. The park dates back to when Boulder first began protecting lands in 1898! To reach the park, there is a parking lot that has a fee on weekends and is free on weekdays. As a result of the crowds, there is a free shuttle to Chautauqua that has several stops around Boulder; it operates on weekends and holidays.
At the trailhead parking lot, there is a Ranger Cottage with maps and helpful park rangers. The cottage also has an exhibit of the wildlife in the area. In addition, you’ll find restrooms and water available.
Several different trails radiate out from Chautauqua Park. I hiked a loop beginning on the Bluebell Trail and ending on the Meadow Loop. The trail climbs up towards the flatirons and is partly in a forest and partly in a meadow. Parts of the trail also have beautiful views of downtown Boulder in the distance. In July, the meadow was full of beautiful wildflowers and the scenery was fantastic. One trail that you can add onto this loop is the Royal Arch trail. The trail has some steep elevation gain but leads to a beautiful arch and amazing views. Unfortunately, it is closed for maintenance through fall 2021.
Another beautiful and relatively easy loop trail that begins from the Bluebell Trail is the loop that includes the Woods Quarry Trail and Enchanted Mesa. This route is 3.1 miles with 698 feet elevation gain. The Enchanted Mesa Trail will guide you through a dense pine forest with beautiful views of the flatirons, while the Wood’s Quarry trail will take you past an abandoned sandstone quarry.
If you are up for a bit more of a challenge, the First and Second Flatirons Loop trail will take you right up to the two most iconic flatiron rocks. This trail is 2.7 miles with 1,427 feet of elevation gain. You will once again begin on the Bluebell trail but as you reach the flatirons, it will become a rocky scramble to the top. You will need to use your hands to do a little bit of climbing but there are hand and foot holds to help you out.
No matter which trail you take, Chautauqua is the perfect starting point for many hiking adventures close to town.
- Five Minutes from Boulder
- Free entry
- Bathrooms at trailhead but no water
- Dogs allowed on leash
The Red Rocks are located just a couple of minutes west from the center of Boulder. I parked at the Centennial Trailhead to the north, but trails also begin at Settler’s Park to the south. There are several trail options but I did the quick and easy Red Rock Spur Trail (0.6 miles and 206 feet of elevation gain). The trail leads you to incredible giant red boulders that you can climb around and explore. On the opposite side of the red rocks, there is an expansive view of the town of Boulder with the flatirons in the background.
For more of a challenge, cross the street from the Red Rocks Spur Loop and journey up to Mount Sanitas. The loop trail is 3.2 miles with 1,256 feet of elevation gain. The trail is a steep climb but you’ll be rewarded with great views of Boulder.
- 17 minutes from Boulder
- Dogs allowed on leash
- No bathrooms or water available at trailhead
After a scenic drive up towards the flations on Flagstaff Road, you’ll reach the trailhead for the Green Mountain West Trail. The trail is 4.1 miles with 721 feet of elevation gain. The trail is mostly easy until a steep climb in the last half mile. At the summit, you’ll have incredible views of the Rocky Mountains to the west and nearby Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak.
- Parking fees are required for most of the viewpoints and trailheads along Flagstaff Road. They can be purchased at self-service stations for $5 a day.
Flagstaff Road is a gorgeous drive towards the iconic Boulder flatirons. The scenic road has several viewpoints where you can pull off and enjoy the views.
Panorama Point overlooks the University of Colorado Boulder and has several picnic tables. It offers an amazing view of Boulder and is beautiful for a sunset or sunrise.
Artist’s Point provides a stunning view of the mountains. The overlook is a short walk from the parking lot. It is near the Flagstaff Nature Center and has lots of picnic tables. It’s a beautiful place to watch a sunset or sunrise.
The Lost Gulch Overlook is a short walk from a parking lot and offers a rocky overlook with mountain views in the distance. It’s a popular place for photography.
Boulder Canyon Road is a beautiful drive west of Boulder most known for Boulder Falls. The waterfall is about 15 minutes from town and a quick 100 yard walk from the parking area. It’s about 70 feet high and surrounded by a towering canyon and tall ponderosa pines. It’s a great quick stop for families.
You’ll need to cross Boulder Canyon Road to reach the waterfall. Be sure to watch carefully for oncoming traffic.
If you continue west on the Boulder Canyon Road, you’ll reach the town of Nederland just 10 minutes from Boulder Falls. This quirky small town is known for a cryogenically frozen man (he has been frozen and preserved since 1993), a carousel made of hand-carved animals, great restaurants and more. The town plays homage to the frozen dead guy annually at the Frozen Dead Guys Days festival.
Pearl Street is located in the center of historic downtown Boulder and includes four blocks that are closed to traffic and only open for pedestrians. The street is lined with sculptures, street performers, shaded benches and many shops and restaurants. Be sure to stop at the Boulder Bookstore, a three-level shop with over 100,000 book titles. When you’re ready for a refreshing treat, visit Gelato Boy, a gelato shop with local ingredients and real Italian roots.
Boxcar Coffee Roasters is a roastery that serves great coffee on Pearl Street. The shop shares a storefront with a gourmet grocery store and has a great atmosphere and an impressive custom espresso machine. In addition to coffee, they also serve a variety of baked goods. I had a spinach feta croissant with everything seasoning and it was delicious.
Lucile’s is a creole restaurant with six locations around Colorado. It was established in 1980 after the first chef received their training at a famous New Orleans restaurant. The Boulder location is located in a cute, old house and has ample outdoor seating. Be sure to order the beignets along with your selection of items like the Cajun breakfast or Shrimp and grits.
The service at Lucile’s was fantastic and I appreciated that the drip coffee came served in giant mugs.
Rincon Argentino is a family-owned restaurant that was started by a couple with both Argentinian and Colorado roots. They serve a wide selection of empanadas along with sandwiches and gluten free empanada pies. I really appreciated the amount of vegetarian empanadas options on the menu and enjoyed the caprese the most. The restaurant has a large patio with outdoor seating to relax and enjoy your empanada selections.
The Organic Sandwich Company is a casual restaurant on Pearl Street with a large variety of sandwiches for sale. They have a large selection of vegan and vegetarian options too. I loved the spicy veggie sandwich which included avocado, house-made giardiniera, caramelized onions and more on a pretzel loaf.
The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse is a traditional teahouse with ornate and beautiful details. The teahouse was gifted to the City of Boulder from Dushanbe, Tajikistan and was rebuilt along the Boulder Creek. They have a premium selection of tea and also serve a large menu of brunch, lunch, dinner and dessert.
There are many highly rated breweries in Boulder and you can’t go wrong whichever you pick. I visited Avery Brewing Company, which has a gigantic tap room, a large food menu and a long list of eccentric beers. The beer menu has something for everyone with IPA’s, seltzers, sours, lagers and more. The brewery has a huge patio space that is perfect for dogs and also offers tours to learn about the brewery process.
Are you visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in combination with your trip to Boulder? Check out my guide to visiting the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park.
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