Hiking through Forest Canyon Pass, nearly 11,500 feet above sea level, is a little like jumping into an ice-cold pond: It’s sobering, invigorating and takes a little getting used to. When I wasn’t catching my breath because of the altitude, I was taking in the picture-book panoramas of Rocky Mountain National Park.
It’s tough to beat a visit to Boulder, Colo., if you’re looking to get back to nature — easy access to several national forests and one of the finest national parks in the country helps — but you don’t actually have to leave the city at all to experience some exceptionally fine hiking and outdoor activities, as well as some satisfying dining experiences. Boulder is, however, an expensive city. Its real estate costs are some of the highest in the nation, and with Google and Amazon increasing their presence in town, that issue is not likely to go away anytime soon. Fortunately, I was able to get the most out of Boulder for a minimal amount of cash during a visit in July.
I flew into Denver International Airport and, faced with high on-airport rental car costs, opted to make the somewhat long trek via rideshare to a downtown Avis location. My $42 per day got me a shiny new Subaru Outback (it would not be the last one I saw during this Colorado sojourn). On my way north, I stopped in the town of Louisville at Moxie Bread Co, a top-notch bakery that uses organic heirloom wheat. I arrived near closing time, when most of the items were sold out — the friendly guy behind the counter took pity on me and gave me a free coffee. The flaky croissant ($4.50) was excellent, as was a seedy, slightly tangy loaf of millabrod bread ($6).
Boulder is where the Rockies meet the Great Plains, and if you look at a topographical map of the area, you can see exactly how stark and sudden the change comes as you move from east to west: all placid and flat before hitting a wall of mountain, positioned north-to-south, just west of the city. And while Boulder’s altitude is already famously high — over 5,300 feet — I felt the urge to get slightly higher.
I headed for the popular Chautauqua Park in the southwest corner of town. At the base of Green Mountain, it offers easy access to trails and hiking up into the famous Flatirons, numbered and distinctive sandstone rock formations on Green Mountain’s eastern flank. Parking at Chautauqua can be as taxing as the hike itself, and not cheap, at $2.50 per hour. I got there a little before 5 p.m., when the crowds thin a bit and payment is no longer required to park, and still got in a couple solid hours of hiking before it got dark.
Ascending via the Chautauqua Trail, I took in impressive views of downtown Boulder, which had just begun to clear up after an afternoon of rain. How the Flatirons got their name became clear as I made my way up the First-Second Flatiron Trail. A seemingly endless cascade of large pinkish-brown stones led upward into the trees and brush. Mottled with a spray of green-gray lichen, they nearly resembled a camouflage pattern. I stopped at some point during my ascent and looked toward the southeast, where in the distance, a small rainbow was peeking through the clouds out over downtown Denver, about 25 miles away.
Hiking is not the only way to get your outdoor fix, however. A different day, I found myself out at the Boulder Reservoir, having purchased a Groupon coupon for a two-hour stand-up paddleboard lesson from Rocky Mountain Paddleboard ($39). No one else had signed up , so I had a private lesson with my capable instructor, Graham Oakley.
Let’s just say my balance isn’t the best. As I explained to Graham, I’d tried surfing a number of times and failed fairly spectacularly. “That’s O.K.,” he said, noting that some surfers will derisively say, “If you can’t get up, turn to S.U.P.” (stand-up paddleboarding).
I found it easier than surfing, but tricky nonetheless. I spent the first 30 minutes paddling from my knees on the long, wide board until I found the nerve to attempt to stand, and promptly fell into the reservoir. But after about a half-dozen falls I got the hang of it, and we spent the next hour paddling like a couple of gondoliers around the peaceful and largely empty reservoir.
To have the true mountain experience, though, hop into your car and head northwest to Rocky Mountain National Park. As your cell service drops, your spirits rise as the awe-inspiring Rockies envelop you. Horseback riding aficionados can stop at Dao House for a two-hour ride through the Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs ($63). My group’s guide, Wes, was a bit stiff at first, but channeled his best Gene Autry once we got going into our trek with a full-throated rendition of “Back in the Saddle Again.”
A quick jog through the town of Estes Park lands you at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (the building itself is lovely, and was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm, Taliesin Architects), beyond which you’ll have to pay the $25 park entrance fee. You’ll want to pick up the $80 American the Beautiful annual pass if you plan to make more than three national park visits during the year.
