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Shadow Canyon Trail to South Boulder Peak, Boulder, Colorado

High Point

High Point:
8,526 feet

Total Ascent

Total Ascent:
~2970 feet

Difficulty

Difficulty:
Hard

Distance

Distance:
7.8 miles

Waypoints

Waypoints:
39.93883, -105.25822

Route Type

Route Type:
Point to point, loop options available

Table of Contents:

Article Navigation: Click on any of the listed items in the table of contents below to jump to that section of the article. Similarly, clicking on any large, white section header will jump you back to the Table of Contents.

Overview:

South Boulder Peak is the tallest of the five mountains that guard Boulder’s western flanks. It is highly visible from points east and southeast, but its summit hides behind the sharp pinnacle of Bear Peak when viewed from Boulder. On clear days it’s possible to stare south from the summit and spot the solitary behemoth of Pikes Peak over 100 miles away.

The main way to ascend South Boulder Peak is up Shadow Canyon, a tough but very rewarding route bordered by stunning rock formations with names like the Devils Thumb and Maiden. The ridges around Shadow Canyon are popular for climbing but also experience seasonal closures because they are a favorite nesting area for birds of prey. A fire in 2012 has impacted the summit area and western slopes of both South Boulder and Bear Peak. Despite the damage, it’s interesting to note the regeneration of plants, providing a nice example of how forests recover from wildfires and how long it takes for the environment to truly heal.

If you’re looking for a way to grab nearly 3,000 feet of vertical rise on a peak within thirty minutes of Boulder, this is the mountain you want.

Photo 99/155: Looking southwest from the South Boulder’s summit ridge.

Looking southwest from the South Boulder’s summit ridge.

Directions to Trailhead:

This is one of a few different trailheads that lead to South Boulder Peak and its neighbor, Bear Peak. Of them, South Mesa accesses some of the quieter trails around Boulder. That isn’t to say the trailhead doesn’t get packed; as always, get there early and on weekdays if possible. South Mesa Trailhead is also a pay-to-play area; the cost is currently $5.00. You can find out which trailheads in the area require a fee through this link.

From downtown Boulder, make your way south on CO93 to the intersection with CO170. Take a right (west) leading towards Eldorado Canyon. From the south, proceed north on CO93 and take a left onto CO170. From the east, either find CO93 or take CO170 (Marshall Road) and drive west until sighting the trailhead on the roads north side (right) before you get to Eldorado Canyon State Park.

Field Notes:

Boulder is an attractive city for various reasons, one of them being the dramatic presentation of the area if you’re coming from the east or south. The impressive rocky ramparts of South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak rise thousands of feet from local trailheads and capture the attention of anyone passing by. Of the two, South Boulder is less popular and can on occasion provide long stretches of solitude, a rarity for being so close to populated areas.

Photo 119: regrowth in the fire area near South Boulder Peaks summit.

Regrowth in the fire area near South Boulder Peaks summit.

For your weather forecasts, start with Boulder’s extended weather forecast, which will give you the best details for the lower elevations of the hike. Since South Boulder Peak rises nearly 3,000 feet above Boulder, summit temperatures could be noticeably different than at the trailhead. Use Opensummit to get a better idea of the top part of the route. Please note, two-day forecasts on Opensummit are free to access, but longer-range forecasts are only accessible via paid membership. Mountain forecasts are notoriously inaccurate three or more days out; make sure to check the forecast right before you head out for the best results.

Places to Stay:

Like most hikes in the area, staying in Boulder is your best bet. The town has a ton of options. South Boulder Peak is also within an hour of most of the northern Denver metro area, Longmont, Golden, Lyons, Berthoud, Loveland, and the southern reaches of Fort Collins. Camping is possible in some places near Boulder, but they would all require a bit of a drive. Some OK options include Gross Reservoir sites, Gordon Gulch Dispersed Area, and near Switzerland Trail.

Journal:

Once you’ve found a place to park and paid the fee, locate the main trailhead and begin your journey.

Photo 3: Parking fee station and trail start at the South Mesa Trailhead.

Parking fee station and trail start at the South Mesa Trailhead.

You’ll cross South Boulder Creek pretty immediately.

Photo 5: A nice bridge across the creek.

A nice bridge across the creek.

Once you break out of the few trees lining the creek, views towards South Boulder Peak and the rocky ridges become obvious.

Photo 7: Looking west towards your ultimate destination.

Looking west towards your ultimate destination.

For the first part of this hike, take a left on Homestead Trail, about 0.2 miles from the trailhead.

Photo 10: Start of the Homestead Trail.

Start of the Homestead Trail.

The trail will hug the south side of a set of hills, offering views west and south.

Photo 20: Looking towards Eldorado Canyon from the Homestead Trail.

Looking towards Eldorado Canyon from the Homestead Trail.

The fields you’ll be crossing can get quite hot in the spring/summer sun so make sure you are putting on sunscreen or wearing a hat. As the Homestead Trail begins to climb, you’ll enter a mixed forest with a little more sun cover before hiking back into more fields.

Photo 31: Tree cover starts once you gain enough initial elevation.

Tree cover starts once you gain enough initial elevation.

