Winter Wonderland

Foothills Trail/Wonderland Lake Loop



As I write, snow still clings to the neighborhood rooflines and shady corners of yards; the signs of the first storm of winter slowly melting away. Today's adventure marks, in my mind, the official start of winter. To celebrate I headed up to Boulder, a place I have lived before and a place where trails are right outside the door (literally). It's a trail runner's nirvana and I wanted to get on the trail. My 5K training program suggested a five mile run and I found a route in North Boulder that would accomplish both the goal of getting on trail and that would hit the right distance. As I drove into town, an iconic image of the Flatirons, the steeply-tilted mountains of stone jutting out above Boulder greeted me. This morning they were shining with a patina of fresh snow under a broken sky, thick wisps of clouds clinging to a few of the peaks as though they had gotten hung-up on the rocky points during their low-altitude transit.

The Foothills Trailhead on the north side of town served as the starting point for this adventure and as I ran up the snow-packed trail I passed a still-quiet prairie dog town and entered a steep-sided foothills gully. The climb up the gully along with the cold wintry air deflated my lungs and slowed my pace dramatically until the top of the short climb. There, at a junction, the trail bent to the South and thankfully followed a flat bench parallel to the foothills sweeping higher to the west. I've always liked the hogback ridges above Boulder, the narrow summits of which often have a thin line of silhouetted trees poking up into the sky. Being Boulder, an active town if there ever was one, I passed many other trail runners, dog walkers, and even some eager nordic skiers greeting the chilly weather and light snow cover enthusiastically. The route led me through the Trailhead on Lee Hill Road and by the grassy flats kept open as a landing site for the paragliders that soar from the slopes above the trail. A fun, swooping descent led down down to the community surrounding Wonderland lake. A few Canada geese yet to take to southern skies floated on the surface of the small lake as I circled around and made my way back along the route I had come. By this time, the sun had melted the remaining snow leaving the trail soggy and making for a satisfyingly sloppy finish.

P&P Bonus

In summer 2013  the city and county of Boulder instituted parking fees for non-county visitors. If you don't live in Boulder County, but still want to take advantage of the great trails that the city has maintained, head farther North. The Foothills Trailhead is one of many in the city that still do not have any fees. To see which trailheads require fees click here.

Go Do It

The Foothills Trailhead is about 4 miles north of Boulder's town center. Reach it by taking US 36 W out of town (US 36 cuts south and north through Boulder as 28th Street) and turn right onto Broadway street. The trailhead will be on the left about one-half mile along Broadway where it is marked with a sign and a fenced-in lot. There will be a Subaru, Volvo, or Tacoma parked there. Trails head off to both the east and west, but the trail described here starts right from the trailhead lot and goes west through the underpass under Highway 36. You can see the detailed running route at this link.

Winds of Change

High Line Canal Trail

Rose-colored and crisp, the coming dawn threw long the shadows of naked cottonwood trees beside the trail. Early on a Sunday morning only a few others had begun chasing their breath along the Highline Canal Trail and I started quickly to stave off the cold. I had a long run to get done, the last one in preparation for an upcoming road race, and I chose on this morning a favorite trail for long slow training runs. A blustery wind stirred brown and gold leaves around my feet upon setting off from the trailhead, portending that the wind would be with and against me frequently during the workout ahead.

Photo Credit:  John Fielder

Photo Credit: John Fielder

The High Liine Canal Trail is, in my estimation, one of the finest urban paths in the world as it follows its circuitous, sidewinding, 71-mile course from Waterton Canyon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the thirsty grasses of the Great Plains east of Denver. The trail runs beside the canal itself, once a vital water source for early agriculture in the high desert landscape that surrounded the pioneer city. An engineering marvel upon its completion in 1883, the story of the canal's history serves as a fascinating case study of the development of The American West complete with ambitious tycoons, corrupt politicians, water wars (when farmers took up arms to patrol the head gates), and grand plans laid, achieved, and ruined. The High Line Canal serves few customers today. Its companion trail, however, provides a half-million runners, dog walkers, birders, photographers, cyclists, and equestrians with an outstanding place to recreate and recharge every year. 

It is the perfect terrain for running fitness with a nearly flat grade (dropping only two feet each mile over its total length). Athletes can run or bike for miles without having to stop for traffic as the trail slips below grade to pass under a few major roadways or crosses quieter neighborhood streets at grade. My favorite segment runs between the Goodson Recreation Center on South University and the Denver First Church of the Nazarene on Hampden Avenue. Here it is composed of a wide gravel path lined with ancient, thickly-barked cottonwood trees that grew out of the parched dirt when the water started flowing. The trail winds through open space, retired farm fields now reverted to bulrush wetlands and quaint pastures with sweeping mountain views. Beyond the marshes and meadows, homes of the affluent line the route.  On today's run each time I turned to face the mountains, a wintry wind born out of the icy peaks in the distance delivered a head-on buffeting that required vigorous effort to hold pace. But as the trail bent back on itself, that same breeze offered a helpful tailwind to supplement my own work. These changing winds offered a metaphor for the landscape, one that has seen frequent change in the last century from dry prairie, to verdant farmland, to suburban development. Rusting farm machinery and abandoned wooden outbuildings stand forlornly in places as testament to this change. Abundant birdlife chirp their perspectives as you pass. It is a wonderful gift that civic stewards supported protection of the High Line Canal Trail and the area around it, safeguarding a sliver of wilderness in the midst of a major metropolis. Through it's preservation, the High Line Canal Trail tells a unique story of the region, one that like today's chilly winds, changes at each turn.

P&P Bonus

Denver Water, the public utility that manages water for the Denver area, publishes a mile-by-mile guide to the High Line Canal Trail rich with history and details about what you will encounter along your journey. Pick up a copy before you head out for a hike, bike, or run. You can find out where to get your hands on it here.

Go Do It

There are dozens of places to access the High Line Canal trail. One good place to start a run is at the Denver First Church on Hampden. Take I-25 south from Denver to exit 201 US 285/Hampden. Drive approximately 1.5 miles west on Hampden to Denver First Church on the south side of the street You can't miss this large cylindrical edifice. South Monroe Street just west of the church has designated parking alongside it. You can use the church parking lot as well though they ask you to park in the far southwest corner during Sunday services. The trailhead is just around to the right off Covington Drive. Follow the asphalt sidewalk over the bridge and take a left onto the trail.