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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Cacti, Guns and Snakes – Hiking the Peralta Trail in Arizona

The Peralta Trail is a very popular Arizona hike, and with good reason.  Being a relatively short drive from the Phoenix metropolitan area, it provides easy access to great hiking for the majority of Phoenicians (and snowbirds too!).  Located on the eastern edge of town off of Highway 60, the drive really starts to get interesting once you leave the pavement of Peralta Road near the town of Gold Canyon.  If you’re lucky enough to catch a cactus bloom in the springtime on this section of desert track, you may not even want to get out of the car to hike.  There are so many cactus varieties and my botany background is weak but even I could identify flowering saguaro, ocotillo, and prickly pear, all blooming with different colored flowers.

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Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Gold Canyon AZ

The hike begins at the Peralta Trailhead in Tonto National Forest, although this forest is probably different than any other you’ve been to before.  This “forest” isn’t full of many trees like you’d see in a traditional forest, but it does have the aforementioned cactus and there are some trees and shrubs along the creek bed.  In those trees and shrubs, you may even have the chance to see an Arizona cardinal.  When the football team moved to Arizona from St. Louis, I thought for sure a name change was in order because I’d never seen a cardinal west of Kansas, but there are real cardinals in Arizona and their color stands out vividly from the desert landscape.

Most people hike up approximately 2.5 miles to the overlook of Weavers Needle and then head back down.  From the trailhead, the first 2.5 miles are almost all uphill with only a few spots along the way to get out of the sun.  Take full advantage of these shady areas as the temperature can get pretty hot on the trail.  Hiking in the spring and fall can offer temperatures that are decent enough, but summer hiking here would be borderline crazy. Temperatures in the Valley of the Sun can reach into the 110’s and sometimes even hotter.  The day of our hike was a near perfect 84 degrees.  Even still, we went through three bottles of water each and wish we would have had more.  As a side note, when I was at Sky Harbor International Airport, one of the souvenir shops was selling t-shirts that read “Keep Phoenix Hot” along the lines of “Keep Portland Weird” I guess.  Clever and I should have bought one!

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Several trails can be accessed from the Peralta Trailhead

 

 

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The trail

Once at the top, you get a spectacular view of Weavers Needle and the Nothern Arizona landscape in the distance.  The view is hard earned so savor it, we were really tired and pretty much only stayed for a few minutes.  A family sitting near us had packed sandwiches with them and I think my dad was about ready to pull out his wallet to try to buy one.  At least one of the kids in the family was also packing heat on his belt and had a Crocodile Dundee worthy knife on it too.  Arizona is known for having alternative politics and having kids with guns on a hiking trail is definitely a first for me.  We’d seen a few other hikers with guns holstered along the trail throughout the day.

Next up is down, downhill that is.  Hiking always seems harder going downhill for some reason.  You’re already tired and you’re having to use your legs to slow your body down.  This is also a good time to make sure that you focus because there may or may not be a rattlesnake on the trail, just sayin’!  A couple was stopped on the trail ahead of us and one of them turned up the trail towards us to let us know that there is a four foot rattlesnake across the trail and to be careful.  It was gone by the time we got there but our radar was definitely up from that point on.  The couple also warned another hiker on the trail to be careful and when he got to us he had a walking stick and a holstered handgun.  He said both were for the snakes.  On a serious note, you do need to keep an eye out for snakes.  Every place has its hazards.  After talking with a few hikers, this snake (allegedly – innocent until proven guilty 🐍) had rattled as a warning to a group of hikers earlier.  Here in the desert, the heat is a much bigger concern than the snakes but you need to be aware of both.  Wear sunscreen and a hat for the sun and drink plenty of water.  Walk softly and carry a big stick for the snakes or something like that says Teddy Roosevelt (not to hit them with of course but for gently nudging them to safety off of the trail, for their own good and for the good of anyone walking the trail, something I actually did a few days after this hike).

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The view of Weavers Needle

 

After finishing the hike, there are many great Mexican restaurants in the Greater Phoenix area to choose from to load up on some of the carbs and sweat you lost out on the trail.  We chose the outdoor seating at Los Gringos Locos in Apache Junction.  I had a margarita, chips and salsa, a Dos Equis Amber, and a cheese crisp (basically an open faced crispy quesadilla) to cap off a great day hiking with family in the Arizona desert.