Bear Peak via Fern Canyon from NCAR
UPDATE: As of August 14, 2012, this trail is back open for business.
Distance: 2.8 miles
Average Grade: 15.5%
Description: For those about to suffer, I salute you!
If you want excellent training, fantastic views and free parking about 5-minutes drive from Rt. 36, then there is no substitute for this hike.
But first, don’t be fooled by the relatively gentle average grade noted above. You will be hiking on the steepest (legal) terrain in the Boulder foothills. The numbers are moderated by the rolling approach from the trailhead—roughly half of the one-way distance to the summit. The average grade from the junction of the Mesa Trail & the northern spur of the Fern Canyon Trail to the summit is 27.4%!
Narrow and strewn with large boulders, Fern Canyon is one of the prettier trails in the OSMP, especially during the summer. However, like it’s sister canyon Shadow to the south, Fern can hold ice and snow well into spring. There are a few short but steep “waterfall” sections that can make for a sketchy descent even with traction (found that out the hard way).
Once clear of the canyon you’ll reach the saddle between Bear and The Nebel Horn, a primordial-looking pile of sandstone that is one of a handful of unranked minor peaks in the Boulder foothills. Incidentally it’s also one of the few obvious spots in the area to practice a little Class 3 scrambling. That is when it’s not closed off to protect perpetual Raptor breeding.
The real fun now begins. Swinging southward you begin the aerobic crux of the route: Bear’s half-mile North Ridge. This final stretch veers upward to average nearly 40% and in this aspect, rivals the difficulty of many a 14er. Also, as you are now on the ridge as opposed to protected by it, this is where you will become exposed to whatever weather is predominating the day (often a stiff and frosty breeze coming straight off the Continental Divide).
The rest of the route is a blur of steep, tight switchbacks and small boulder scrambles until finally the trees part and mercifully to reveal the rocky summit, just above. The scamper to the summit is considered “Class 2+” and care should be taken as the boulders have been worn slick from foot and hand traffic. Congratulations! You’ve just conquered the toughest stretch of trail in the Boulder foothills. Perhaps you’ll see me at the top:
If the schedule allows, a descent down Bear’s West Ridge into Bear Canyon highly recommended. Look for the junction at the base of the summit block, as it can be easy to miss.
Trailhead & Parking: NCAR. Plenty of parking, free and open to all!
There is also an alternate, unofficial trailhead (OSMP officially calls this an “Access Point”) that shortens the hike a little and substitutes the rolling approach from NCAR with a gradual uphill (nice for a warm up). There is some limited free and legal curbside parking at this location. Out of respect for residents of the neighborhood*, I hope you’ll forgive me for being vague on the details. Suffice it to say that if you consult your handy official OSMP trail map, the access point may or may not become obvious. Tip: do not confuse this location with adjacent access points where parking is illegal!
* – Mixed feelings on this point: while it must be kind of annoying having hundreds of people tromping closely past your house on a weekly basis, these homeowners do live on the edge of one of the most spectacular stretches of urban park space in the entire country. I’d make that trade in a second!