Sean and I recently traveled to the Boulder, Colorado area to participate in a trail race. The Black Hawk trail race was our main event of our Colorado weekend, but we also wanted to explore some of the other trails in the area. We stayed in Broomfield, Colorado, which was in proximity to the Flatiron Mountains. Our hotel was only minutes away from several trail heads. We were able to get to several of these trails over the weekend. By far, our favorite Flatiron trail running adventure was from the South Mesa Trailhead.
The South Mesa Trailhead
The South Mesa Trailhead is just off of Eldorado Springs Drive (Highway 170), across from the Doudy Draw trail head. We arrived there on a Saturday morning around 8:00am. The parking lot was not full, and we found a spot and paid for our $5 parking pass. We had a map, and we had chosen a route that we thought would make a nice loop. We had water and hammer gels with us to stay hydrated and fueled on the run.
Loop Around Devil’s Thumb
This part of the Flatiron mountains has a great view of Devil’s Thumb. Our loop would be circumnavigating Devil’s Thumb, and we had many different views of it along our way. Our planned loop was to start out on the Homestead trail, take the Shadow Canyon South trail to the Shadow Canyon trail, take Bear Peak trail to Fern Canyon trail, then pick up Mesa trail to Upper Big Bluestem trail, and finally back onto Mesa trail again to return to the parking lot. We figured this would be a challenging route, but did not realize how challenging it was until later.
It was a warm morning, but not too hot, as we started down the Homestead trail. This was a nice, open trail, and we had great views of the Flatiron mountains and Devil’s Thumb. There were some climbs, but nothing too steep, so we were able to keep a pretty steady pace. There were a lot of other people out on this trail enjoying the summer morning. We continued for 1.3 miles until we got to the Shadow Canyon South trail. This trail had more trees and was shaded. The trail wound through the forest for a little less than mile until it came to the split for the Shadow Canyon trail and the Shadow Canyon North trail.
A Tough Climb!
Our planned loop was to take the Shadow Canyon trail, a 1.2 mile stretch to Bear Peak. We were instantly greeted with a steep path leading upward. I hesitated for a moment and considered changing our route to the North trail, which looked a lot less ominous than our trail. But we continued on our planned route. There were few people on this trail. At first, there was only one person behind us, but we didn’t see her after a few minutes (I’m thinking she turned back for the other trail). The trail was steep, rocky, and difficult to follow. It felt like we were climbing and climbing forever. I started getting concerned that we had lost the trail, but the woods were so thick, I couldn’t see how we would have created a new trail anyway. So we kept pressing on. It seemed like hours that we were on this trail! We finally noticed Devil’s Thumb through the trees and it dawned on me why we were ascending so long. We were now about the same level as Devil’s Thumb, which is at 7,800 feet! Around this time, some other runners were behind us which was reassuring. We stopped to let them pass, and they confirmed that we WERE on the right trail. We mentioned our planned route, and they congratulated us on attacking one of the hardest routes in Boulder! Oops. Our sprirts were lifted though, and we pushed on to the next trail section.
We reached the end of Shadow Canyon and were greeted with an amazing view from the top of the mountains! We took in the view, stopped for a gel, and snapped some photos. Then we headed onto the Bear Peak trail. This was not a long trail, but it was steep and covered with sharp rocks. It took us up to Bear Peak at 8,461 feet. There were a lot of people conquering this peak today, so we had fun meeting some other people. After a few moments enjoying the scenery, we started our trip down the mountain.
We turned onto Fern Canyon looking forward to an easy descent, but instead had sharp rocks and steep grades. I had a lot of trouble navigating the descent on this trail, so it was slow going for about a mile. Most of the people we saw were going up, which looked like the easier option to me at the time. After a little while the trail got easier to navigate so we were able to get back into a rhythm. We enjoyed the cool forest sections, as the day was starting to get hot.
Return To South Mesa Trails
We got to the Mesa trail head, and it still felt like we had a long way to go to get back to the parking lot! We were tired now, and the heat was starting to wear us down. At least the trails leveled out some, so we were able to pick up the pace a little. From Mesa trail, we could see the top of Bear Peak. It was hard to imagine that we had gone up that high! We also could see Devil’s Thumb getting closer, so we knew we were almost back. We took a detour onto the upper Big Bluestem trail to save some time. This was a one mile section with a nice gradual descent through an open area. This trail boosted our confidence that we could make it, since we were able to pick up our running pace.
We finally connected back to the Mesa trail for the final stretch to the parking lot. We were tired, but we still enjoyed our final half mile to the end. I kept turning back to see how far Bear Peak was in the distance. It was just amazing to me that we had been all the way up there just a short while ago! We finished up our loop and headed back to the car.
The loop we ran from South Mesa was definitely tougher than we had anticipated! But, it was worth it for the stunning views and challenging climbs. I did not wear my garmin, so we did not have exact distance, but we estimated about 8 miles. (The map had distances for each section that we had on our loop).
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