Colorado, Colorado Destinations, Colorado Hikes

Colorado Destinations: Chautauqua Park

The Flatirons are a prominent facade of five slanted rock slabs that rise above the town of Boulder and are probably one of the most recognizable features in the entire region. Their outline and/or name appear all over logos and businesses in Boulder and their sharp profile is visible from many miles away on a clear day.

From right to left (north to south): the 1st-5th Flatirons

These slabs are made of red sandstone, part of the same formation that is responsible for Garden of the Gods down in Colorado Springs and Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. However, the Flatirons also have some conglomerate rock in them, acting as a sort of cement that makes them more erosion-resistant than the other formations.

Chautauqua Park (pronounced shah-TAH-kwah) is located at the base of the Flatirons and is an extremely popular hiking destination due to its proximity to Boulder (it’s on the west edge of town) and ease of access from Denver as well (about a 45 minute drive). The main parking lot and ranger station are located off Baseline Road, but there are multiple other access points from side streets in town and you can also reach Chautauqua via public transit. On nice days – which is most days, in Colorado – parking is a challenge.

Of the many hikes at Chautauqua, there are two that I would say are the most popular: Royal Arch and 1st/2nd Flatiron. These two trails lead up into the Flatirons, while the rest mostly meander through the meadow and forest at the base. Some of these trails connect to the adjacent Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) public lands, too.

Chautauqua Trailhead

As the names would suggest, the Royal Arch trail leads to an arch and the 1st/2nd Flatiron trail climbs up between the first two flatirons. I’ll start with the Flatirons trail.

From the Chautauqua parking lot, the Chautauqua Trail begins a gradual but sustained climb for about 0.6 miles (1 km) until it reaches the Bluebell/Baird and Bluebell Mesa trail junction. Bear left on Bluebell/Baird, then turn right onto the 1st/2nd Flatiron Trail and prepare for some elevation gain. This trail climbs 960 feet (290 m) over 1.1 miles (1.8 km) to the saddle between the two flatirons, for some nice views out over Boulder.

I completed this hike in mid-December and it was icy but a friend and I navigated it without issue using our microspikes.

1st/2nd Flatirons views

To reach Royal Arch, you can also take Chautauqua Trail to Bluebell/Baird and continue all the way to the Royal Arch Trail, or you can head south out of the parking area on Bluebell Road which will lead straight to the Royal Arch Trail. I’ve done both and I recommend the latter; it’s shorter and more direct. Either way, the final 0.8 miles (1.3 km) to Royal Arch involves about 900 feet (275 m) of elevation gain… which includes a steep climb followed by a steep, rocky descent and then a second steep climb.

Beginning the ascent from Chautauqua Trailhead to Royal Arch

Once you reach the arch, though, there is plenty of space to hang out beneath it and enjoy the expansive views of Boulder, Denver, and the plains. The sharp angle of the Flatirons is also very apparent from this vantage point.

Views from Royal Arch in June
Views from Royal Arch in December

Despite the relatively short distances, these are challenging hikes because they’re so steep. But Chautauqua is easy to get to, it’s a pretty location, it’s accessible year-round in just about any weather, and there are trails of varying lengths for people of all skill levels. These hikes are also a good way to stay in shape through the winter so that, come summer, you’re ready to get up into the high country.

Truthfully, this isn’t a place I frequent because (a) it’s so crowded, and (b) there are so many trail runners and many of them lack any sort of trail etiquette. I’ve been bumped, jostled, and nearly tripped by runners who think they have the right-of-way when they don’t. Trail etiquette guidelines dictate that the person moving uphill has the right-of-way, regardless of how slowly they’re traveling. Unfortunately, a solid majority of Boulder trail runners seem to think they have the right-of-way no matter what.

But when I do brave the crowds and traffic and dogs and runners (aren’t I making this sound so appealing?) and hike here, I get a good workout in and always really enjoy the views. It is definitely worth a visit. So if you’re ever looking for something to do in Boulder, grab your hiking gear, brace yourself for the chaos, and head on over to Chautauqua for a hike!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Chautauqua Trailhead is on Baseline Road on the western edge of Boulder, but many of these trails can be accessed from other nearby points as well
  • Fees and passes: parking at the main trailhead is free but extremely limited; the surrounding street parking costs a couple dollars, or you can take the free shuttle during the summer
  • Hiking: there are so many trails in this area (see the map here) of all lengths and difficulty levels… there really is something for everyone
  • Where to stay: there are plenty of lodging options in and around Boulder, but no overnight opportunities in Chautauqua park or the surrounding OSMP land
  • Other: I can’t emphasize the popularity of this place enough. There are so many people here no matter the day, time, or weather. And also so many dogs. Boulder has a program for dogs displaying the appropriate tag that allows them to be off-leash but under voice and sight control… although there are always people who don’t follow the rules and let their dogs run wild. If your dog doesn’t do well in this kind of environment, this might not be a good place to bring them

33 thoughts on “Colorado Destinations: Chautauqua Park”

  1. This is a really lovely and unique place. I hiked here many years ago with my son that was enrolled at CU at the time. I know this was a popular place for CU students, but I do not recall even seeing other hikers when we were there and I think this was prior to trail running being a popular activity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, a hike that I know of and have done! I hiked in Chautauqua Park when I visited Boulder in 2018. While I didn’t do the full hike, I still got to see the distinctive Flatirons and admire the gorgeous scenery, as it was absolutely blooming in August. It’s crowded, but for a good reason!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh trail runners… glad I’m not the only one annoyed by the fact they think they have the right of way all the time! I was nearly mowed down coming down from Chasm Lake last spring by a couple of guys running almost out of control just screaming at people to move for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh geez. That’s just unacceptable. My experience has been that trail runners in general have the worst trail etiquette. I’m sure there are exceptions but I haven’t encountered many.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahhh, good old Chautauqua! It’s funny – I have hiked there so often but I’m not even sure I remember the trail names, so next time I will pay attention and try these two. Don’t get me started on trail etiquette! Last week my husband almost got mowed down at Apex. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having this range of mountains spring up out of the plains makes them and the views from them impressive. Love the arch. I can see why it is popular with all and oh yes, trail etiquette. So many people who hike on a lark or who run trails have no clue how to be polite on the trails. Thanks for sharing Diana. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Diana, once again, you take your readers along for a wonderful description. Since my move last Fall, I’m closer to this park. I’ve been wanting to explore it, my repaired knee is ready! Now, your story is a very helpful guide!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. These massive sandstone slabs are almost unreal in their beauty, Diana and what better way to explore this iconic area than by taking on one of the hiking trails that crisscross the landscape? Whenever we are hiking, be it alone or with a group of friends, we always follow the written and unwritten rules of the trail, especially when exploring busy trails. Because being aware of proper trail etiquette can make or break your’s or someone else’s experience outdoors, but unfortunately not everyone is considerate of others. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so true, Aiva. More often than not, it’s inconsiderate people who ruin and outdoors experience rather than weather or some other issue. I don’t think all of them are intentionally inconsiderate, but I wish it would become more common to research and educate yourself before going out to do something.

      Liked by 1 person

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