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.
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.
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.
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.