Your guide to hitting the local trails in winter

James Dziezynski

Boulder’s wealth of excellent hiking trails are not to be missed once winter arrives. Most trails in town are reached by very accessible trailheads, so exploring the natural beauty of the foothills remains a viable option year-round. As many locals know, the winter months in Boulder County tend to have mild weather and sporadic snow, though a few days each year bring about Arctic blasts that drop temps below zero. If we’re lucky, these fronts drop a significant amount of snow. Rarely do trails get so burdened by powder that hikers have to use snowshoes — though it’s a real treat when they do. Cold weather hiking on the Front Range showcases a unique palette of colors, accented by long shadows and the moody lighting of the winter sun. While conditions remain relatively tame — trails see less human traffic, but it’s rare to be the only one out — there are some important things to know before heading out on local treks.

What to bring

The obvious difference for winter hikes versus summer will be the ice and snow that lingers on trails. Boulder County’s outdoor community stays active year-round, meaning there will be enough foot traffic to hard-pack snow. Our fabled 300 days of sunshine can work against us, melting and consolidating the pack into bulletproof tongues of ice. Add into the mix the fact temperatures can fluctuate from the high 50s to below zero on a regular basis.

Pardon the expression: Arm your feet with microspikes. These lightweight spikes slide over your boots and provide much needed traction on dicey terrain. On warmer winter days, you can get away with wearing light hiking shoes, though if you plan on hiking above 7,000 feet, boots are usually the best choice even if it’s warm in town. An adjustable pair of microspikes that can fit any type of footwear are worth bringing along, even if it seems you won’t need them. Ice hides in shadows in the most insidious ways. Hiking poles are also a very good idea, especially on steep trails like Royal Arch, Fern Canyon to Bear Peak, and Shadow Canyon to South Boulder Peak.

Once you have your stability system figured out, make sure to bring a headlamp (“It gets late early out there,” as Yogi Berra said), a first aid kit, snacks, a thermos or insulated bottle holder for your water and good sunglasses — the reflective light from snow can be harsh on unprotected eyeballs. If you’re bringing your dog along, using booties or paw wax can help make things easier on their feet. And as previously mentioned, if you’re lucky enough to be on the trail during a big snowfall, snowshoes are a lot of fun to use when you can. 

James Dziezynski

What to wear

Layering can be tricky, especially on typical winter days where the temps hover around freezing but the sunshine is bright. Bitter cold stretches are rare, so a long-sleeved base layer, fleece and outer insulating jacket (i.e, the eponymous “puffer”) usually do the trick. For stormy days or especially cold outings, add in an outer shell, a neck gaiter/buff and long johns under hiking pants. Gloves and a warm hat should be included, though don’t be surprised if they end up stored in your pack. Warmer winter days can mean using arm warmers and thin gloves and yes, you’ll probably see someone hiking in shorts on these days.

A normal-sized day pack should carry all your winter gear, including extra apparel for cold days. Footwear with Gore-Tex or another waterproof lining work well, since trails can be wet and muddy, even in the middle of January. Layering systems can help keep you from overheating or getting chilled, especially on mountain hikes where you’ll top out over 8,000 feet. It’s worth mentioning that on windy or bitterly cold days, there’s nothing wrong with bringing along your ski goggles.

Where to go

Now the big question: Where to hike? Boulder County is lucky enough to have two very different settings for winter outings. To the east, the plains and mesas get a hearty dose of sunshine and have little tree coverage, so they tend to stay dry and warmer. The foothills to the west include mountain terrain, where forests cast cold shadows and the terrain ascends to over 8,000 feet. Both environments are host to hikes of varying difficulty.

Easy hikes

For hikes with good footing that offer outings around an hour or less, Boulder County is ready to please. Boulder Valley Ranch in North Boulder is an excellent option and includes the Sage Trail, which can be connected via an easy ramp to the Degge Trail. A longer adventure can add in the Eagle Trail via the Sage Trail to connect to the Boulder Reservoir. South of Boulder, Marshall Mesa, Doudy Draw and Flatirons Vista can be connected for an enjoyable outing as long or short as you like. Don’t forget the Greenbelt Plateau Trail either; views from the top of the plateau gaze out at the Flatirons and the city below. Finally, Davidson Mesa in Louisville is also a great option. The Flatiron views here on a winter day are excellent — possibly the best in the area. There’s also a fenced in dog park and the trails are all nearly flat.

Intermediate hikes

If you’re looking for a hike in the two-to-three-hour range or simply want the challenge of more exciting terrain, here are some options. Mount Sanitas has a variety of trails and loops. Stay low on the Valley Trail and Dakota Ridge or ascend to the top via the Mount Sanitas Trail, East Ridge Trail or the newest addition, Lion’s Lair Trail. Neighboring Anemone Hill is the quiet counterpart to the popular Mount Sanitas and worth a winter visit. Doudy Draw can be a starting point to link up to the Flatirons Vista plateau to the east or the Spring Brook Trail to the west. Finally, both Wonderland Lake and the Foothills trailheads can be used to access the Hogback Trail. The new Joder Trail, accessed by trailheads at either Olde Stage Road or Highway 36 is a fun, less-used option.

Difficult hikes

Green Mountain via Gregory Canyon or the Amphitheater is arguably Boulder’s best winter summit hike, reaching the 8,150-feet peak in 3 miles one-way. Bear Peak (8,459 feet) via Fern Canyon and South Boulder Peak (8,549 feet) via Shadow Canyon are slightly tougher routes, due to the rocky, steep, shaded trails to the top (which are tougher to descend than to climb). Ambitious hikers can link together these peaks via the Green Bear and Bear Peak West Ridge trails. Walker Ranch has an 8-mile loop that is especially scenic in the winter, notably when the trail crosses South Boulder Creek. And one hike that many people overlook is Sugarloaf Mountain, which stands taller than the Flatirons summits at 8,917 feet. Access roads are maintained to the parking area at the base of Sugarloaf. Views from the summit are a winter treasure, though be warned the wind can really roar near the top.

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