Hike to Royal Arch: Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado

header image hike to royal arch

It’s sure handy having family in Colorado! On a recent trip out there from Minnesota, my brother suggested the hike to Royal Arch in the world-famous Flatirons of Boulder, CO. What a fantastic trail!

I’d heard about the Flatirons, but saw them for the first time on this latest trip. They’re huge, slanted slabs of rock that are super popular with both hikers and rock climbers. They’re part of Chautauqua Park, a public open space in southwest Boulder.

The Flatirons form part of the east slope of 8,148-foot Green Mountain. This area is part of what’s known as the Front Range—the eastern Rockies northwest of Denver on up to the state line. Rocky Mountain National Park is also part of the Front Range.

Because we planned our hike for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, we were up at the crack of dawn to get an early start. We wanted to beat both the crowds and the heat!

Why We Loved this Hike

THE COMPANY—This was extra special for us because our hiking team was 4 of 5 siblings. The last time we had all hiked together was very possibly back in the 70s or 80s! So just being together was a treat. Being together doing this was amazing.

We were wishing our 5th sib could’ve been with us, too. We tried to make it up to her by video calling her when we reached the top! She got to see all of us as well as the spectacular view.

THE BEAUTY—You can hardly go wrong when you combine forest and mountains. Add a mountain stream or two, bluebells in full bloom and a gorgeous sunny day and you have a winning combination.

The forest is mostly towering Ponderosa pine here. I love these majestic trees with their rough reddish bark.

my siblings and me under the royal arch
My siblings and me under the Royal Arch

The Royal Arch itself is beautiful—a natural arch sculpted by wind, rain and ice over the years. You can see from the photo above the various colors in the rock. The fact that it’s 1,400 feet above the valley below is pretty amazing, too.

THE CHALLENGE—I’m pretty sure this was the hardest hike I’ve done as far as vertical climb for the distance—about 1,400 feet in less than 2 miles. For those who hike mountains  routinely, you may feel differently…but for this Midwesterner, it was strenuous! (I’ll blame some of it on the altitude!) I’m glad I have good knees—I needed them every step of the way.

There was no question of my heart rate going up on the ascent, nor of my quads getting a major workout in both directions. For those who’ve done steep hikes like this, you know it’s almost harder on your legs descending.

And it puts a new spin on “uphill both ways” as this hike literally is! One section of it drops way down suddenly and then goes back up. So on the way back it isn’t all downhill…there’s a stretch of steep uphill that just doesn’t seem fair after all that!

But, wow, it’s one of those hikes that’s rewarded with a magnificent view, then a very satisfactory feeling of “well done” once we returned to the trailhead.

royal arch trail
We started early, so there weren’t many on the trail yet. Coming back down was a different story!

What to Expect

LOTS AND LOTS OF PEOPLE—The trailhead is very accessible and it’s one of Boulder’s most popular attractions. It’s also accessible to the several million who live in the Denver metro area, just 40 minutes away.

Even at 7:15 in the morning the parking lot was nearly full. When we finished 3 hours later there were cars backed up waiting, and more cars lining the nearby streets. Coming back down the trail we met dozens of people making their way up.

While this was Memorial Day weekend, I have the feeling it’s like this every weekend during the summer. If you don’t want to hike with crowds, your best bets are to start early, choose a weekday or plan to hike it in the off-season.

LOTS AND LOTS OF ROCK—Of course we’re hiking on a mountain, so rocks are to be expected. But someone went to a lot of work forming rock steps on much of this trail. Without them it’d be too steep to scramble up—even though we had to do some of that, too.

the rock steps royal arch hike
You want good knees for this hike!

NO BUGS, BUT MAYBE SNAKES—As a Minnesotan, I always notice and appreciate the lack of mosquitos when I’m in Colorado. But remember, rattlesnakes are native to this part of the country. My sister and I had just encountered one up-close-and-personal the morning before on a different hike.

Thankfully, the only snake we saw on this trail that day was harmless, but rattlers are something to be aware of. Parts of the trail go through meadow, which is prime habitat.

STIFF, SORE MUSCLES—If you can get through this hike without sore muscles a day or two later I applaud you! We couldn’t. We were popping the ibuprofin that afternoon to deal with stiffness.

All of us work out in one way or another. My sister and I run. I go to the gym a couple times for weight training. My brothers both mountain bike in Colorado. But we were really stiff after this. My legs felt like they did after my half-marathons…and this hike is only 3-1/2 miles!

view from the top royal arch hike
My sister, Katy, at the top, overlooking Boulder and the valley below

The Final Word

Hard? Yes, but so worth it. It’s for this kind of thing I stay in shape. These are the activities that motivate me. I not only want to be able to do them, I want to enjoy doing them!

Would I do it again? You bet. Maybe with Nick and our kids in the not-too-distant future.

I highly recommend it!

Flatirons on Royal Arch hike
Viewing the Flatirons through Royal Arch

You’ll also like: