From its refined downtown gem, Pearl Street, to the tops of its sandstone giants, the Flatirons, Boulder has a variety of adventures for all your tastes.
This story originally featured in The Outdoor Journal print edition. Subscribe here.
Swirl three times, pour. Wait three breaths, turn the cup back over. In Dushanbe, Tajikistan I’m reading tea leaves stuck to a white cup, without much success. Gaunt and tired from climbing in Afghanistan, I have 7,000 miles of travel still ahead, and a baby due in a few weeks, so my mind is only on getting home to Boulder, Colorado.
Having lived there almost 20 years, it’s easier to reflect on it when I’m far away. Ironically, we have our own authentic Tajik teahouse, sent piece by piece from the City of Dushanbe as a gift. I’d be glad to be there right now.
Boulder sits elevated at 1600m where the Great Plains suddenly meet the soaring Rocky Mountains. If you arrive overland from the East, as I did, across a flat sea of grasses, it’s breathtaking. Once here, you find a stunning variety of outdoor activities accessible from a picture-perfect downtown where the sun shines nearly all the time and everybody’s healthy. But, an ominous curse whispers across 150 years. Arapahoe Chief Niwot warned the first settlers: “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”
The Earth makes herself known here. Rock juts out of the hills and canyons around town: from glacially-polished granite, to sandstone, to a unique igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic link. Baseline Road lies on the 40th latitude, gold mining brought the first white settlers, and several national earth science research centers are housed here. Weather moves quickly. A sunny June afternoon can turn into hail and ankle-deep slush. Likewise, in January a Monday snow storm can become T-shirt weather by Thursday.
For visitors, as well as those who live here, it is a wonderland of outdoor adventure stocked with world-class dining and culture. 230 km of trails, 98,000 acres of open space, 60 urban parks, and 500km of bike ways and trails are set aside for 100,000 citizens and their guests. Rocky Mountain National Park, an hour away, is laced with trails, lakes and wildflowers, Denver lies only 40km away, and skiing is within 40 minutes’ drive. The 20 bike shops, 40 yoga studios, and 79,000 square foot Whole Foods hint at an obsession with fitness and well-being. Numerous professional athletes (and wannabes) make it their home, and her trails, cliffs, and roads are well-loved by many hands, feet and wheels.
The topographic playground and backdrop are beautiful, but they are matched by an impressive community and culture. Colorado University is a research powerhouse, there’s Buddhist Naropa University, massage, and herbal medicine schools. Vibrant creativity, a sparky startup community, and leading science research make for an inspirational population.
The wonders of Boulder are no secret however, and the press, enamored with superlatives, regularly place it in various Top-Ten type lists. Usually they extol the fitness, healthy lifestyle, outdoor opportunities, braininess, creativity, business verve, foodie-ness, etc. But there is, naturally, a backlash, and it is a favorite target of some post-modern negativity.
It is wryly called ‘The Bubble’ or ‘The People’s Republic of Boulder’, or more cynically, “25 square miles surrounded by reality.” The same preservationist and well-intended progressive policies that keep it so attractive have elevated the cost of living, changed demographics. You will see bumper stickers shouting to “keep Boulder weird!”
Chief Niwot must be smiling to himself.
Before you get too distracted by intriguing lectures, local craft beer, galleries or restaurants, however, plan out some of those outdoor activities you came for. Start a hike at Chautauqua Park and you can stroll leisurely up the Bluebell trail or southward on the 12km Mesa Trail to connect with dozens of others in the Open Space where moderate hikes are plentiful. Pound out a difficult ascent of Bear Peak and you’ll be rewarded with sensational views of the eastern plains, foothills, and snowy Indian Peaks. The trails at Mt. Sanitas and Flagstaff are favorites, lined with bouldering. If you’re lucky, you may see black bear, foxes, coyote or even a mountain lion off the trails.
As expected, climbing is nearly a cultural imperative. Locals enjoy an early-morning jaunt up the 450m First Flatiron before breakfast. Contact the Colorado Mountain School for help setting up instruction and equipment. If you are an experienced climber, head to Eldorado Canyon State Park whose sandstone walls are lined with thousands of routes and 50 years of history. Boulder Canyon is another popular destination, with thousands of its own granite sport routes. Neptune Mountaineering can outfit you, including guidebooks.
Bikes are everywhere… whether the rattle of a single mountain bike, a peloton of road bikers passing farms on the edge of town, or several hundred glowing, rolling costumes slowing traffic on the Thursday night downtown cruiser ride. There are even 100 automated bike rental stations around town. Visit University Bikes for your general needs. If you’re a connoisseur, there are specialty shops just for you.
Pearl Street is the heart of downtown and it beats from 6am coffee to 2am boozing. Re-born in 1977 in an effort to revitalize downtown, the street was torn up, permanently closed to cars, and repaved with bricks. A thousand businesses and flowers line the Mall in historic buildings. 85% of them are local, and with public art, sculptures, and street performers it’s the most popular area of town for restaurants, night life, galleries and coffee. Lots of coffee. I keep a rotation and can’t recommend just one. Ozo, The Cup, Amante, the Trident and the Laughing Goat each have their distinct appeal. For me, sitting here drinking a rich dark coffee is like a vacation, even just after a vacation.
You will have earned your meals doing all that activity, and luckily Boulder can feed the hungriest and the most discerning diner alike. Nationally-renowned chefs preside over a number of the best spots in town with taglines like Farm-to-Table, wind-powered, and organic. Try the creole breakfast at Lucille’s, rooftop margaritas at The Rio, and for deceptively casual dinner, neighbors The Kitchen or Salt. Between April and November, visit the lively Farmer’s Market, located on 13th St, which gets closed to traffic, sandwiched between Central Park and the Dushanbe Tea House.
So, here I am, sipping tea again, in a Dushanbe Tea House, but this time relieved to be doing it in my hometown. This one is nicer than the one in Dushanbe! Completely hand-built by Tajik craftsmen then shipped here, it is a work of art that serves food and drinks. The menu is wonderful and varied, with dishes from Cuba to Persia, North Africa to Thailand. And teas. When you can’t decide your next activity, maybe you’ll have luck reading the leaves.