Shadow Canyon, South Boulder Peak

Shadow Canyon to South Boulder Peak

by Lloyd Garrick

Take the Eldorado Canyon State Park access road, Route 170, which is reached from Route 93 a few miles South from Boulder. Head West for a couple miles and the trailhead / parking lot is on the right. Watch for the sign - it is easy to miss it. Across from it on the left is a large open parking lot which can also be used, it is easy to see. Parking is tight here - arrive early! As is with most / all Colorado hiking trailheads, there is a display case with trail maps and other info there.

Seen from across Standley lake near my home, the best of the Boulder front range vista is presented.
Eldorado Canyon at the far left, then South Boulder Peak and Bear Mountain with Shadow Canyon in between, then Nebel Horn and Dinosaur Mountains, finally Green Mountain and the famous Flatirons on the right.

A zoom shot clearly shows the ridges of South Boulder and Bear mountains. They are long and not as steep as they appear from some perspectives.

An extreme zoom (digital binocular camera) from my second floor balcony gives a clear view of Shadow Canyon in it's entire majesty.
The hike is essentially right up the center, bearing a little to the right.

This was the first "real" hike I did after moving to Colorado a few years ago; it impressed me so much it will always hold a special place for me. It was "the bug that bit me" and I try to do it every year at least once.

At the start you walk over a pleasant wooden bridge over a small stream; you will be tempted to hang out there for a while and watch (and listen) to the water. Don't allow yourself to be seduced - you have a long and incredible hike ahead of you. Get moving.
After the bridge and starting from the trailhead, you will immediately see posts pointing to TOWHEE and HOMESTEAD trails. They run parallel to each other on opposite sides of a valley with a little stream in the middle; either one will get you to the destination (Shadow Canyon), and they are essentially equal length.
I recommend TOWHEE for the start, and HOMESTEAD for the return.

Immediately at the start of the trail you will see a small, almost cubical, stone 2-story house that was built in the 1850's by a previous land owner, one of the original "homesteaders". It is borded up and entry is forbidden as it is a designated historical site. You will look at it and wonder how it might have been to live there then. No air conditioning and not enough windows. Dark and stuffy inside. Alone in the middle of nowhere. No modern conveniences or appliances.

Nothing to do but struggle to survive day by day. However, you would have had a back yard without equal!

From the very beginning, you will see the prominent Devil's Thumb rock formation in the distant mountains ahead of you. There it rises and stands, visible above all else, as it has for millions of years; almost phallic in appearance, perhaps with a hint of evil beckoning, as it is the beacon to the spooky Shadow Canyon in to which you are heading. It will accompany you for most of the hike, like an ancient and strangely familiar friend, appearing in and out of view; you will see it from various angles and perspectives as you procede. At this point you may contemplate the fact that you will be headed for the opposite side of it and a rather impressive view; once there you will be 2/3 of the way to the Shadow Canyon saddle.

I figure it to be a pillar of harder igneous rock inside the original formation which became exposed after the surrounding rock weathered away over millions of years.

Devil's Thumb beckoning ...

Starting on the TOWHEE trail, in a general NW direction, you will enjoy a pleasant meadow walk at first, not too steep, and on a rather well-kept trail. There is an abundance of Colorado's native wildflowers here for you to see, as well as small streams here and there; some you can see, others you just hear.

Proceding along TOWHEE trail, the ascent gets a little steeper, and you will soon be traveling up the side of a grassy hill entering a sunny open valley. Looking back at this point will give you a nice wide expanse view in the SE direction. You can not see the little stream in the center of this valley, but you may hear it.

Entering the Valley of Towhee Starting out with a nice pleasant walk in the meadow
The Matron is seen as a wedge shape rock in the distance; we will get much closer views soon.

Entering the valley, you will see The Matron Rock in the distance. It will catch your eye immediately. It looks like an elephant. Enjoy this little trek for now - the real hike is yet to begin. At the end of this trek you will arrive at a small junction with HOMESTEAD trail; as mentioned above, either trail would have gotten you here. You have traveled about 1.1 miles to this point.

Bear right at this junction and proceed along the TOWHEE trail. You will next travel through a jungle of thick woods and brush; lots of wildflowers and their accompanying insects. It can be very thick in here for a while, resembling some places I've been in Florida more than Colorado. The mountains / rock are not as visible as the trees, wildflowers, streams, and insects. The insects can be very dense here and in parts throughout this hike; try not to be breathing through your mouth ...

Little shack with the Matron staring down at you

You will soon emerge from the brush at another junction, a rather wide and well kept open trail, a welcome relief. Turn left here, and head down to where the trail makes a sharp left turn. Along this path you will notice along the way on the left side, down in the brush, two ancient wooden cabins (I missed them on my first hike - it is easy to walk by and not see them). One is very small; it could only have been a storage shed, or perhaps for pets / livestock? The other was clearly for human inhabitation. These too are borded up and inaccessible, although nothing except some rather thick bush would keep anyone from going down for a closer look. You are 700 feet above the trailhead at this point.

Again you may pause there and wonder just who lived here how long ago, and what was life like up here in the woods and mountains miles away from everything and anyone, with no modern conveniences. But again, they would have had an incredible backyard and playground!

Looking back almost strait East to Kansas
Continuing along the wide easy trail you will soon head up this incline. Very close to the Shadow Canyon entrance now. Get used to it - it won't be getting any less steep from here.
The Matron ("Elephant Rock") is dead ahead as you procede up the incline trail

Along this way are some rather good panoramic views on each side, as well as the mountains (your destination) ahead and to the right. Also, turning 180 and looking back will reward you with an incredible scenic view of the countryside below, looking almost directly East here, and for quite a ways out.

Regardless of which direction you should decide to turn you will undoubtedly be rewarded with a view worthy of any professional photo books or even a scenic calender. The sights and sounds here are truly of paradise.
On the final approach to Shadow Canyon the Matron towers over you. See the head, the eyes, the trunk ...

An impressive rock.
Popular with climbers.

Turning right off the incline trail and proceeding a little ways, you will see this shingled shack - another relic of the past. Also boarded up for no entry. But you can scramble around to the other side and hop up on a large flat lookout rock and get a good view of what lies below. I didn't bother this time cause we ain't that high up yet.

Who lived here?
No modern conveniences, no banks, no post offices, no gas stations, and no shopping malls to buy clothes or shoes anywhere nearyby. So what! No crowds of people either. Just mountains, green, fresh air, solitude, peace and above all, freedom.

Immediately past the shack you hop a small stream and come to a trail junction. Don't turn right - that will loop you back down the Mesa trail to the trailhead. The long way. Turn LEFT towards Shadow Canyon; it is clearly marked. You are now 900 feet above the trailhead and a little over two miles into the hike.

Shadow Canyon trail post

You then procede along a short rocky trail to what might appear at first to be a dead end. Now what?

At the end of this short trail,
turn RIGHT and look up.
Yes. Up into the rocks.

The start of the Shadow Canyon trail!

Hop the rocks. Some initial lite scrambling will take you into the woods from here.

Now the real HIKE begins!
Entering Shadow Canyon

Get used to it. This ain't gonna be no wussie-walk. The rest of the hike will be like this. The Shadow Canyon trail is hard to find at times and easy to lose. No daydreaming on this trail - this is no Sunday afternoon jog. Keep your wits about you!