After ~1.3 miles, you’ll run into a junction with the Mesa Trail; take a left here.

Photo 37: Junction with Mesa Trail.

Junction with Mesa Trail.

The Mesa Trail will head west initially before making a northward directional change and hugging the edge of the mountains. Keep an eye out for the junction that’ll give you access to Shadow Canyon.

Photo 47: Take another left here to get to Shadow Canyon.

Take another left here to get to Shadow Canyon.

As the trail approaches the canyon, tree cover increases once more, and you’ll be offered beautiful glimpses of the interesting rock formations that grace these mountains.

Photo 53: Looking up at the Maiden and Devil’s Thumb rock formations.

Looking up at the Maiden and Devil’s Thumb rock formations.

Once you finally enter Shadow Canyon, following signs as you pass, the trail width reduces significantly, and the hike takes on more of a wilderness character.

Photo 59: Shadow Canyon Trail.

Shadow Canyon Trail.

A seasonal creek runs down the canyon, and you’ll share much of the journey with it. The rocky trail will continue rising through the treed landscape for 1.2 miles.

Photo 72: An interesting trail work project along the way.

An interesting trail work project along the way.

Most of your elevation gain happens on this part of the trail, but long-distance views are limited.

Photo 74: Rock steps on the way up.

Rock steps on the way up.

As you ascend towards the saddle between South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak, views increase. The Flagstaff Fire in 2012 scorched Bear Peak and South Boulder Peak, and you’ll pass evidence of it the higher you climb.

Photo 79: Charred trees as you near the saddle.

Charred trees as you near the saddle.

Photo 86: Views back down Shadow Canyon to the fields near South Mesa Trailhead.

Views back down Shadow Canyon to the fields near South Mesa Trailhead.

At long last, you’ll find the junction between South Boulder and Bear Peak.

Photo 87: At the junction, take a left to climb South Boulder Peak.

At the junction, take a left to climb South Boulder Peak.

Once on the last bit of trail, South Boulder’s fire-damaged summit will appear obvious as the height of land in front of you.

Photo 91: Almost there! The top of South Boulder Peak is only 0.3 miles from the junction.

Almost there! The top of South Boulder Peak is only 0.3 miles from the junction.

As you conquer this last push, views behind you show the sharp summit of Bear Peak, Green Mountain, and the trail junction below.

Photo 97: View north just shy of South Boulder Pk. summit.

View looking north toward Bear Peak from just shy of South Boulder Peak summit.

The true summit lies atop a slanted rib of rock that requires a few easy boulder hopping moves to get to.

Photo 110: Views West from the summit ridge.

Views West from the South Boulder Peak summit ridge.

Take some time to enjoy the fantastic views before heading down the same way you came.

Photo 125: Low lying clouds crashing into the ridges near South Boulder Peak.

Low lying clouds crashing into the ridges near South Boulder Peak.

Take Shadow Canyon Trail back down to the mesas below.

Once you connect with Mesa Trail (taking a right onto it), a few lower loop options become available. If you want some variety, instead of retracing the Homestead Trail section, continue following Mesa Trail east as it takes a more circuitous path back to South Mesa Trailhead. Don’t forget to look back at where you were.

Photo 136: Looking back to the Devil’s Thumb rock formation.

Looking back to the Devil’s Thumb rock formation.

Photo 142: The north ridges of South Boulder Peak as storm clouds build.

The north ridges of South Boulder Peak as storm clouds build.

While a beautiful hike, South Boulder Peak is quite strenuous. Make sure you aren’t racing weather. Storms can form quickly, and the last mile and a half of the hike traverses some very open fields, places you don’t want to be if lightning strikes.

Photo 152: One last look to South Boulder Peak from near the parking lot.

One last look to South Boulder Peak from near the parking lot.

Final Thoughts:

Skyblue Overland founder Brian Hamilton hiked this trail on May 29, 2021. His hike was awesome and CHALLENGING! Pretty simple and gradual incline until you hit the Shadow Canyon part which was so steep and rocky. Shadow Canyon is aptly named as most of it is thankfully in the shade. Big rocks at very top of South Boulder Peak. Tons of wild raspberries along trail to top of the Peak in the summertime.

Photography for this article provided by Brian Hamilton.  Skyblue Overland uses SmugMug, a paid image sharing, image hosting service, and online video platform on which users can upload photos and videos. The SmugMug also facilitates the sale of digital and print media for amateur and professional photographers. See Skyblue Overland’s Adventure Photo Galleries from the Best Trails in Colorado at SmugMug.com.  Here is the entire Shadow Canyon Trail to South Boulder Peak Trail Gallery:


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As with each guide published on SKYBLUEOVERLAND.com, should you choose to this route, do so at your own risk. Prior to setting out check current local weather, conditions, and land/road closures. While taking a trail, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, carry proper safety and navigational equipment, and of course, follow the #leavenotrace guidelines. The information found herein is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by the specified contributor and/or contributors, the accuracy of such and judgement of the author is not guaranteed. SKYBLUE OVERLAND LLC, its partners, associates, and contributors are in no way liable for personal injury, damage to personal property, or any other such situation that might happen to individuals following this route.