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Upper Big Bluestem (B.4)

Description: Upper Big Bluestem is a hike I've been looking forward to mapping because it appeared on my topo maps to be a trail that has two different identities.  I wasn't disappointed, and I don't think those who hike it will be either.  First part of the hike is pure upper prairie grasslands on broad and smooth Mesa Trail.  Once Mesa meets Upper Big Bluestem the trail heads up the Bluestem canyon and quickly turns to forested foothills terrain, with its signature reddish soil, pines, and rocky outcroppings.  Both beautiful terrains in their own right.  In wildflower season no doubt the grasslands, filled to the gills with color will be most appreciated, however, in the summer the welcome shade of the pines and breeze from the mountains will yield a favorite resting spot to cool down.  This hike also takes you pretty close to the formation known as Devil's Thumb, the rocky knob outcropping you can see in a couple of the photographs above. 

Difficulty: Intermediate (B.4), 5 Miles, 862' Elevation, 2 to 3 Hours.  There is really nothing difficult about the elevation gain or the trails you will travel along the Upper Big Bluestem.  I was surprised at the end of the hike that we'd gained over 800' of elevation.  However, it was a hot, sunny day when we started at the trailhead at 9:00 and the route in the prairie grasslands soon became warm and we wished for some shade.  I've marked this hike as the lowest level intermediate, primarily because of its 5 miles, elevation, and possible sun exposure on the first and last segments.  But, it should be a hike just about anyone can enjoy once they've acclimated to the altitude and who are properly prepared with enough water and sun protection.

Upper Big Bluestem elevation profile

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: 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.

Trailhead: Follow the main trail across the two bridges spanning South Boulder Creek.  This is the beginning of Mesa Trail.

Click image for Upper Big Bluestem detail in Google Maps

Click image for Upper Big Bluestem detail in Google Maps

Map Resources: EveryTrail MapBoulder Open Space Map

Trail Guide: This hike will take you across three well-maintained and beautiful trails; Mesa with great views of the foothills and flatirons, Upper Big Bluestem with red dirt trails, rocky outcroppings and lots of pine shade, and Homestead which provides some good views of the plains toward Denver.  

Starting at the trailhead you will be on Mesa Trail, a broad, smooth avenue here.  After you cross the bridges look to the left for the Dowdy-Debaker-Dunn homestead.  This area along South Boulder was populated with several cabins and homesteads in the late 1800's, but the Dunn House is all that remains.  At 0.4 miles you will come to a single track on the right that also says Mesa trail.  This is a cutoff trail for those heading to the Bluestem area so take this trail.  It will remerge with the wide Mesa in a short while.  Continue your northerly route on Mesa.  Around 0.9 miles you will see the trailhead to Upper Big Bluestem on the right.  Take this trail saying goodbye to Mesa until you meet up with it again later.  You will come upon the split of Upper and Lower Big Bluestem at 1.2 miles.  Take Upper Big Bluestem to the left, heading up toward the foothills.  This trail will soon take you into pines and runs uphill for a mile where you will reconnect with Mesa Trail, at 2.2 miles.  Turn left on Mesa where the trail will continue uphill for a little longer.  Look for views of Devil's Thumb through the trees as you get closer to the base of the massive exposed conglomerate sandstone slabs.  These are not officially considered the Flatirons but they are from the same formations and sometimes do give an appearance to being iron-shaped.  In another 0.2 miles on Mesa you will see the grassy staircase of the Shadow Canyon North trail coming out of the trees and meeting up with Mesa.  Stay left here on Mesa and start to smile because after just a couple of short climbs ahead it will then be all downhill!  

As you start downhill you will come upon a connector trail for Shadow Canyon at 2.9 miles.  Stay left on Mesa heading downhill.  At 3.2 miles you will merge with Shadow Canyon trail and continue to head downhill on Mesa.  AT THIS POINT KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED TO THE RIGHT.  In just 0.2 miles you will be close to the wall of Shadow Canyon and you will see Homestead Trail hidden in the trees on your right.  I walked right past it and I've been on this trail before!  It's Homestead trail and the trail you will take back to the stone Dunn House.  Homestead is a beautiful, gradual descent through some of the best spring wildflower areas in Boulder with views of Eldorado Canyon and Denver to the southeast.  Once back at the Dunn homestead jog left and then right onto Mesa trail for the short trip back to the trailhead.

Après Hike: Anytime I'm in South Boulder it's always a good excuse for a stop at Southern Sun Brewery!  And today is a special day because you will learn a great local beer secret.  Don't tell anyone!  Since this hike traverses two completely different, yet great types of terrain, we should celebrate with a blend of two different, yet equally fantastic beers.  Although you won't find it on any menus or website, you can sit down at Southern Sun and ask for a 'Krippler'.  Now I know what you are thinking, "I can't get crippled, I gotta hike!"  Well, a Kripler gets its name from the fact that it is 50% Coloroda Kind Ale (ABV 6.3%) and 50% Triple-X Pale Ale (ABV 5.6%).  'Kind' + 'Triple' = Krippler!  Heaven!  Part of Mountain Sun brewery, Southern Sun offers some of the best craft brew in the Front Range and have a great menu of burgers and such to compliment.  

Picnicking: At trailhead.

Restrooms:  Also at trailhead.

Dog Friendly: Yes.

Cell Service: Good coverage in most places.