frosty trees at NCAR

NCAR and Its Hiking Trails

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After a very snowy weekend in Denver, I talked my friend Kat into doing approximately a 4-mile hike in Boulder on Tuesday.  The trails at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) seemed like a good option as NCAR doesn’t charge for parking like the smaller surrounding lots do.  In addition, the exhibits at NCAR are sort of interesting.  Too bad this national weather research center doesn’t help out weathermen get the forecast right!

Anyway, while Denver got at least twice as much snow as expected over the weekend, Boulder was spared.  Only three inches fell in the area.  Having four days to melt, we expected we’d see little snow and a lot of mud.

The Plan for Hiking at NCAR

Originally, I suggested we hike Woods Quarry Trail, but I later realized I had already hiked it and the trail was a little shorter than I wanted.  My goal was to hike for longer than our drive to and from Boulder.  As such, I quickly looked at Bear Canyon Trail.  According to the description, it was 1.7 miles one-way and had to be reached via NCAR Trail and a portion of Mesa Trail.  These segments added 2.3 miles roundtrip to the hike, so in total it looked like a 5.7 mile hike or so, and it didn’t seem to hard.

Boy were we in for a surprise.  Things did not go as planned from the start.  First, the forecast of sunny skies and 45 degrees started as foggy and 20 degrees, thus we delayed our start time an hour.  Next, I suggested the new plan to Kat, but couldn’t get a map to print, so I only had a small picture that we couldn’t see well.  Additionally, Kat forgot her food.  At the time, none of this appeared problematic, as we were hiking in a populated area with lots of signs. 

The Hike

We laced up our hiking boots, threw on our packs, leashed up the dogs and walked toward the nearest trailhead located at the southern edge of the parking lot.  Holding back the dogs, we stumbled down the slick, steep less traveled trail only to see an easier one up ahead.  This should have been our first clue as to how our day would go.  At least the fog had cleared, and the temperature was climbing quickly.

After squinting at the map, we headed southwest.  Within minutes, five pounds of mud globbed onto our boots.  Soon we reached a nice section of Mesa Trail and enjoyed the view of the frost covered trees.  Our first mile was rather flat, hardly rising above the beginning elevation around 6,000 feet.

Bear Canyon Trail

Upon reaching Bear Canyon Trail, we gained about 500 feet of elevation per mile for the next two miles.  Though climb wasn’t hard, it was very slow going as we maneuvered across intermittent dirt, light snow, ice, and heavy snow.  With ecstatic dogs, the ice proved challenging.  I finally strapped on my micro-spikes for traction after I fell once.

We passed through a pine forest, then an aspen grove, crossed bridge and after about two hours of hiking, I finally cried Uncle, “I need a snack!”

This is when I found out Kat didn’t have any food.  Fortunately, I tend to bring twice the amount I plan to eat, so I had plenty for sharing.  After a short rest, we carried onto ridge where a burn area provided provided a few of a steep peak ahead.

Bear Creek West Ridge Trail

I realized this was Bear Peak which I had intended NOT to climb.  Unfortunately, however, we ended up on Bear Peak West Ridge Trail and the only way to go was up.  We had hiked four miles and the fifth mile looked ominous, not to mention we came to realize that my 5.7 mile calculation was inaccurate!

Well, it was shorter to complete the 7.6 mile loop than to turn back, so up we went.  I don’t think the dogs dragging us upward were any help as we engaged every muscle to keep our footing on the ice.  Not in full hiking shape over the winter, we felt rather accomplished upon completing the climb.  Particularly so when we figured out we had gained 2,800 feet, the last 600 feet in half a mile!

After enjoying the sweeping views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, we reached a trail junction signed for South Boulder Peak.  Though we were at the Fern Canyon junction according to the All Trails app that we had now enlisted for help, we couldn’t find a sign.  The best we could tell, we’d descend Bear Peak and perhaps find the junction to the left a little further down.

Descending with dogs was more treacherous than ascending, thus we concentrated heavily on keeping them behind us as we skidded along the ice.  As we struggled, some guy jogged right by us and he wasn’t the first person we spotted running the trails.  I feel like I’m pretty fit until I see these people.  I don’t know how they didn’t fall on the ice.  Of course, Boulder is the most fit city in America.

South Boulder Peak Trail

Relieved, we found the unmarked junction and turned to the left without looking at the All Trails map on Kat’s phone.  Oops!

We continued our steep descent taking careful steps over the ice and boulders while doing our best to keep the dogs healing.  This is pretty hard with a short leash while dropping a few feet at a time.  The poor dogs jumped from rock to rock, stopping on each one as we climbed down.

We ran into a few more folks and one guy Chris donned in shorts and trail shoes, no boots.  He asked how much further it was to the top.  Having come from a different direction, we said we weren’t sure, but figured he was at least halfway.  This was when we realized we were not on Fern Creek Trail which is also the trail I originally left out of my calculation.

My heart sank.  It was 2 pm and we had been hiking for nearly 3.5 hours.  We didn’t have the energy or the daylight to turn around.  The only thing we could figure is people weren’t using Fern Creek Trail so it was covered with snow because we looked for it on the peak and when we descended to no avail.

At this point, Kat quoted her father, “Well you’re not lost ‘til you run out of gas!”

Kat’s uplifting attitude made me smile.  And, we knew where we were, we just didn’t like where we would end up…at a different trailhead from our car!

Fortunately, our new friend Chris decided to turn around as he wasn’t sure there was enough daylight for him to reach the top. He agreed to give us ride to our car.  While I sensed his reluctance as he looked at the muddy dogs, it was the only glimmer of hope I needed to add yet another mile to our hike.

Nearly Nine Miles Later

With our energy fading, but our attitudes positive, we finally finished our 5.7 mile / 8.6 mile hike after sliding over more ice. Both Chris and Kat fell, though with the help of a rock and tree, Kat managed to wedge herself about a foot off the ground before recovering. 

In the parking lot, Chris breathed a sigh of relief when we said we’d Uber and shuttle cars while one person waited with the dogs.  In the end, I waited with the dogs while Chris shuttled Kat, and we all got something out of it as Chris learned he could park at NCAR for free rather than paying for parking at the trailhead where he started!

The circumstances could have been better, and they could have been worse.  It just goes to show what nature coupled with a miscalculation can do.  So much for our nice, easy stroll in the woods.

Though never in danger with cell service, food and gear, it was a good reminder for experienced hikers.  The long day of adventure still beats a day in the office. One word of caution if hiking at NCAR, the trails criss-cross everywhere! We weren’t the only ones partially lost. ETB

Other Hikes At or Nearby NCAR


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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

2 thoughts on “NCAR and Its Hiking Trails

  1. I agree that the trails are super confusing from NCAR…when we went there, we kept having to stop, check the phone, look around, read the signs…and even after all that we were still confused! Good work getting in a cool hike though!

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