The Boulder Open Space and Mountain Park system is essentially the best city park system in the country, and one of the most evident ways of discovering this is to climb one of the prominent mountains sitting just a few miles outside of Boulder itself. When people talk about the Boulder skyline, they’re not talking about the buildings that make up the city; they’re talking about the six major mountains that make up the skyline, rising up right out of the edge of town and towering, in some cases, 3,000 feet into the air. The tallest of these is South Boulder Peak, sitting at 8,549 feet and normally not visible from town due to the slightly shorter Bear Peak that takes all the attention and more of the daily allotment of hikers, runners, and climbers. The other mountains in the skyline are Eldorado Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain, and Mount Sanitas.
There are many ways to climb South Boulder Peak, most of which start at the South Mesa Trailhead, which this description will follow. But you can also leave from NCAR, Shanahan Ridge, South Boulder Creek, Bear Canyon. Or, if you’re feeling like a really long day, you can easily connect from Boulder itself at Chautauqua. The main portion of the hike involves Shadow Canyon, and you can take either the Homestead Trail, Towhee Trail, or the most heavily trafficked Mesa Trail to the west. Make sure you keep going up and to the left; the canyon should be fairly obvious in front of you and the signage is decent. You know you’re at the right place when you reach an old cabin in the trees near the creek that signifies the main part of the climb. From the cabin it is a steep 1,800-foot climb over just 1.1 miles to the saddle, where a short finishing hike to the Class II summit block is on your left.
From the top you can see a full panoramic vista in all directions including the vast plains, Pikes Peak to the south, Mount Evans to the southwest, the full Indian Peaks range, and most impressively, Longs Peak looming to the northwest. In evening light and with snow still in the high country, this is easily the best view you can get from any trail right from Boulder itself. When you’ve soaked in all the views you can, make your way back down the way you came to South Mesa Trailhead. Keep an eye out in the evening if you are planning to hike around sunset since bears, mountain lions, snakes, and other wildlife can be more active in the evening hours, and while this is a highly trafficked trail, it is also a wilderness mountain area.