It’s a breathtaking vantage point. From the South Mesa trailhead in Eldorado Springs, Colorado (a small community on the outskirts of Boulder), the beauty that is both South Boulder and Bear Peak comes into focus. From afar, it could be tough for anyone to gauge the steep and sometimes relentless struggle and incline this trek has to offer. But for anyone who has summited this beautiful spot, they know the return on your investment for this local thriller is worth the wait, and the hardship.
At 8,549 and 8,461 feet respectively, South Boulder and Bear Peak are the two highest points in Boulder. Their striking appearance is seen from near and far, yet, there is one feature that distinguishes the two. In 2012, the Flagstaff Fire, caused by a lightning strike, burned almost 300 acres, including the approach to the two peaks’ bases, as well as the saddle that separates them. The final third of this trek displays the tale-telling burnt remains — naked trees, appearing as mere recreational ghosts, fill the space around hikers. It is eerie, yet fascinating. On a gray, misty day, it is even eerier as the canyon showcases an almost graveyard-esque form.
On your drive to Eldorado Springs and the South Mesa Trailhead, you can find yourself admiring calming country backroads and mentally preparing for any of the unique peaks along the flatirons of Boulder. The “Flatirons” got their name because their formation resembles that of a flat, metal iron used to press clothes.
Arriving at the trailhead parking lot can sometimes be concerning, as it fills up quickly, rain or shine — most weekends by 9 a.m. But, rest assured, there is adjacent parking across the street at the Doudy Draw Trailhead, which typically serves as overflow for those attempting the Bear Peak or South Boulder Peak.
Although this is no Colorado 14er (that’s the name Colorado residents give to the 58 peaks above 14,000 feet and that typically start at 11,000 feet), this is still Colorado, and this hike serves as great practice for many higher altitude summits. At 5,328 feet above sea level, Boulder is in fact a mile high. Plenty of night-before water consumption is strongly suggested alongside healthy stretching to avoid cramps and other injuries. Locals and Bear and South Boulder enthusiasts will tell you 2.5 to 3 liters of water is necessary for this climb.
Heading to the summit
It’s a scenic start at the South Mesa trailhead, as a calm creek ripples beneath a bridge that symbolizes your entrance into this hiking haven. The backdrop of Flatirons surround you as you make the ascent, and you have the opportunity to look back at an open Boulder.
Be assured, it’s no walk in the park.
Even out of the gate, the altitude clings to you and makes hard work out of flatter land. It’s not all challenge and struggle, however. Wild flowers, open plains, and the historic Dunn House, which was built in 1875 by John DeBacker, still stands as a cultural resource.
There are several routes to reach both of these landmark peaks: among them the Homestead Trail and the challenging Shanahan North Fork. Yet, a trip through Shadow Canyon provides the beauty and contrast between plain, forest, and the burnt oasis that awaits you at the final stretch. Thicker forest leads through roughly 2 miles of Stairmaster fun.
The heart pounding, soul searching adventure of Shadow Canyon is one to remember as you search for the end of the tunnel, reaching the light. Pay close attention as there are no trail markers once you have made it to the base of Shadow Canyon. It truly is an adventurers path through enchanted Colorado nature filled with stone staircases, boulders and careful footsteps around handfuls of tree roots.
Then up to the saddle you go! Trees start to thin, and you can sense that the way out of the woods is coming near. Once the first switchback is reached as the green treeline disappears beneath you, it’s a fresh breath and you can kiss goodbye the greenery. However, you’ll meet it again on the way back down.
Onward to South Boulder Peak for a continued desolate landscape of thinned trees before heading up to Bear Peak for some added rock scrambling and climbing. The scrambling atop Bear Peak is a common gathering point for hikers as it provides one last ounce of adventure and careful consideration to strategically maneuver past boulders and find yourself among the birds, staring back down on the front range floor with a snow-capped mountain range view in the distance.
Congratulations! You have summitted and completed this joyous day trek to the tops of South Boulder and Bear Peak. Congratulatory trail snacks and relaxation are in order!
Ian Marcus is an outdoor writer based in Colorado and is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He shares his passion for the outdoors and conservation with everyone he reaches.