On April 27 my husband and I went for a nearly 10-mile loop hike at Hall Ranch. It’s just outside of Lyons, but still in Boulder County. The loop trail goes clockwise up Nighthawk Trail, connects along Nelson Loop, and finishes up with Bitterbrush Trail. Although it is long, the hike has about 1,500 feet elevation gain total over the whole 10 miles and is easy to moderate.
The main parking area is just off South Saint Vrain Drive, but there is another at the end of the Antelope Trail on Antelope Drive. The main parking area has two parking lots, and includes a picnic area and restrooms.
Here is a map of the park for reference.
Nighthawk Trail is 4.7 miles long and hikers/runners only. No bikes are allowed on this trail.
Since Lyons is only about a 20 minute drive from where we live in Boulder, we arrived at the trailhead around 7:40 am. There were already at least 10 cars parked in the upper main parking lot, but still plenty of space for parking.
It was overcast when we started and cold. Maybe about a half mile out from the parking lot we glanced back and saw this view of Indian Lookout Mountain.
A wider view with a wide-angle lens –
The trail going up from that area –
And not much further along, we saw this view.
During our loop I’d say we saw a total of at least 50 mule deer. Mule deer, or Odocoileus hemionus, are native to western North America and get their name from their long furry ears, which are like a mule’s.
We’ve also seen many mule deer around Boulder.
I’m not sure you can see it well, but here the mule deer is chewing grass while looking at us.
Views on Nighthawk Trail
About a mile and a half along Nighthawk Trail there were gorgeous sweeping views of mountains to the south. The sun started peeking out from the clouds, dappling the landscape.
The view –
Zoomed in a bit –
A view of the same mountains from a bit further up the trail –
Near the Top of Nighthawk Trail
As you get near the top of Nighthawk Trail the scenery changes to rolling grasslands with pine trees and boulders. The views for the few miles at the top of the loop reminded us a lot of Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. I got to thinking of it as “a desert version of Dolly Sods.”
Rocky Mountains Viewpoint
About 4.2 miles from the trailhead there is a bench you can sit on and look at a view of the Rocky Mountains. We took a break in this area to enjoy the view and take some pictures.
Phone picture of the landscape –
View of the Rockies you can see when zoomed in with a telephoto lens –
And a closer view of the tallest peaks –
I believe that these mountains include Longs Peak and Mt Lady Washington.
Continuing to the End of Nighthawk Trail
The landscape from the viewpoint to the end of Nighthawk Trail resembled that of the last couple miles – grassy fields with pine trees and boulders.
Along the trail we encountered blooming Eastern Pasqueflowers.
This flower seems to be relatively common at this time of year in Boulder. I’ve also seen it growing on the Sunshine Canyon Trail and the Hogback Ridge Loop. I’m not sure if it was because of the time of day, or because the flowers have only started blooming now in late April, but most of the time I’ve only seen them closed. I was pleased to be able to take a photo of the Eastern Pasqueflower in full bloom at midday.
4.7 miles into the hike, the trail connects with the Nelson Loop. Starting from this point the trail is shared with mountain bikers.
We did not complete the full Nelson Loop, which is 2.2 miles long, but hugged the outer edge of it for about 1.2 miles to follow the recommended loop on Hiking Project.
From the outer edge of the loop you can see the remains of the ranch – a silo and house – where the Nelson family used to live about 100 years ago.
The start of the Bitterbrush Trail intersects with the Nelson Loop. From that point, it is another 3.7 miles to the main parking lot.
The Bitterbrush Trail, similar to the Nelson Loop, is shared with mountain bikers. As you can see from the picture below, often the trail is worn down and slanted on turns etc. from all the biking that takes place here.
From what I’ve read about the area, despite Boulder being a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, with about 37% of the population being mountain bikers, there are relatively few trails where mountain bikers can go. Hall Ranch is one of the places they can go, and therefore is a popular mountain biking trail.
Mountain Ball Cactus
Along Bitterbrush Trail I saw my first ever flowering cactus in the wild. The vibrant fuchsia-colored flowers caught my eye immediately as we hiked along the trail.
Mountain Ball Cactus, or Pediocactus simpsonii, is a native shrub that grows in the west of the U.S.
Mountain Ball Cactus usually grows in single balls, but sometimes can branch out like this. The flowers are typically pink, but can also be white, magenta, or yellow. They tend to grow at high elevations. We saw some at an altitude of about 6,200 ft. They favor ground that is dry, open, and gets lots of sun.
Along the Bitterbrush Trail is a prairie dog town, with a wide area full of prairie dog holes and little prairie dogs running about. It was our first time ever seeing prairie dogs. They were so cute, making high-pitched/puppy dog noises and wagging their little tails quickly.
One prairie dog was amazingly bold and came to have a munch on some grass not too far from us, so I took tome photos.
Here the prairie dog is alert, taking stock of its surroundings.
Some hikers and mountain bikers passed by, so the prairie dog went into semi-hiding in its hole.
Indian Lookout Mountain
Close to the parking lot we got a good view of Indian Lookout Mountain from Bitterbrush Trail.
And here is more of a close-up –
This mountain is also clearly visible from the main parking lot.
Recommending Nighthawk Trail for Hiking
The terrain in this area is not too challenging and we saw several families walking on the trails. Hall Ranch is a beautiful place in an easy-access location for people of varying activities and fitness levels.
Perhaps for most people sharing the trail with mountain bikers (second half of the loop – the Nelson Loop and Bitterbrush Trail) is not an issue, but we learned that we prefer to go on hiking-only trails so that we don’t have to be on alert for bikes coming fast down the hill behind us. If you are a hiker with similar preferences, I would recommend sticking to hiking back and forth along the Nighthawk Trail – which would amount to 9.4 miles – instead of doing the 9.9-mile full loop that is recommended on Hiking Project. The main thing that you’d miss out on would be viewing the prairie dog town, as cacti abound all around the ranch. I loved seeing the prairie dogs and checking out the entire ranch, so it was worth it for us to do the full loop at least once.