Distance: 20.3 miles
Weather: Chilly, Socked-in
Left the house this morning around 5:30 a.m. bound for Chautauqua in Boulder. Upon opening my garage door, I was greeted by the hooting of a distant owl. Such a great way to start a day. On the agenda on this chilly morning was the Backside Loop, an approximately 20-mile route that circumnavigates the dramatic Flatirons, the mountainous backdrop to the city of Boulder.
After the 50-minute drive from home and a quick stop for a bagel, I hit Chautauqua and was the first and only car in the parking lot. I strapped on my North Face hydration pack, stuffed with water and four gels, and headed out across the meadow toward Gregory Canyon.
I ran up Gregory Canyon to the ranger cottage, then jumped on the Long Canyon trail. The trees throughout the canyon were covered with a thin layer of snow, the product of a cold front that moved in the day before,swapping our 70-degree weather for temps this morning in the low 30s. The trail, thankfully, was clear of snow and the only white stuff I ran through was on the bridges, plus a bit in the north-facing depths of the canyon lingering from the snow storm of two weeks ago.
Up the first two canyons, I followed a solitary pair of footprints, but my only company on these two trails were the dark-eyed juncos that flitted about as I approached and a small flock of wild turkeys near the top where Long Canyon meets Flagstaff Road. The light dusting of snow seemed to absorb any and all sounds, save for the cacophonous cackle of the occasional magpie.
Where Long Canyon ends at Flagstaff Road, I headed uphill on an old roadbed, but soon lost the track and did a bit of bushwhacking to just above the last switchback on Flagstaff. After 2-3 miles on the paved, and sometimes icy, Flagstaff Road, I hit Walker Ranch, a 3,778-acre bit of Boulder County Open Space and Bureau of Land Management land.
I can't believe how long it's been since I'd visited Walker Ranch. I used to mountain bike there regularly, when I lived in Boulder. I think it's been about nine years since I'd been up there. A number of things had changed. A fair bit of trail work had been done. And, the Eldorado fire, which burned over 1,000 acres in 2000, was evident with a hillside of charred trees near the western trailhead.
From the Walker Ranch Loop trailhead, I headed northeast cruising up a short uphill section before winding my way
to an east-facing hill and descending on switchbacks through trees to an old two-track that led down to South Boulder Creek and the Eldorado Canyon Trail. After a quick jaunt down to check out the creek, I began the ascent up the Eldorado Canyon Trail. This trail was new to me, as it was built since my last visit to the area. The trail climbs relatively steeply up to a highpoint with normally great views back down into Walker Ranch and down into Eldorado Canyon (I'd run to this high point from Eldorado Canyon earlier this fall). Today, though, the views were obscured by a thick cover of low-lying clouds.
I made pretty quick work of the Eldorado Canyon Trail as it dipped and turned along hillsides and into small sub-drainages. After a few miles and three short climbs, the trail drops suddenly down into Eldorado Canyon via a series of well-built switchbacks. Interestingly, on the last stretch down to the dirt road near the canyon's bottom, I passed five people with a television-style video camera on a tripod. I didn't pause long enough to even make a guess as to what they were shooting, but had to laugh at the strange scene.
From the upper picnic area in the canyon, I followed the road down to the small hamlet of Eldorado Springs. Trying to remember directions I read last night, I headed across a bridge over South Boulder Creek in search of an unmarked trail that would take me up to Shadow Canyon and the Mesa Trail, which I would follow back to Chautauqua.
I knew the trail was past a couple of trailers and up a driveway, but once in the area, the jumble of ramshackle houses, trailers and assorted dirt roads, drives and tracks left me scratching my head. After an ill-fated attempt to find the trail off a driveway clearly marked "No Tresspassing," I was accosted by the owner who just happened to pick that moment to head down his drive in his Honda Civic. Fortunately, he was good natured and understanding and pointed me in the right direction. The trail, it turned out was toward the east end of Baldwin Circle and, as advertised, accessed off a gravel driveway.
The trail began as a pretty rough social trail. After it winds around the edge of a few private property lines, it climbs steadily up a long grassy valley to the intersection with the Shadow Canyon Trail. I imagine this stretch of trail would be absolutely gorgeous in the summer, when the grass is green and tall.
I took Shadow Canyon to the Mesa Trail and ran Mesa all the way back to Chautauqua. Once back at Chautauqua, I did a quick loop through the meadow and did once around the paved road by the dining hall to get the total mileage just over 20 miles for the day.
This is a great loop, with excellent and well-marked trails (save for the jaunt up from Eldorado Springs) and just a little bit of pavement. As I write this here at 7,800 feet in Evergreen, it's snowing pretty hard, making me even more grateful to have had at least one last opportunity to do a long run on snow-free trails this late in the season.