A while ago I wrote a post about my top 5 favorite things in Toronto. In the last few weeks, I have spent time in another one of my favorite spots: Boulder, Colorado! In many ways, Boulder and Toronto complement each other: Boulder is small and surrounded by mountains, Toronto is large and very multicultural. Each place is unique and I feel it’s a privilege to experience them. So here goes, my top 5 favorite things about Boulder: (Warning: This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)
1. Hiking Heaven
If you like mountains, you will love Boulder! My experience of driving across the United States from Detroit to Boulder was: flat, flat, flat….MOUNTAINS! The area in which Boulder (and surrounding towns) is located is called the Front Range and this is where you reach the east side of the Rocky Mountains. A few years ago, I went on a mini-tour of the Canadian Rockies with my brother and sister-in-law and I loved it. It is nice to explore the southern parts of the mountain range.
Historically, this area of the United States was widely explored by mining efforts and so an amazing network of trails exists that provide for awesome hiking. I can only imagine the settlers who were arriving from the Eastern side of the country and had to traverse these majestic mountains to reach the West coast!
Nature in Boulder (and Colorado in general) is very accessible and even without a car you can go up the mountains and walk (or bike or snow shoe) for hours! Also, you can go exploring nature in a car with scenic drives or make elaborate intense plans to go up 14ers (one of Colorado’s many peaks that are higher than 14’000 feet or 42700 meters).
I’ve been lucky to go hiking with friends who have spent a lot of time here and know many good spots. Some highlights are (in order of approximate distance from Boulder):
- Boulder Creek Path: Right in Boulder this beautiful and easy hiking path is actually used by a lot of people to get to work or school every day and it goes past a beautiful and tranquil creek. A must for short time visitors!
- Mount Sanitas: Right out of downtown Boulder! You can walk up this nice trail and have a view of the whole city and surrounding areas.
- Royal Arch: In the awesome Chautauqua Park, a beautiful hike with lots of good views and an unusual rock formation at the end.
- Flatirons: Amazing beautiful rock formation that are popular with rock climbers but also are nice to hike to.
- Caribou Peak: A historical hike close to the unusual little town of Nederland that passes by the Caribou ghost town and through mining trails.
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Awesome hikes, mind blowing views, magical lakes and many animals! This park is about an hour out of Boulder and is definitely worth going to. It can get very busy, so it’s good to go early and on weekdays if you can. It has very nice accessible trails such as Bear Lake and Emerald Lake and also more challenging ones like Deer Mountain and the very high Long’s Peak.
- Kenosha Pass: Mind-blowing aspen colors in the Fall. This is one of my all time favorite hikes! Part of the Colorado Trail but you can drive up to this part and have a short or long hike.
In addition to hiking, the mountains offer endless opportunities for other sports such as mountain biking, skiing, snow shoeing, … I haven’t tried any of these yet but I’ve heard they are world class! I plan to try skiing for the first time this winter.
2. Cultural and Spiritual Center
Boulder is a surprisingly rich cultural and spiritual center. In 1973, the Tibetan spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa set up his secular spiritual center, The Shambhala Meditation Center, here. Soon after he founded Naropa University, a private non-profit center where iconic artists, teachers and spiritual leaders taught courses, conducted research and create a vibrant and open-minded community. Teachers included Allan Ginsberg, Ram Dass and John Cage among many other prominent figures. Additionally, the university has a strong connection with Bhutanese teachers and institutions with an exchange program, lecture series and shared projects.
Today, both the Shambhala Center and Naropa University are active and exciting institutions in the city. When I arrived in Boulder, I took an excellent weekend meditation course at the Shambhala Center and met many interesting people. Additionally, I spent a lot of time in the Allen Ginsberg Library at Naropa University and browsed its excellent and eccentric collection of DVDs.
Boulder and Colorado also have a long relationship with the writers and poets of the Beat Generations especially Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy (who was born in Denver). While Jack Kerouac doesn’t mentioned Boulder in his writing, he spent a lot of time in Denver. There are several classic Beat spots in Denver to visit (check this guide if interested). Last year when I first visited Boulder, there was a strange and fun bookstore there called the beat book shop where radical books from the 60’s were for sale by a man who seemed to embody the beat generation’s infectious energy. Here’s a video of him describing his vision (and a really nice connection between Boulder and one of my favorite books, the Dharma Bums). Unfortunately, the book store is closed now and the owner has disappeared (to my knowledge). But you can still sit in the excellent Trident Booksellers and Cafe and watch the world go by while sipping a coffee and imagine having literary conversations with the visionary men and women of America. Or if you don’t want to only imagine you can attend an excellent open-mic poetry night at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe.
Finally, I want to mention the Boulder Public Library which has several locations but my favorite is the main center which has a beautiful inviting design and in which I have already spent a lot of time reading and writing! There’s a new cafe in this location where you can sit on top of a creek, sip coffee and read a book. Amazing! I’ve seen excellent classical music concerts here and attended a superb literary festival, the Jaipur Book Festival (I know, the name is confusing, but this one was in Boulder!) where I saw excellent talks by William Dalrymple, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Jung Chang. The video of the sessions are available online.
3. Vibrant Science and Technology Hub
One of the best things about Boulder and something that attracts a lot of visitors and residents, is its excellent learning and research institutions. CU Boulder is an excellent university with a lot of multidisciplinary research and teaching. The university hosts excellent events including the Conference on World Affairs. I’ve been to several excellent talks and events there and look forward to more in the future.
Additionally, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is a world class research institute, housed in an interesting building complex on the edge of town and close to many trails. Other scientific centers in Boulder include the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Combined with CU Boulder’s excellent Aerospace Engineering Sciences and Physics programs, these centers attract a significant number of future (and former) astronauts and physic researchers to the city.
In addition to these institutes, Boulder is also home to a lot of startups and tech companies, ranging from the Maker hero SparkFun to bigger companies such as Google and IBM. An interesting event (that I didn’t go to but saw the poster) that weirdly combines Boulder’s spiritual and technological interests is Buddhist Geeks. I don’t think these guys are actually from Boulder but they have conferences and events there.
4. Old West Towns and Ghost Towns
When I was growing up, I was obsessed with Charlie Chaplin and I watched one of his movies, the Gold Rush, many many many times! In this movie, Charlie Chaplin goes to the mountains in search of gold and, of course, ends up in a lot of crazy adventures. Visiting the small Old West towns around Boulder reminded me of that timeless movie and also of the seriously harsh lives that many pioneers in this area signed up for.
These small towns have a lot of attitude and style and I highly recommend visiting at least a few of them if you are in Boulder or Denver. I’ve been to a few notable ones that I list below:
- Nederland: Yes, the name is a bit confusing but this small town which is super-close to Boulder is a really fun and interesting place. It has a couple of awesome cafes, including Salto Coffee Works and Train Cars Coffee (set in three historical train cars, one of which was used by Buffalo Bill!!), some good restaurants, a mining museum and a LOT of nature around it (both hiking and ski hills). Also, it is the site of several festivals including the strange Frozen Dead Guy Days. Also, nearby is the site of the ghost town of Caribou.
- Golden: A beautiful town set in the middle of stunning views of mesas and mountains, Golden is home to the Colorado School of Mines and
also has a historic park and a peaceful creek you can walk beside.
- Fairplay and South Park: South Park actually exists! It is not as funny as the town portrayed in the popular TV show but the creators of the TV show Trey Parker and Matt Stone actually met in CU Boulder. Fairplay, also called “The Real South Park!”, is a very small and a very unusual town where the free spirited residents have expressive ways of arranging their gardens and residences. It is set against a backdrop of mountains meeting the planes.
- Breckenridge and Frisco: These two towns are the more touristy of the bunch. They are still very beautiful with dramatic settings and super popular in the winter time for skiing, snowshoeing and other winter sports.
5. An Experimental Liberal Attitude
There are a lot of things to “experience” in Boulder (and Colorado): quality craft beer, elaborate spiced teas (such as the excellent Bhakti Chai), weird events such as the Frozen Dead Guy Days, mind-blowing music venues such as the Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater and, over all, a laid back and open minded attitude to life.
As time goes by, I feel there are more and more interesting things in Boulder that are hard to categorize and I look forward to explore more in the future!