Hiking Colorado: Exploring the First and Second Flatirons

Looking down toward Boulder partway up the trail.
I have a serious problem when it comes to visiting places like Colorado. 

As soon as I get off the plane, no matter what I'm actually in Colorado to do, the first thing I want to do is lace up my hiking shoes and head for the hills. It's a problem because if I'm visiting for anything other than hiking, sometimes it'll be a while before my kicks meet the dirt. Luckily, on a recent trip to Boulder, that wasn't the case.

While in town for a close friend's wedding last weekend, I had approximately two hours between lunch and wedding-related activities. After sitting on a plane all morning and thinking about how amazing the hiking is in Colorado, the only thing I wanted to do was to get out and play.

On a recommendation from someone who knows a thing or two about Colorado's hiking trails, I chose an iconic destination within the Boulder city limits to get my hiking fix for the day.

About Boulder's Flatirons

It's pretty hard not to notice the series of flat, sloping, bright red rock formations on the way into Boulder. Dubbed the Flatirons because they resemble old fashioned irons, the giant slabs to the west of downtown Boulder are the most prominent and unique feature of the booming Colorado town's landscape. The Flatirons visible from Boulder are part of the Fountain Formation, and were tilted into their current position sometime between 35 and 80 million years ago. Then, erosion shaped the rock into the formations we see today.

A view of the second Flatiron from partway up the trail. Pretty spectacular, no?

I'd heard of rock climbers free soloing the Flatirons long before I got to see them for myself, but had no idea there were plenty of ways to explore the area with my feet planted on terra firma. The formations visible from Boulder are under the jurisdiction of the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), as are other special places in the area worthy of protection. Together, all of the land within the OSMP system serves as a buffer around the city, and provides endless opportunities for recreation. The land managed by OSMP includes nearly 150 miles of trails, including plenty of miles around the Flatirons.

At this intersection, make sure to take the high road (trail) to keep ascending.

Hiking up the First and Second Flatiron

After a quick drive up to Chataqua Park and a visit to the historic Ranger Cottage, I found myself with maps in hand and a plan to hike up the first and second Flatirons. I parked almost directly next to the Chatauqua Trailhead (39.999140, -105.282999) and started up the trail after changing out of what I'd worn on the flight to Denver and into hiking clothes.

The Chatauqua Trail takes hikers through a beautiful meadow and climbs gently toward the base of the Flatirons. After linking up with the Bluebird-Baird trail, this particular route takes you into the woods and out of the blistering summer sun. Hikers will come to a fork in the trail (above left) with signage that should made it clear which way to go to continue up the first and second Flatiron. In general, I found the signage extremely clear.

After hiking through the woods, you'll pop out of the trees and on to a giant talus field. The trail is easy to follow, but you'll definitely want to stop and take a breath along this part of the route. The views of Boulder are absolutely spectacular.

The talus field is an abrupt interruption to the shaded forest the trail passes through, but the view's pretty incredible.

After heading back into the trees, hikers have more steep, rocky terrain to contend with all the way up what seems like an endless number of switchbacks, but it's absolutely worth it. There are plenty of vista points to stop at, sunny rocks to have a snack or lunch on, and a few particularly steep spots to keep you on your toes.

See if you can spot the hiker scrambling around the top of the first Flatiron!
As I got higher, I saw social trails branching off into the woods along with a few spots where so many hikers had cut switchbacks it was a challenge to see if I was still on the originally established trail. But in general, I didn't have any trouble finding my way.

The 2.6 mile round trip out-and-back hike took me about 90 minutes and it was the perfect afternoon jaunt for someone just coming from sea level. It also just felt amazing to get out and move after sitting on a plane for four hours, and to see Boulder from a completely new perspective.

Tips and Things to Know Before You Go

Chatauqua Park is popular, and with good reason. I was beyond lucky to find a parking spot right outside the historic Ranger Cottage in the early afternoon. Either start early in the morning, keep your fingers crossed you'll find a spot in the lot, or prepare to park on the street near Chatauqua Park. Also, be prepared to see a whole bunch of people on the trail, which isn't necessarily a bad thing!

Mountain bikes aren't allowed on Chatauqua Park trails, but horses are on most trails, as are dogs, but leash regulations vary by trail. Keep your eye on trail closure information as well as OSMP regulations, and take a a look at the trail map before you go. Also, be sure to stop into the Ranger Cottage while you're there. The OSMP staff was extremely helpful, given I walked in with no clue as to what hike I wanted to do, or how the Flatirons came to be. Finally, don't forget water and sunscreen, especially if you're not used to the Colorado climate and altitude.

Climbing up toward the top. I was definitely more out of breath than I would've been at home, but it was so beautiful and felt so good to be out that I hardly noticed!
If you're a Colorado native, have you hiked around Chatauqua Park and the Flatirons? Any tips for first time visitors? What favorite quick hikes close to Denver and Boulder do you have to share? Who's actually rock climbed one of the Flatirons? We'd love to hear from you!