Hiking Bear Peak & South Boulder Peak
Bear Peak (8,459′) and South Boulder Peak (8,549′) are two of the highest and most famous peaks in the Boulder area (others being Green Mountain, Mt. Sanitas, and the Flatirons). Indeed, South Boulder Peak is the highest peak in Boulder. Hikes to these peaks, especially via Fern Canyon, are considered some of the hardest in Boulder due to steep elevation gain over a short distance (about 2,000 ft over 2 miles). Hiking these trails is great training practice for difficult or long hikes, including for backpacking trips or 13ers/14ers.
Last year I attempted Bear Peak on a hot summer day and wasn’t prepared for the sharp and steep elevation gain, and didn’t bring enough water with me. I knew I should attempt it again when the weather was cooler.
The cooler weather was definitely a plus, preventing me from overheating, but you definitely need to bring microspikes and poles to prevent slipping on the ice that covers the mountains at the higher elevations in winter.
There are many trails available in the area, so you have to pay attention to where you turn at each junction.
To do this hike, you park at the end of Cragmoor Road. From there, you take the Cragmoor Connector 0.2 miles up to Shanahan-North Fork Trail for 0.7 miles, connect to Fern Canyon Trail via the Shanahan-Mesa connector trail for 0.4 miles, and then up Fern Canyon 0.9 miles to reach the summit of Bear Peak. From Bear Peak you then take the Bear Peak Trail for 0.3 miles to the junction to South Boulder Peak. From there, it is 0.3 miles to the summit of South Boulder Peak. After descending South Boulder Peak Trail back to the junction, you hike down Shadow Canyon Trail for 1.1 miles, turn left onto the Shadow Canyon North Trail and follow it for 0.6 miles to connect with the Mesa Trail, and then follow the Mesa Trail for 1.1 miles to connect back to the Shanahan-North Fork and head down to the parking area again with the remaining 0.9 miles of the hike.
There are several ways to approach Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak.
1) Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak via Shanahan North Fork, Fern Canyon, and Shadow Canyon (8 miles, 3,353 ft elevation gain; similar to the trail I took)
2) Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak Loop from South Mesa Trailhead (8.8 miles, 3,431 ft elevation gain)
3) Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak via Western Ridge (9.6 miles, 2,641 ft elevation gain)
4) Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak via Bear Canyon and the Mesa Trail from NCAR (10.2 miles, 3,494 ft elevation gain)
5) Bear Peak, South Boulder Peak, and Green Mountain Loop from Chautauqua Park (12.6 miles, 4,609 ft elevation gain)
Starting Out – Shanahan North Fork Trail
The Cragmoor Connector to Shanahan North Fork Trail climbs uphill steadily. To continue on the Shanahan-North Fork Trail, you have to go straight/ veer right at the junction –
The wide trail and towering pine trees provide for pleasant scenery –
Fern Canyon Trail
After 0.9 miles of hiking, you reach the junction with Fern Canyon Trail. Make sure to turn left here to continue up to Bear Peak. From this point to the summit of Bear Peak, you have to climb about 2,000 ft over 2 miles.
As you continue, you start to see views of the mountains –
Fern Canyon Trail has many steep inclines. At this time of year more than half of it is covered with ice and requires microspikes and poles to climb.
Half a mile up, about 2 miles into the hike, you pass by the Nebel Horn and reach an open area with views of Green Mountain to the north –
The Nebel Horn, from Fern Canyon Trail –
After passing the open area with views, you hike up more steep hill. For me, this stretch to the top of Bear Peak was the most difficult section of the hike. I had to stop a few times to catch my breath.
Summit of Bear Peak
The physical summit of Bear Peak is at the top of a very steep rock scramble that is quite dangerous, especially when it’s icy. I was glad to learn recently that the post marker just below the scramble is considered the summit of the peak by most hikers in Boulder for this reason.
The views from Bear Peak’s summit are spectacular, looking out to the City of Boulder, Green Mountain, and the snow-dusted mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks Wilderness in the distance.
Looking west from the summit focuses in on the mountains of the Indian Peaks Wilderness –
Originally I had planned to just do Bear Peak out-and-back, but because Fern Canyon Trail was so steep and icy, and I was feeling good, I decided to tag South Boulder Peak as well. Before continuing on, I made sure to text my husband the change in my plans for safety.
Trail to South Boulder Peak
The short 0.3 mile Bear Peak Trail that connects to the junction with South Boulder Peak and Shadow Canyon is a treat.
It has great views of South Boulder Peak –
As well as uninterrupted views the Indian Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park in the distance –
Close to the junction –
South Boulder Peak
From the junction to the summit, the climb is about 350 ft over 0.3 miles. Most of the mountain was covered in snow. Microspikes were necessary to get to the top.
View as you climb, looking out east toward Boulder –
The view looking behind you as you climb up, including Bear Peak to the right –
What the summit looks like as you approach it –
South Boulder Peak Summit Views
This was my first time hiking South Boulder Peak, and I think it will be a new favorite destination of mine in Boulder. The views as you climb, as well as from the top, are both interesting and beautiful. You can see so much from there!
View looking south –
View looking southeast –
View looking west –
View looking north / back where you came from, including Bear Peak –
Shadow Canyon Trail
After coming back to the junction, you turn right and take Shadow Canyon Trail downhill for 1.1 miles.
The views near the top of the trail –
Shadow Canyon lived up to its name of being shadowy, especially on a winter afternoon. The dark, rocky, and steep path was it’s own form of exercise and I could feel my legs shaking a little at times on the way down. Still, there were only a few small ice patches, and I was glad that I decided to take this long way around instead of going down Fern Canyon.
On the way down Shadow Canyon, you get a nice view of the forest and Devil’s Thumb, which is a rock climbing destination –
The Mesa Trail
At the end of Shadow Canyon, you turn left to connect with the Mesa Trail. At the junction you can still see a bit of the mountains and rock formations, but for the rest of the hike you walk through forest.
There were some icy patches on the Mesa Trail –
But most of it was dry, like this Mesa Trail meadow –
Recommended as a Strenuous Hike
Any permutation of doing Bear Peak, South Boulder Peak, or both is a strenuous hike with gorgeous views at the top to reward you for your efforts of climbing up a few thousand feet. This 7.15-mile, 3,400’+ elevation gain loop hike that includes both Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak was both beautiful and a great workout.