Boulder – NCAR Loop

Hiking the NCAR Loop in Boulder

There are many trails that you can access from the trailhead at the parking lot for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. Hike options range from easy to moderate to hard. This loop trail from NCAR is a moderate hike and features beautiful views of the Boulder mountains and the Flatirons.

The Hike

I did this 3.4-mile, 700ft+ elevation gain hike clockwise, but I think it would be better done counter-clockwise. Below I will describe the trail on the clockwise route, since that is the way I hiked it.

The loop is comprised of several trails – the NCAR Trail, the Mesa Trail, Skunk Canyon Trail, the NCAR Skunk Canyon Trail, and the NCAR Table Mesa Trail.

Although my Suunto Traverse log marks the trail at about 440ft elevation gain, I think it is closer to the 700ft+ elevation gain described by AllTrails.

Starting Out – The NCAR Trail

The hike starts out on the NCAR Trail, which is easy to find at the top of the NCAR parking lot.

From the start of the hike you are treated to lovely views of the Boulder mountains. Soon, you go downhill –

And after crossing a short meadow, you head uphill again –

At the top of this hill, about half a mile into the hike, is a water tank.

The Mesa Trail

After passing the water tank, you head downhill a bit again and when you reach a junction, turn right to connect with the Mesa Trail (although keeping straight will still connect you, it’s slightly less direct).

This area has some of the best views on the trail of the Boulder mountains –

While on the connector trail you can start to see the Flatirons to the right –

At about 0.7 miles into the hike, you connect with the Mesa Trail. Along this part of the trail you can see some views of the city of Boulder down below.

After following the Mesa Trail for 0.3 miles, you reach the junction with Skunk Canyon Trail and turn right.

Skunk Canyon Trail

Besides the mountain views at the Mesa Trail junction, Skunk Canyon Trail was my favorite part of this hike because of its lovely forest and great views.

From the junction, you go downhill. At first the trail goes through a shady pine forest –

You pass by some scree with the Mesa Trail continuing above –

And then come out into a valley –

The trail goes down into the valley, where the views of the mountains are also beautiful.

0.7 miles down Skunk Canyon you will come to a junction. Take the right to continue along Skunk Canyon Trail.

One of the reasons I would recommend doing this loop counter-clockwise is that, if you go counter-clockwise, you get views of the mountains all the way uphill on Skunk Canyon.

The other reason to go counter-clockwise is that the elevation gain on the hike gets dispersed over a longer distance on Skunk Canyon Trail (instead of NCAR Table Mesa Trail at the end of the loop), making the hike a bit easier.

After a couple switchbacks and 0.3 miles of hiking further along Skunk Canyon Trail, you reach another junction. Take a right to continue on to NCAR Skunk Canyon Trail.

NCAR Skunk Canyon Trail

The NCAR Skunk Canyon Trail is the least interesting part of the hike. It is a dirt service road that passes behind some private properties.

You follow this trail for 0.5 miles. When you get to what looks like a junction next to a neighborhood cul-de-sac, keep going straight. By going straight for 0.2 miles, you will directly connect with the NCAR Table Mesa Trail.

NCAR Table Mesa Trail

At the end of the NCAR Skunk Canyon Trail you will reach a road crossing that directly connects with the NCAR Table Mesa Trail. Since most of the hike was downhill until this point, with some hills at the beginning, the majority of the elevation gain happens here. It is half a mile from the crossing to the end of the trail.

This trail heads uphill in a meadow with very little shade.

Most of the way you can see views of the Boulder mountains and the Flatirons.

At the top of the hill you come out near the NCAR parking lot.

Recommended as a Moderate Hike

The NCAR Loop in Boulder is a lovely 3.4-mile 700ft elevation gain hike with beautiful views of the Boulder mountains and the Flatirons. If you are looking for a shorter hike that features great Boulder views, this is the hike for you.

Being pregnant, this hike was about the maximum of what I can currently do. Still, it’s likely doable for other active pregnant women and members of the family of all ages.

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