Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bear Peak, Boulder Colorado, How far can your feet take you?

On Monday January 11th, I decided to hike Bear Peak in Boulder. It is a visible mountain from most of Boulder and highway 93 situated behind the Flatirons and next to South Boulder Peak. The peak is 8,461ft high, and there are several routes to reach the summit. You can see in the photo to the left that I marked the correct peak in the photo, this is seen from the start of the hike. (click on any photo to see larger)

Getting there:
I started the hike from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) trailhead parking lot. Click here for google map.

From highway 93 in Boulder go West on Table Mesa Drive (also called S. Boulder Road further east) OR; from highway 36, exit onto Table Mesa Drive and head west. Once onto Table Mesa Drive, follow the road up the mountain, through the residential areas and past a school, and continue up to the NCAR parking lot. This is well marked and easy to find. Park in the lot and walk toward the mountains beside the NCAR building to the trailhead. There are no bathrooms at this parking lot.
The Journey:
I was eager to get out and hike on Monday, it was a sunny day and 37 degrees when I started the hike at about 9:15am. You can see the path I took by clicking the map to the right. I started at the NCAR parking lot and followed the Fern Valley trail to the Summit of Bear Peak, which is about 7 miles round trip. The trail starts out following the NCAR informative trail for about a half a mile with signs detailing atmospheric information along the trail. Then the trail starts to descent into Bear Canyon Creek Valley. I hiked along thinking the trail was in pretty good condition at first, it was packed dirt and not muddy, but that changed very quickly. The trail was very icy when the hike passed through the woods where there was shade, which was very often, and it was muddy later in the day when the trail was in the sun. I quickly realized that I needed my hiking poles and should have crampons for my shoes. (crampons are metal spikes worn on shoes to grip on the ice). All of Boulder's trail maps are very well marked, and at each intersection there is a sign and trail map. The trail maps at each intersection are orientated differently; so they can be a little deceiving to read until you get used to them, keep this in mind as you search for your trail on each map.

The trail wasn't too hard until I reached the trail split for the Fern Canyon trail, which I had planned on taking up to the peak. This trail climbs steeply up the southwest side of Bear Peak through the woods, so not only was it steep, but it was very icy too! I was dreading the hike back down. At one point even the dogs stopped and slowly clawed their way up the ice, when I reached their stopping point I looked up to see what looked like a frozen waterfall on the trail in front of me. I managed to climb around the frozen waterfall on the rock beside the trail, but it wasn't easy. After reaching the top, I stopped to catch my breath and questioned if I should continue the climb with all the ice, I was far from the top and the hike back down was going to be really tough on the ice. But, I have a hard time giving up on anything and I persisted upward.
A short time later the trees begin to thin out and you can see through the trees down into Boulder far below you. This also meant the sun had shined on the trail and instead of ice there was mud, which was a surprisingly pleasant change from the slick ice. At this time I could see Bear Peak in the distance and it still looked pretty far away. It took about 45 minutes before I made it to the Bear Peak Ridge Trail which takes you to the summit. Here you have incredible views looking west of the huge front range mountains and Boulder looking east.

It was at this point that I ran into the first hiker that I really encountered at this point who was also hiking to the summit; though I did pass a few people way back on the popular Mesa Trail. The trail continued in the woods with the icy slick rocky trail similar to the Fern Canyon trail, but you did catch glimpses of incredible views to both the east and west while you stopped to catch your breath on the steep incline. At this point the other hiker broke a walking stick sized branch off one of the many dead trees to aid him in his climb, and I followed his lead and did the same. This helped immensely, and I was able to hike much faster and more safely up the mountain. After about 30 minutes the trees really start to clear out and the final steep climb to the 8,461 ft peak is in view.
The peak is really narrow and rocky on top, and my dogs weren't even able to get all the way to the peak, partially because they are chicken, but it was also kind of tough. The rewards when reaching the top on a clear day are incredible! Sometimes I enjoy the smaller front range peaks more than the 14ers because you can see both the city's landmarks and the mountains to the west.
I could see from Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, to Longs Peak in Estes Park to the west, and Denver, Boulder, and the airport to the east. With the bright blue Colorado sky to compliment the scenery it really adds to the beauty of the views.
After sitting there for a few minutes, I noticed that I could see the NCAR building and the trailhead where I started. After taking photos and getting them home, I realized that when I zoomed in, I could even see my car! It's always amazing to me how far your feet can take you. I circled the NCAR building in the photo below.
I didn't stay long on the top because the dogs weren't able to come up and they were whining at me to come down. So after taking it all in for about 15 minutes, I started my journey back down. I was so glad I had the walking stick and it helped me immensely on the steep descent down the slick mountain, which was getting more and more slippery as the warm sun beat down on it.

I did pass a couple of other hikers braving the slick conditions hiking up the mountain, but all of them had both hiking poles and crampons. I vowed that I would not do another winter hike like this without one or the other. As I climbed down the mountain, I fell several times and ended up with a pretty bruised tailbone after the day was done. All of the frozen mud on the way up the mountain that morning, had turned to non-frozen mud, and by the time the dogs and I made it back to the car, we were covered in red clay mud. I made it back to the car around 1:30 and the hike took me just over 4 hours to complete the 7 mile round trip hike. This hike would be great to do during the fall or springtime, as it has the potential to view the brilliant colors of the changing seasons. I look forward to hiking this area again this spring.
Let me know if you have any questions, suggestions or comments, I'd love to hear them!

Click the map to get directions to the trailhead.

View Larger Map

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