Description: Want the absolute best views of Boulder, Boulder County and the Continental Divide?  Then a hike to South Boulder and Bear Peaks is where it's at.  I'd been passing on this hike since the inception of Beyond Boulder because of the steep, rocky ascent of Shadow Canyon, but finally tackled it on a hot, humid Sunday in late July, 2015.  Perhaps not the best timing, but I wanted to see what the wildflowers on top were doing.  I was not disappointed.

After summiting South Boulder Peak and sitting for a while in solitude, enjoying the views, I made my way back down the saddle toward Bear Peak to the north.  As I got closer to Bear’s rocky summit along its west face I came upon a Boulder Park Ranger descending from the peak.  Clad in typical olive pants, light olive shirt, and ranger hat she stopped to say hello.  I was glad for the break as I was hot, tired and my legs, having just climbed 3,100’, were needing a rest.  As we gazed toward the divide on a clear afternoon we talked about the effects of the 2012 fire that had started on the west side of Bear and broached the saddle where we stood, briefly threatening south Boulder with evacuation.  It’s hard to describe the beauty of a burn area until you visit one.  Where once there were canopies of Ponderosa there was now an amazing abundance of wildflowers.  As we chatted it was hard to imagine that we were standing on city land, just a couple of miles from downtown Pearl Street, the way the raptor flies.  We could just as well have been deep in Rocky Mountain National Park.  

The hike to the summits of Bear and South Boulder up Shadow Canyon is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve made during my short time in Colorado.  It is also one of the hardest.  Starting on the edge of the Prairie grasslands this route begins with a slow, comfortable climb into Foothills pines and meadows as it winds west, providing great views of eastern farmlands and the entrance to Eldorado Canyon State Park.  Shadow Canyon itself is, much of the time, a forbidding place sheltered by dense pine canopy.  Filled with talus, dead fall and house-sized boulders, it’s dark and a bit unsettling as it elevates you about 1,700’ over 1.2 miles. But, just as you fear it will never end, it emerges into the burn area and the trail becomes more fluid, smooth and less arduous, leading to the saddle between the two grandest ladies of Boulder.  To the left is South Boulder Peak at 8,549’ and to the right Bear Peak at 8,461’, each adding another 200’ or so of climbing to your day.  Both offer some of the best vistas of the Continental Divide, Long’s Peak and the Indian Peaks you can find.  Bear adds the additional benefit of great views of downtown Boulder from its east face.

Challenge Level: Most Difficult, 9.0 Miles, 3,276' Total Elevation Gain, 5-7 Hours.  There are three approaches to Boulder's highest peaks.  For brevity's sake we'll call them: "Short and Ugly" - Fern Canyon; "Long and Ugly" - Bear Canyon to Bear West Ridge; and just plain "Ugly"; Shadow Canyon.  And ugly it is, as Shadow Canyon gains just shy of 2,000' over the last 1.4 miles to the top of South Boulder Peak up rocky and rugged terrain.  This is a long hike, and depending on the time of year the weather can be completely different on top.  In late July while the weather was in the low 90's at the trailhead, I was happy to have a rain parka up near the saddle when a cold storm moved through with strong winds, dropping the temps south of 60 degrees.  Be sure and take lots of hydration, food, and a couple of poles to lessen the impact of the steep descent.  I forgot my poles and regretted it all the way down.  Both peaks require some scrambling to get to the official tops and the best views, Bear's being more technical than South Boulder.

Driving Directions: 4111 Eldorado Springs Dr, Boulder, CO 80303.  Fifteen minutes from downtown Boulder.  Take Broadway (CO 93) south from Canyon Rd toward Golden. At 5.2 miles turn right at the traffic light onto Edorado Springs Dr. heading west toward Eldorado Springs and Eldorado Canyon State Park.  After 1.7 miles you will find the South Mesa parking area on the right.  Google Map directions here...

Parking and Trailhead: South Mesa Parking Area. There are plenty of spaces here and across the street at the Dowdy Draw trailhead, but it can still get crowded in the summer and on weekends.  $5 fee for non-Boulder registered vehicles.  Parking is not permitted along Eldorado Springs Dr.