Drive up the beautiful, winding Trail Ridge Road up toward the summit, which exceeds 12,000 feet, and take in all nature has to offer: the alpine tundra, lava cliffs and rock laid bare by 70 million years of geological activity, and the lush, verdant green of the forest below. I pulled into the Alpine Visitor Center past the summit (be warned that parking can be a battle) and crossed the road to follow the Ute Trail, which loops around to Milner Pass at the southwest end of Poudre Lake.
I spent the next few hours hiking most of the 4.1-mile trail and then doubling back. Bring plenty of water — the hike isn’t difficult, but the sun is strong and the air is thin. But the pristine mountain panoramas are unmatched, and I came across only a handful of people on my hike. There were animal sightings, too, including mule deer and many cute yellow-bellied marmots.
If you need something a bit more down-to-earth, Boulder can accommodate that, too. I came into town during the Pearl Street Arts Fest, and spent an afternoon perusing the different paintings, jewelry and handicrafts created by the dozens of different vendors set up on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall.
There were carved wooden utensils from Jim Talley, upcycled pieces from Bernadette’s Handmade Jewelry, prints from Craig Peterson created on coffee-stained paper, and playful robot-centric art from Lauren Briere. Some of the art was well beyond my budget. But I eventually settled on a dreamy print ($50) titled “Angeles” from Noelle Phares, who strikingly incorporates her environmental science background into her art.
For art in an indoor setting, check out the University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum, a small but excellent museum on the school’s campus. Parking isn’t free, but the museum is.
Boulder’s activities are sure to make a visitor work up an appetite — fortunately there are a number of great food options. My friend Emily, who runs a local theater company, took me for one of her favorite pizzas in town, a $14 Atomica Pie slathered in Italian sausage, red pepper and garlic at Proto’s Pizza in North Boulder. I, in turn, took her to the slightly more upscale Basta for a delightful Daisy ($15) — a wonderful Neapolitan-style margherita pizza — and a tasty $14 little gem salad with yuzu and hazelnut.
If you’re not up for pizza, I highly recommend Curry ‘N’ Kebob, a casual Indian/Bangladeshi restaurant with excellent daily specials. My chicken dhansak, served in a beautifully spiced lentil curry with naan and rice, was just $11.95. Zoe Ma Ma, on the Pearl Street Mall, is another good option, with $6.99 Za Jiang Mian, julienned vegetables and savory ground pork in gravy served over egg noodles, and a satisfying Sichuan braised beef soup, slightly spicy and tasting slightly of star anise.
Or perhaps you just wanted a cup of tea. Head to the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a gift to Boulder from her sister city, Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The teahouse was disassembled and shipped to Boulder, piece by piece, where it stands today in its full glory. Enjoy the intricately carved columns and wildly colorful details on the ceiling and rafters while you sip your drink or eat a light meal. The smoky lapsang souchong tea ($3.90) was quite good. Emily had a peppy Persian peppermint mule ($8) and we shared a dish of traditional plov ($16), rice pilaf with carrots, onion, chickpeas and dried fruit, layered with slices of beef.
At Cure Organic Farm, just east of Boulder, you can mix food and the great outdoors. The farm, just over a dozen years old, supplies local restaurants and markets with fresh organic produce, and has a small store on site. I stopped by one morning and chatted with the friendly Caitlin, who sold me some carrots ($3.50), local honey ($12) and a carton of cherries ($7.50). Various purchases in hand, I began moving toward the door.
“Did you want those tops?” Caitlin asked me. I wasn’t sure what she meant. “Do you want those carrot tops?” she asked. “Do you want to feed the goats?” She led me out a short ways to meet a few friendly goats. Pepper and Jerry moved right up to the fence when they saw me approach, as if they knew what was coming. They munched happily on their snack, and walked away happily.
I was happy, too, as I got back into the car with my bounty. For having spent a mile (or two) up in the sky during the entirety of a four-day trip, it all felt amazingly down to earth.
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Lucas Peterson is the Frugal Traveler columnist. He has written for GQ, Lucky Peach, Eater, LA Weekly and Food Republic. His video series for Eater, “Dining on a Dime,” is now in its 11th season. @FrugalTraveler
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