It really says something when an American city’s reputation reaches all the way to Krakow, Poland! “Oh, isn’t that the fittest city in the world?” a Polish tour guide asked when I mentioned Boulder. The Colorado town is known for all things active, not to mention tree-hugging and health-food focused. But when you think about it, it’s only natural (no pun intended) to find these attributes together in one amazing mile-high city because Boulder is also among the world’s best climbing destinations, and you’re not getting up those sheer-faced peaks on a diet of Hershey bars.
Any visit should start with a hike—even if you choose to interpret that word loosely. Just being in the Eldorado Canyon parking lot will leave you speechless as you stare up at Redgarden Wall, The Bastille and Shirt Tail Peak, all popular climbing spots. And a short hike that weaves up, around and through some of these areas will tell you all you need to know about what makes Boulder one of the most visited places on the planet.
Once you’ve completed the obligatory hike (which you will certainly want to reprise), you should continue on to Nederland, the cute little mountain town with restaurants, crafty shops and a Polar Bear Plunge during something called Frozen Dead Guy Days (coffin racing is involved). Nederland has a funky vibe, a passable Tibetan lunch buffet and a charming covered footbridge over the rushing Boulder Creek.
After you’ve tooled around up there, come back to civilization with a stroll down Pearl Street pedestrian mall, the undisputed city center—or at least the center of activity. City Hall is on this street, along with historic statuary, charming boutiques (no big box stores), locally owned restaurants and street buskers that range from fire eaters to a guy who plays piano upside down while hanging from his feet (you have to be there). In a six-block span, there are 10 coffee shops, eight sandal stores and dozens of restaurants. You can get ice cream at one of Ben & Jerry’s original locales or dine on fava bean and English pea bruschetta at The Kitchen.
Even though this consummate college town is expanding outward in all directions—including with elegant homes nestled in the mountains—the city’s core retains the charm of a small, funky community. Fortunate for college parents and other visitors, hotel options are equally charming, especially the high-end St. Julien Hotel & Spa one block from Pearl Street, at 9th and Walnut. With turn-down service that includes chocolate cream cookies, the hotel’s rugged Colorado limestone facade belies its boutique elegance. Ask for a room with up-close-and-personal views of the iconic Flatirons, a row of sheer-faced mountains. The St. Julien had me at the first sniff of mint, cucumber and grapefruit wafting into the lobby from its spa.
It would be a shame to be in Boulder and miss Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour away in Estes Park. The views along the drive alone are worth a day of your trip, and once you get there, an easy hike to Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes offers vistas you will never forget. The three lakes appear in succession along 1.8 miles on the same trail (accessed from the Bear Lake Trailhead), rising to an elevation of about 10,000 feet at the topmost Emerald Lake. Even the snail’s pace amble through kitschy ‘downtown’ Estes Park, necessary to reach the park’s entrance, should not deter you. Or the crowds that want to share God’s country with you. Actually, Estes Park itself is worth a visit if you’ve never been. Dubbed the Disneyland of the mountains, it has an array of shops with names like Mad Moose and The Trading Post, eateries and activities (climbing lessons, fishing holes, miniature golf, rafting) that will delight families.
While you wouldn’t particularly think of Boulder and its environs as incubators for anything other than a new kind of mountain bike or carabiner, there has been plenty of innovation there, all within the purview of natural living. It’s no surprise that lifestyle items like Crocs shoes and Izze’s natural soda were created here. Not to mention Justin’s all-natural peanut butter and cashew butter—they come in squeezable packets, after all, for easy use on the trail and up the rock face!