Boulder – The Mesa Trail

Hiking the Boulder Mesa Trail

The Mesa Trail in Boulder is 6.7 miles in one direction, approximately 13 miles back and forth. It’s not a common trail for people to hike by itself due to its length and the fact that you don’t get any summit views, but most hikers in Boulder have walked along portions of it on their way to other destinations. The trail passes through and by many of the famous trails of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks, including Chautauqua Park, NCAR, Fern Canyon, Bear Canyon, Shadow Canyon, and more. Hiking the Mesa Trail is an interesting way to see how all these major trails are connected, while also getting a great workout.

I was intrigued by this trail and wanted to hike it for some time, but wasn’t sure about hiking such a long distance alone. As luck would have it, I learned that one of my friends from the Boulder Hiker Chicks was also interested in hiking it, so we decided to take the plunge together.

The Hike

You can start from either end – Chautauqua Park or the South Mesa Trailhead. Both have ample parking and restrooms. The trail itself is not difficult, but what adds to the difficulty is both the length and how the path goes up and down over hills in both directions. As opposed to starting out uphill and difficult and returning downhill and easier. It’s not a big deal on the way out, but on the return journey the hills feel pronounced.

Starting Out from South Mesa Trailhead

We started out from the South Mesa Trailhead at approximately 8:30 am on a chilly and overcast January day. The Mesa Trail starts from the parking lot and is well-marked the entire way.

There are some good views of Boulder’s mountains from the start of the trail –

Boulder Mountains South Mesa Trailhead

Much of the trail is forested, and you hike by Ponderosa Pines

The Mesa Trail Ponderosa Pine forest

Every now and then you get a view looking out beyond the trees –

The Mesa Trail

Or peeks at the neighboring mountains. One of the landmarks you pass by is Devil’s Thumb

The Mesa Trail Devil's Thumb

The view as you pass by the connector to Shadow Canyon Trail (which leads up to South Boulder Peak) –

The Mesa Trail link with Shadow Canyon Trail

One of the best views of the surrounding mountains is in the meadow that connects to the NCAR Trailhead

The Mesa Trail passing by NCAR

Beyond that, views from the trail included the City of Boulder down below –

The Mesa Trail view of the City of Boulder

And more lovely Ponderosa Pine forest.

The Mesa Trail Ponderosa Pine forest

Chautauqua Park

To be precise, the Mesa Trail ends at an outhouse, which sits on the Bluebell Trail. From that point it’s only 0.3 miles along the Bluebell Trail down to the Ranger Station in Chautauqua Park.

Chautauqua Park Bluebell Trail

The Flatirons

The quintessential Boulder view from just outside the Ranger Cabin –

Chautauqua Park Flatirons

We decided to go all the way to the Ranger Cabin in Chautauqua Park because (1) it felt like we were completing a full out-and-back journey through the parks, and (2) there is a restroom and park benches to sit on with views. My friend and I rested there for about half an hour, chowing down on our well-earned PB&J sandwiches.

When we were close to reaching the mid-point I said to my friend “I know I’m probably going to regret saying this, but this trail seems kinda easy and so doable. I’m not that tired.”

The Return Journey

There is always something about starting again where you need to work up the momentum you had before, and we were really feeling it with our full stomachs.

Luckily, on the way back the sun started to come out, making for some lovely scenery –

The Mesa Trail

I actually don’t have that many pictures from the return journey. Partly because we already passed those places and took pictures, and partly because we were starting to get really tired and just wanted to keep going and get to the end of it.

About halfway along the trek back, maybe 9 or so miles into the hike, we were really starting to feel the constant ups and downs of the hills. I definitely knew I’d regret saying that the trail was “easy” or “so doable”. It is doable, just not easy. It probably didn’t help that I’d done another strenuous hike the previous day. We renewed the vigor of the hike once we agreed to treat ourselves with a solid meal of burgers (Beyond Burger in my case, since I’m vegetarian) at Under the Sun Eatery in Boulder afterwards.

Near the End

Close to the end of our hike the sun had already dipped behind the mountains, but the gentle light along the ridge and in the grassland below was beautiful.

Recommended as a Strenuous Hike

Hiking out-and-back 13 miles along the Mesa Trail is an excellent way to get in some serious exercise, while also seeing how many of the famous Boulder trails connect with one another. I’m not sure I would do it again, other than for distance training, as you can experience much more interesting scenery from the mountain summits in Boulder. However, I’m still really glad that I completed it and that I could share the experience with a friend.

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