Hiking The Flatirons in Boulder


If you love hiking and spending time outdoors, there’s a good chance that you’ve always dreamed of living in Boulder, Colorado.  There are a lot of reasons why this is, arguably, the perfect place to live, and that list begins with The Flatirons.  These are Boulder’s landmark mountains, rising up at the edge of town, marking a dramatic start to the Rocky Mountains that lie behind them.  And it’s even nicer when you realize that there are numerous trails that wind below, through, and above these jagged rocks — all of which you can hike for free.

Those hikes begin at the Colorado Chautauqua National Historic Landmark, at the western end of Baseline Road (which roughly marks the southern border of Boulder’s residential and business area).  I was so anxious to start my hike into the Flatirons, that I didn’t take the time to photograph the historic structures at Chautauqua, which was an educational retreat for adults that started in 1898.  Around that time, Chautauqua centers were popping up all around the country. Unlike most, Boulder’s Chautauqua has survived, and remains a place for appreciating nature, culture, music, and other forms of personal enrichment.

Park in the trailhead parking area that’s just inside the entrance to Chautauqua.  The trail you see in the photo above begins there, and leads you directly towards the Flatirons.

For my first hike on my first full day in Colorado, I had chosen the 1st/2nd Flatiron Trail, which leads to a gap between the two.  After that, I planned to hike on to Royal Arch, but a rain storm, complete with some small hail, caused me to scratch the second destination off my itinerary.

Hiking the 1st/2nd Flatiron Trail involves a lot of uphill huffing-and-puffing.  None of it is terribly difficult, but it was definitely enough to remind me that I wasn’t at home, at sea level, anymore.  I took a short detour off the main path, onto Bluebell Mesa Trail, hoping it would provide a nice viewpoint of the vast open-space in front of the Flatirons.

Beyond that viewpoint, though, the trail plunged into the trees, and it was a while before I saw another great view.

The 1st/2nd trail is an out-and-back that branches off the main Chautauqua trail.  This portion of the trail is 1 mile, round-trip, and when you combine it with the trail back to the car, you’re probably looking at a 3-mile hike, round-trip.  If I had been able to continue out to Royal Arch, it would have increased to about 5.5 miles.

Along the way, the trail passes by the foot of this scree slope — a steep landslide of big boulders.  The trail would cross it again, further up the hill.

There are also several side-trails that lead to rock-climbing areas…

… where more daring visitors can scale the sheer rock face of the Flatirons.

Heading up the 1st/2nd trail, I finally reached a good place to perch myself and enjoy a view.  This outcropping of rock requires a little bit of scrambling — nothing difficult, but you may need to use your hands.

With a couple of leaps of faith, you can find a relaxing spot that overlooks Boulder.  I think you can see Baseline Road in the upper-left corner of the photo.

At this spot, you’re at the bottom of the 2nd Flatiron.  The 3rd Flatiron seems pretty close, as well — but there will be even better views of it, up ahead.

After that great viewpoint, the trail spends more time in trees again…

… before slipping through this gap in the rocks.

Behind the gap is where you will find that great view of the 3rd Flatiron.  At least, it would have been great, if the clouds hadn’t been rolling in.

Just a bit further, and you reach the end of the trail.  At this spot, you’re in a saddle between the top of the First Flatiron and Sunset Rock.

Don’t forget to say hello to the wildlife…

… because they will certainly say hello to you.

From the saddle, you’ll have to backtrack down to the main trail, about a half-mile away.  From there, you could turn right, and head on out to Royal Arch.  When I reached that junction, it was thundering — and I knew that hiking in mountains in a thunderstorm wasn’t a smart idea.  Begrudgingly, I turned left instead of right, and headed back towards the trailhead.  Along the way, it rained, and occasionally hailed on me, leaving me pretty drenched by the time I reached the car.  The Flatirons remained cloudy for the rest of the day, so I headed to sunnier areas, just to the north.  Royal Arch remains on my to-do list, which I suppose is a good thing, because I need an excuse to go back to Boulder, that perfect town where the Rockies begin.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive into Boulder, out Baseline Road to Chautaqua and the Flatirons, then through town and out Sunshine Canyon:

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