Trail Guide: Because there are a lot of trails and options on this hike and it can get confusing I highly recommend that you take a good map or GPS with you.  If you don't have a GPS app with downloadable maps such as Hiking Project, Motion-X GPS or Avenza Maps, the Boulder Open Space Map (below) is a good hardcopy option to carry with you.  Hiking Project has this route mapped as well and is available in the map section below.  That said, as a general rule on the way up, any time you come to a trail marker for a split in the trail, go left.  This will keep you on the right track along Homestead, Mesa, Shadow Canyon (south) and Shadow Canyon trails.

From the trailhead head across the two bridges on Mesa Trail that span South Boulder Creek. As of late 2017 the entrance to Homestead Trail has been moved from next to the old stone Dunn House and relocated farther up the new and improved Mesa Trail.  Look for the trailhead on the left about .2 miles past the Dunn House.  Follow the Homestead trail to where it intersects with Mesa Trail at about 1.9 miles.  Turn left on Mesa toward Shadow Canyon.  At 2.2 miles you will arrive at the split of Mesa and Shadow Canyon trails.  Stay left on Shadow Canyon and wind your way up, past an old barn in the valley to your left and a large meadow as you approach the base of South Boulder peak.  Eventually the trail flattens out and you come upon an old building on the right at the 2.6 mile point.  

Here the wide track narrows to tight single track, crosses a stream, and intersects with Shadow Canyon (north) and Shadow Canyon trails.  There are signposts alerting to seasonal area closures for raptor nesting.  Not the Jurassic Park kind of raptors, the flying ones.  Head left and up.  And I mean UP.  From here you will climb almost 2,000’ over the next 1.4 miles.  At times you may have to stop and look for signs of the trail, but as the canyon is so narrow, it is easy to reorient yourself if you get off track.  The canyon eventually broadens out and the trail begins to switchback as you approach the saddle between the two peaks.  You are now in the remnants of the 2012 burn.  As you reach the saddle you have a choice to make.  Left takes you to South Boulder Peak, the highest of the two peaks. It is a straight shot to the official peak, but once you hit the boulder scramble you can pick your path to the peak.   Right will take you to Bear Peak, which offers the best views of both Boulder and the divide.  As this trail get steeper and rockier, you will come to the junctions for Bear West Ridge Trail and Fern Canyon Trail.  Stay right at both, remembering to stay left on the return to the saddle.  

If you plan to climb both peaks, take your pick and enjoy.  I hiked South Boulder first on my outing.  However, if you only plan to do just one, a little thought may be in order.  While Bear has the best overall views of both the divide and Boulder, it is a harder scramble to the peak on a steep outcropping of solid rock.  Some may find it a bit unnerving to climb all the way to the summit.  South Boulder is an easier scramble, mostly over large piled boulders to a flatter summit.  Regardless of whether you climb one or both, please be careful and don’t climb beyond your capabilities or comfort.  

Once ready to make your way back from the saddle and down Shadow Canyon for apreś-hike fun, return along the same path you ascended, this time taking the right branch at all trail postings until you get to the Dunn House at the beginning of Homestead.  Congrats!  You are an animal!!!

Map Resources: Hiking Project MapBoulder Open Space Map

Après Hike: The hike to the summit of Boulder's tallest peaks is a beast regardless of the approach.  I remember on the way down as my legs were turning to jelly and burning at every step that I must be insane for loving this kind of trail.  To that end, I dedicate this hike to the great folks over at Bootstrap Brewing in Niwot, and their excellent Insane Rush IPA.  As they say over at Niwot's favorite little nano, Insane Rush "is perfect for enthusiasts looking for a little more cowbell."  Bootstrap is located at 6778 N. 79th Street, Niwot, CO 80503.

Picnicking: At trailhead.

Restrooms:  Also at trailhead.

Dog Friendly: Yes.

Cell Service: Good coverage in most places.