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Best Things To Do in Boulder

AOL PICK from our Editors

Many vacationers stop in Boulder for a day or two en route to Rocky Mountain National Park. But it is a worthy destination in its own right, and there is a wide array of things to do in Boulder, from exploring the town heart at Pearl Street Mall to hiking in Boulder County Open Space or visiting the University of Colorado at Boulder. The city’s calendar of annual events, including the Conference on World Affairs and the Bolder Boulder Memorial Day 10K Race attract visitors from around the country and around the globe.

University of Colorado

Neighborhood: University Hill
You can't visit Boulder without at least a quick look at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This distinguished university pumps youthful energy into the city, and is an integral part of life here. The leafy campus is distinguished by its many buildings of red sandstone quarried nearby and topped with tile roofs. Pay a visit to the University of Colorado Natural History Museum with five halls devoted to permanent and temporary exhibits. It is best known for its paleontology and archeology collections. Also visit the CU Heritage Center on the top floor of Old Main with galleries honoring CU’s distinguished alumni, and early photographs and tributes to CU's 17 astronauts, including Boulder native Malcolm Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury Seven and the fourth American in space. Macky Auditorium, a grand Gothic-style auditorium, hosts the Boulder Philharmonic and is home to CU’s College of Music and Artist Series. Grusin Music Hall and the University Theatre are smaller houses. The Fiske Planetarium and Science Center’s 65-foot diameter projection screen dome is the largest between Chicago and Los Angeles. CU Buffs teams compete at Folsom Field, Coors Events Center and other sports venues. Colorado Shakespeare Festival summer performances are split between the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre and the University Theatre. And for one week in early April, the Conference on World Affairs fills the campus with lectures, panels and workshops, free and open to all.

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Chautauqua Park

Neighborhood: University Hill (south)

Locals love Chautauqua Park for its excellent hiking, beautiful setting and unique heritage. The Chautauqua Movement began in 1874 in New York State to provide art, culture and entertainment to adults. Assemblies, as they were called, sprang up across the country, including Boulder. Colorado Chautauqua first gathered under the Flatirons on July 4, 1898, bringing to the Rockies this idealistic movement established to nurture lifelong learning, as well as a love of nature. Boulder’s Chautauqua has been going strong ever since. Its facilities, including the landmark Auditorium that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Community House and the great lawn, host the Colorado Music Festival (summer only), a weekly silent film series and numerous other public events. Many of the simple little Chautauqua Cottages are available for rent with the greatest availability in fall, winter, and spring. The Dining Hall is one of Boulder’s most beguiling restaurants; try for a table on the wrap-around porch when weather permits Chautauqua Park attracts picnickers, sun-worshippers and hikers and rock climbers using the park’s trailheads.

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Rock Climbing and Hiking

Neighborhood: Boulder Canyon

Hiking is an all-consuming passion in Boulder. The City of Boulder Department of Open Space and Mountain Parks manages 144 miles of trails for hiking and trail running. Boulder County manages an additional 100 or so miles, some reached from trailheads where the sidewalks end and others requiring a vehicle to reach. In the summer, especially on weekends, trailhead parking areas fill up fast, and the police do not hesitate to ticket illegally parked cars. Some trails are for hiking and running only, while mountain bikes and/or horses are permitted on others. The 6½-mile Mesa Trail along the base of the foothills between Chautauqua Park and Eldorado Springs Road to the south is Boulder’s signature trail. It is accessible from additional trailheads just off Broadway and from residential streets in the Table Mesa neighborhood. If you’re hiking with your dog, bring a plastic bag or grab one at the trailhead and pick up after your pooch. Also, be mindful of seasonal trail closures and leash laws, which are clearly posted at trailheads. East Boulder trails are flat; those on the west side climb into the foothills characterized. Popular climbing areas include the Flatirons, Eldorado Canyon and Boulder Canyon.

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Rock Climbing and Hiking  

Boulder Creek Path

Neighborhood: Boulder Canyon

The 8-mile Boulder Creek Path is the crown jewel of Boulder’s impressive trail system. The heart of this flat paved route follows Boulder Creek and is well used by walkers, runners, cyclists, baby-carriage pilots and the last of the inline skaters. Interpretive signs inform passersby about the natural and human history of the creek. Most of the path is paved and maintained year-round from Boulder Canyon to 55th Street; only the upper stretches westward from the Boulder Canyon Road underpass to the trail’s end at Fourmile Canyon are unpaved and not maintained in winter. It passes through or near several parks, including Eben G. Fine Park and City Park. It is a congenial, vehicle-free thoroughfare, though speeding cyclists who treat it like a raceway can present hazards. Officials may close the creek after a storm because underpasses can flood. In summer, tubers and kayakers use portions of the creek.

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Boulder Farmers Market

Neighborhood: Downtown Boulder

The Boulder County Farmers’ Market is the oldest (established in 1986), largest and most popular in Colorado. The madness begins Saturday mornings from late April or early May through late November, and Wednesday afternoons from early May to early October. In the course of a peak Saturday, some 15,000 pack into one block in central Boulder with folks buying directly from some 140 Colorado farmers and local food producers. From Abbondanza Organic Seeds & Produce to Yatahai Gardens, vendors follow the seasons from seeds and bedding plants in the spring to pumpkins and winter squash in fall. Many booths offer free tastes. A food court in the middle of the block features a great selection of the farmers’ version of fast food, including exotic items from world cuisines. Sample pupusas from Ecuador, tamales from Mexico, tandoori wraps from India and spring rolls and steamed dumplings from East Asia. Small groups perform live music, and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on the same block as the farmers’ market (http://www.bmoca.org) waives its admission fees when the market is operating.

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Annual Festivals and Events

Neighborhood: Downtown Boulder

There’s almost always something going on somewhere in Boulder, and a lot of it is free. Downtown events include two annual sidewalk sales, the Tulip Festival (including the Fairies and Elves Parade for children), Boulder Creek Hometown Fair, the Munchkin Parade on Halloween, Switch on the Holidays, Lights of December Parade and St. Nick’s on the Bricks. Film buffs treasure the Boulder International Film Festival and Chautauqua Silent Film Festival. Culture vultures pounce on the Boulder Bach Festival, the Landmarks of the Future Home Tour in spring and the Historic Boulder Holiday Tour of Homes in December, Open Studios Art Fair, MahlerFest, Colorado Music Festival, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop and the Downtown Boulder ArtFair, Aerial Dance Festival and the Boulder Fringe Festival. Sporty types sign up for the Boulder Spring Half-Marathon, a couple of marathons, a couple of triathlons and the economic Bolder Boulder 10K on Memorial Day, whose 50,000+ participants make it one of the largest footraces in the country. The enormous Boulder Creek Festival on Memorial Day weekend fills City Park and the Municipal Building grounds with vendors, food courts, music stages and carnival rides, and the evening of July 4 packs Folsom Field on the CU campus for Ralphie’s Independence Day Blast capped by fireworks. And just for giggles, there’s the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Neighborhood: Estes Park/Grand Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park is Colorado Rockies’ scenic epicenter. Straddling the Continental Divide it presents panoramas of soaring mountains, glacier-carved valleys and alpine lakes. It boasts nearly 79 peaks of 12,000 feet or higher, with 14,259-foot Longs Peak the monarch of them all. To climb Longs even via the easiest route, a person must be a strong hiker, be prepared with food, water and warm clothing, and start early—very early—in the morning. There are two main entrances on the Estes Park (east) side. Visitor centers just before the entrance stations provide information on shorter, easier trails as well as long challenging ones. One of America’s most iconic drives is Trail Ridge Road, 48 scenically stunning miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake Village. As beautiful as it is, the route can be a frustrating bumper-to-bumper experience as nervous drivers crawl over the mountain highway where guardrails are rare. The park service closes Trail Ridge Road from late October until it is plowed out again, usually for Memorial Day weekend. The most impressive wildlife viewing is at dusk in fall, when elk herds emerge from the forest for the rut. The name for bull elks’ haunting mating call is “bugling,” and it beckons wildlife watchers as well as cows.

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Boulder Open Space & Mountain

Neighborhood: West Boulder

Boulder’s mountain backdrop is a procession of aesthetic peaks—not high by Colorado standards but dramatic as they rise sharply from Boulder Valley. Hiking trails ascend South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain and Mt. Sanitas, and the Flatirons themselves are storied rock-climbing venues. A paved road goes up and over Flagstaff Mountain. Partway up is a side road to the Sunrise Circle Amphitheater and a seasonal interpretive center. Whether from Flagstaff Road pullouts, the overlook at the amphitheater or from a hiking trail, the views down to Boulder and the plains beyond are stunning.

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Celestial Seasonings Tour

Neighborhood: Gunbarrel

Back in Boulder’s hippie era, a group of idealists who could not tame their entrepreneurial instincts founded Celestial Seasonings Teas. These teas were made from hand-harvested Rocky Mountain herbs that were dried, carefully blended, cleverly named and sold in appealing, artsy boxes. The once-upon-a-time cottage industry is now a big business that claims output for 1.6 billion cups of tea every year made with 100 different ingredients from some 35 countries. The free plant tour shows what goes into producing a variety of all-natural herbal, green, red, white, chai and wellness teas. Just be prepared for a sinus jolt in the peppermint room!

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Pearl Street Mall

Neighborhood: Downtown Boulder

The Pearl Street Mall is the heart of Boulder, and is a destination all its own. In the U.S. Bicentennial year of 1976, the City of Boulder closed four blocks of the main downtown street to vehicular traffic. The following year, the Pearl Street Mall opened, quickly becoming a magnet for residents, students and visitors who wanted to shop, dine or party. Over the years, the pedestrian mall has become an attraction. The hardware store, the drug store, the shoe shop where parents buy kids’ school shoes and such have been replaced by galleries, boutiques carrying off-the-chart designer apparel and fine jewelers. Benches line the exquisitely landscaped and immaculately maintained pedestrian zone that serves as Boulder’s outdoor social center. Children love to climb on “the rocks,” a huddle of large boulders set into a sunken pit on the 1200 block; splash in a summer dancing fountain in front of the courthouse, and climb on large bronze animals in the 1400 block. Free Bands on the Bricks concerts and Noon Tunes mid-day on Fridays are performed in front of the courthouse Wednesday afternoons in summer. The courthouse lawn and plaza also host the majority of Boulder’s annual festivals.

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