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Published: September 15th 2008
Distance ~ 5 miles
As I’ve mentioned before, March weather in Colorado is inconsistent at best. Nice days without rain or snow tend to be few and far between. After an unusually warm first day of the month, winter took over again, and the hiking would have to wait. Warmer weather finally returned at the end of the month, so my dad and I decided to play hooky and head up to the Boulder for my second (his first) hike of the year. We were greeted by beautiful clear skies and a light wind that kept this moderate hike very comfortable.
The South Mesa Trailhead is a very popular area at the southern end of the city of Boulder’s open space territory, just east of Eldorado Canyon State Park. The trailhead represents the southern terminus of the 6.7 mile Mesa Trail, which runs the length of the open space all the way up to Chautauqua Park and the Flat Irons. Dozens of trails branch off of the Mesa Trail, providing hikers with seemingly unlimited options to explore the rolling hills, meadows, and towering rock formations above Boulder. The South Mesa Trailhead provides a nice alternative to the
usually congested area to the north and provides options for hikers of just about any skill level. That said; don’t be too surprised if parking is hard to come by on nice summer days!
The web of trails that start at the South Mesa Trailhead allow hikers to create their own routes depending on the chosen difficulty level. My hike description follows an on-average moderate, 5-mile route that travels up into the shadows of the southern Flat Iron formations and offers some great views of the Boulder Valley. There are numerous other options outside of this description, so don’t feel like you are limited to my route.
Starting at the trailhead, the Mesa Trail travels north, immediately crossing South Boulder Creek. On the left is the well-preserved Doudy-Debacker-Dunn House and the turn-offs for the Homestead and Towhee Trails. My route continues along the Mesa Trail for about a half mile before reaching a spur that connects with the Towhee Trail. As it begins its over 1 mile climb up the wider part of Shadow Canyon, the Towhee Trail gradually gets steeper and steeper. The trail parallels a seasonal creek, coming right up to its banks before one last
steep push up to the intersection with the Homestead Trail. After 0.2 mile, the Homestead Trail comes to a junction where hikers can either head east for 0.2 mile to the Mesa Trail or continue on along the Shadow Canyon Trail to the west. The trail here is much wider and continues along a steep grade until finally leveling off just below one of the prominent rock formations. The trail continues on over the seasonal creek to an intersection where the Shadow Canyon Trail heads to the northwest, while a 0.6 mile spur reconnects with the Mesa Trail. My route uses this spur, which climbs up the high point of the hike before descending steeply into a densely forested area. At the next intersection, hikers can choose to follow the Mesa Trail north or head back south to the trailhead. We decided to go north for a time past the turn-off to the Big Bluestem Trail before heading back to the trailhead. The route along the Mesa Trail back to the parking area is almost entirely downhill. There is no shade along the last roughly 1.5 miles.
A few note-worthy difficult destination hikes from the South Mesa Trailhead are
Chautauqua Park along the Mesa Trail (13.4 miles round-trip) and the difficult South Boulder Peak/Bear Peak hike through the upper part of Shadow Canyon. Hikers may want to consider using the Mesa Trail for a shuttle hike, where a car is left at either trailhead. The Mesa Trail can also be accessed via the NCAR Mesa Trailhead, about 4 miles to the north.
This area tends to get very hot during the summer months and there is little shade in the lower elevation meadows to the east. I personally prefer to visit this area during the spring or fall when the conditions are typically cooler and there is less of a threat of late-afternoon thunderstorms.
Directions: From the Denver area, take I-25 north to the Boulder Turnpike (US 36). Exit US 36 at the Louisville/Superior exit. Turn left and follow McCaslin Blvd. over US 36. Take the first right onto CO 170, which winds through a shopping area and briefly parallels US 36 before heading off to the west. CO 170 eventually crosses CO 93 at a stoplight. Continue on for approximately another mile until you come up on the South Mesa Trailhead on the right side of
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