Sitting high above the Front Range at 8342 feet, Bear Peak is one of the most incredible hikes in and around Boulder, Colorado. The 5.5 to 7 miles of trail (depending upon where you start out) offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape including the views over Boulder, the Continental Divide to the west, and Denver’s distant skyline sprouted in the vastness of the Great Plains to the east.
So, how long does it take to hike Bear Peak? You should budget at least 4 to 5 hours for the hike. If you want to stop and enjoy the views along the way or have a picnic at the top, it can easily add up to over 7 hours on the trail. Here are a few things to take into consideration when planning your trip to hike Bear Peak…
The Best Trailhead To Start Hiking Bear Peak
There are numerous different trail heads and parking lots around Boulder on the Front Range, and surrounding Bear Peak, that will have trails that lead in some way or another to the top. There is even parking on the streets in the Table Mesa neighborhood where you can access some trails up to Bear Peak.
Because there are so many spider webbing trails in this area, be careful when following maps and trail markers. It is easy to accidentally take a wrong turn that links up with other trails which will access different parts of the Front Range instead of Bear Peak. Easy mistakes like this could inadvertently add on a lot of unwanted time to your hike so make sure you look at the maps posted and know where you’re going.
The parking lot at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is certainly the best place to start out but you can also access trails from the South Mesa Trailhead just before Eldorado Springs, and from South Boulder Creek West Trailhead which is just outside of town a few miles before Eldorado Springs Canyon.
You can even access the trails up to Bear Peak from Chautauqua Park if you hike across the Flatirons to the south but NCAR is the shortest hike with a lot of quick elevation gain. These other trailheads will add on a bit more distance to your hike but can be gentler uphill throughout until the last scramble through a rock field to the summit.
Although these alternate trails will offer plenty more to see, they will still be difficult. Remember, you are hiking a peak so pack extra water accordingly. Especially if you want to tackle Bear Peak from one of these further access points.
Here’s the google map for the NCAR starting point: https://goo.gl/maps/uaE6DJ11BcnsyHqc9
Consider The Altitude
If you are traveling to Colorado from sea level or anywhere below, be sure to do some research beforehand and figure out what it will take for you to get acclimated to the altitude of Boulder which sits at just over a mile above sea level. I have had many friends come to visit who were overtaken with light forms of altitude sickness in the first few days of their stay and who could not do anything besides lay in bed.
Drinking plenty of water while you’re here and while traveling is one of the best ways to fight off the effects of altitude sickness. It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, healthy or not because altitude sickness can affect anyone who isn’t ready for it with varying degrees of severity.
Even taking a few baby aspirin will help alleviate the effects of altitude sickness by helping your body thin the blood slowly to quickly acclimate at higher altitudes.
If you were thinking about climbing Bear Peak the day after you get off the plane, you might want to think again. The trail can get steep and technical in a few places throughout the hike and is like climbing endless stairs in other places. Plus, don’t forget about the scramble to the top at the end for an astonishing 365 degree view.
Try to take a couple other hikes in and around the area (and there are plenty of great trails all over Boulder) in the days leading up to an ascent so that your body can process the lower amount of oxygen in the air efficiently and so you aren’t struck with sickness out near one of the tallest peaks above Boulder.
Again, you can really minimize the effects of altitude sickness if you keep your body properly fueled and constantly hydrated. A couple of warm up hikes never hurt anybody and all of the trails around Boulder are placid year round. There is even over the counter medication or prescriptions written by doctors for more intense medicine to remedy altitude sickness that might work.
However, if you drink plenty of water and give yourself a few days to get acclimated, anyone can accomplish this hike.
Check the Weather Before You Head Out
Although Colorado is frequently most well-known for its abundance of sunshine, there are often rain showers in the early summer afternoons so in order to avoid these, be sure to get on the trail early. If you don’t mind waiting out a little bit of precipitation a few miles into your hike, make sure to bring a jacket and pack extra provisions that might be needed.
It is always better to pack more and not use it than to wish you had something halfway into a long hike. It is also not uncommon to have to put a jacket on halfway through the hike as there is shade throughout much of the later parts and the steep altitude gain makes it a bit colder up at these higher elevations.
Don’t be surprised to see a couple of rainbows come out arching across town after these early afternoon showers are drowned out by the hot sun. As you get closer to the peak and are closer to the sun, you can easily get burned in all seasons so make sure to pack sunscreen and apply it liberally throughout your time on the trail.
If you are thinking about hiking Bear Peak anywhere in the fall or late spring, don’t be shocked to run into residual snow or slush still on the trail from early storms and lingering freeze up at higher elevations. If you want to go in the middle of winter, make sure you know what you are doing.
Bring a partner, proper spikes, ropes as needed, and make sure to plan accordingly in order to stay safe while you’re up there. It can be very dangerous and icy in the winter and access will be difficult but not altogether impossible. I’d only recommend a winter ascent if you are confident in your abilities as a mountaineer and outdoorsman.
If you are, it will be worth the extra trouble to get to the top and to see all of Boulder and the unique views from Bear Peak in the winter season.
Adjacent Peaks Worth Visiting
As I mentioned before, there are a variety of access points for Bear Peak from all long the base of the Front Range in Boulder, but there are also several other adjacent peaks and lookouts very close that are certainly worth adding to your trip if you want to and have the time. Most notably, Green Mountain Summit to the north, and South Boulder Peak next to Devils Thumb to the south can be hiked in the same trip as up to the summit of Bear Peak.
If you are ambitious and want to make it to all three via the Boulder Skyline Traverse from the South Mesa Loop Trail, it is an amazing hike and I highly recommend it.
There is also an access point from Fern Canyon which runs semi-parallel to Bear Canyon Trail and an access through Shadow Canyon which meets up with the Boulder Skyline Traverse. Because of all the interconnected trails in the area, do some research, look at the signs and maps at the trailheads, and decide which will be the best route for you and the hike you want to complete up to Bear Peak.
Any route to the top will offer spectacular views as well as an up-close look into the oft overlooked diverse biosphere of the high desert.
Limitless Fun In The Front Range of Colorado
Bear Peak is one of the highest points in Boulder County and a superlative hike. It can be difficult to tackle because of the hard terrain throughout but the reward of overlooking Boulder and the views Bear Peak has to offer towards the end are matchless. Hopefully some of these tips and suggestions will help you figure out just how long it will take you to hike Bear Peak and to be ready for all it is sure to throw at you.
Make sure to be physically ready for a strenuous day, and pack and plan accordingly for inclement weather and the routes you want to take both up and down the mountain. Most of all, enjoy the hike because Bear Peak is worth every step uphill, and offers limitless fun in the vast wilderness of the Front Range of Colorado.
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Cameron is a freelance writer with a focus on hiking, fishing and photography. He studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Colorado Boulder and now calls Chicago, Illinois home.