Boulder Colorado’s Mesa Trail

Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike.  The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion.  To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles.  It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.

As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one.  The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder.  These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike.  In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.

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The trailhead at Chautauqua

Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity.  The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead.  Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5).  All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good.  Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds.  The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead.  It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.

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Early summer flowers

The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people.  If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot.  Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail.  If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.

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One of many trails that can be accessed from the Mesa Trail, the Mallory Cave Trail

In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.

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For most of the winter, the trail is still accessible and can still be hiked (microspikes recommended though)
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Lake Powell Without An Engine

Lake Powell is for those with power! Engine power that is. It is an enormous lake with extensive side canyons throughout, making any journey on the lake one that requires you to have a ski boat, houseboat, or jet ski to have the horsepower necessary to get you from one place to another. On a recent trip there with my wife, our engines on this trip would be our arms, as a kayak, rather than thehouseboat, would be the primary means of getting around the lake.  In a lake the size of Powell, 186 miles in total length and over and 1,960 miles of shoreline, that meant that to get safely off of the main lake and into the side canyons took quite some time and immense amounts of effort. These side canyons are (in my opinion) the prettiest part of the lake and have interesting features such as narrow passages, high walls, calmer water, beaches to take out of and stretch your legs, stunning rock formations and surprises around every corner.

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Lost Eden Canyon

Out on the main part of the lake, boat traffic has to be monitored closely by anyone in a small craft, especially kayaks that lie low in the water. Not all boaters are used to looking for kayaks so you have to paddle defensively, just like motorcycles have to be defensive out on the roads. As they passed, some boaters slowed down a little bit, one slowed down a lot, and once did not slow down at all, nearly causing us to capsize.  It must not be common to see a kayak on this lake because a few looked utterly shocked to see a kayak out there and a couple even looked impressed. However, I think most boaters seemed annoyed by the additional hazard that the kayaks presented. One boater was visibly irritated by us even being on the boat ramp unloading our kayaks.  Lucky for us though, we paid the same fee to be there that he did and was even told by a ranger where to launch from.

We were here the week after Labor Day, just into the off season.  The weather was still very warm as was the water but most of the people were gone, making being on the lake in a kayak during peak season hard to imagine.  Aside from occasionally playing a bit of dodgeball with houseboats, jet skis, and ski boats, the experience of kayaking in the high desert landscape of Utah on such a large lake was a surreal and memorable experience.  Paddling  in the canyons, especially Lost Eden Canyon, was like boating through a maze and as you go deeper into the canyon arm, the water got flatter and flatter, making the paddling very easy.  If there are two things that can make paddling easier it’s light wind and and small waves. There wasn’t much of either of those happening when you get off of the main lake and into the smaller canyons where the boats are fewer, the ones that are there are going slower, and the canyon walls are so high that the winds can’t get in.

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Moqui Canyon

 

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Moon rising, sun setting

Ideally, learning from this experience, having a kayak on this lake would be best if you use a boat with an engine to get you and your kayaks to the side canyons from a marina or boat ramp rather than paddling all the way to them, many miles in some cases. This way, you don’t expend the majority of your energy just getting to the mouth of the canyon arm. Once you arrive at the mouth, you could have many miles of paddling to get to the end (if you choose to go that far) and of course, many back. But if you choose to kayak without the support of a boat, you can still have a great time, and we did, just expect your natural engine to be sore for the next week after you get home!

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Parting Shot – Sunset near Halls Crossing