Boulder area's beauty calls visitors back

January 11, 1998|By Alan Lester | Alan Lester,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"This valley is so beautiful that people seeing it will never be happy anywhere else and will always return." -- Arapaho Chief Niwot

You can sit atop a rock formation on the shores of Gold Lake in Ward, Colo., and almost feel Chief Niwot's presence. He was right. The view of the Continental Divide, dominated by the majestic slopes of Arapaho Mountain, is breathtaking. The cold mountain air sits crisply on your face, and the ice-blue skies are laced with clouds. Chief Niwot's curse, as the locals refer to his now famous quote, brings me back to Boulder, Colo., and the mountains surrounding it several times a year.

Boulder is the quintessential four-season location, as geologically different from flat-as-a-pancake Denver as it is geographically close. Sitting at the foot of Colorado's imposing Front Range mountains, Boulder's scenic grandeur is nothing less than spectacular. Streets radiate from the town center and in minutes turn into valleys, gorges and peaks of incredible beauty. From any point in town you can see the imposing Flatiron Mountains, named after the irons that early settlers heated on their wood stoves.

With more than 300 sunny days a year, surprisingly mild winter temperatures and a city psyche geared toward active pursuits, Boulder is a perfect winter getaway destination. It is an especially welcoming place for families, with an eclectic mix of New Age shops and restaurants sprinkled among more traditional stores and steakhouses.

Is your family split between cross-country or downhill skiing, or the increasingly popular snowboarding? Boulder has 10 ski resorts within a two-hour drive. If you dislike crowds, try Eldora Mountain, a jewel of a resort, just 30 minutes from downtown Boulder. Eldora, one of my travel "secrets," boasts 43 trails for beginners through advanced, and a complete child-care facility for newborns to preteens. Views of the Continental Divide from Eldora Mountain are magical. Snowboarders, many of them from the University of Colorado at Boulder, are welcome and fun to watch as they hot-dog down the mountain.

As I jumped off the chairlift during a recent visit, I turned and saw an elderly man unbuttoning his coat, ready to take a run. I marveled at his beautiful, heavily weathered face, so I struck up a conversation.

Turns out that Harwood Quick, "Har" to the locals, is 90 years old and skis every day, taking a break at noon for lunch and a quick nap. With a finger made crooked from his many years hiking, skiing and hunting these mountains, he pointed to snow-covered Arapaho Mountain in the distance and told me how his father used to hike up to the top with 3-year-old Har on his back, then ski down for hours before Sunday church service. With that, he took off, his coat flapping behind him. I noticed he didn't even have poles, but he schussed down that slope like someone born to it.

One of the endearing charms of Boulder is meeting one-of-a-kind originals such as Harwood Quick.

The drive from Boulder's town center to Eldora is hard to describe and equally hard to beat. Canyon Boulevard, which runs right through the middle of Boulder, turns into Boulder Canyon Drive (Colorado Highway 119), which parallels Boulder Creek for several miles. As it rises in elevation, you find yourself nestled between mountains, as the road curves back and forth.

Let your imagination run wild and you'll easily be able to convince the kids that they are pioneers trekking through valleys in search of that elusive gold mine. En route you'll see ice climbers working their way up treacherous routes on one of the many popular climbing spots along Boulder Canyon Drive.

Eldora's Nordic Center is considered one of the best in Colorado, with 45 kilometers of cross-country trails, instruction, rentals and even a mountain cabin that is available for rental (an ideal hideaway for a family picnic). Make sure to pack a thermos of hot chocolate. When the wind is calm, the views from nearly every bend in the trail are impressive.

Cross-country enthusiasts might want to spend a day at Brainard Lake Park. At 11,000 feet, the park's trails weave through the forest and along the shore, with opportunities to stop for coffee and hot chocolate at cabins run by the Colorado Mountain Club. The Continental Divide is visible throughout much of the trail system.

Brainard Lake is a scenic 20-mile drive from Boulder, the first half of it through the same mountain passes and gorges that take you to Eldora. From Nederland, you turn due north on Colorado Highway 7, known as the Peak-to-Peak. Time your drive to take in breakfast or lunch at Annie's Restaurant in Nederland, an unpretentious, mining-town eatery with large portions of delicious homemade food.

If the kids balk at a 30-minute drive, there's no need to leave Boulder to enjoy a day of ice skating or sledding. Both are available in Scott Carpenter Park, a well-run city facility that is easily accessible from anywhere in town.

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