I've done a considerable amount of cycling in and around Boulder, Colorado.
- Length: 21 miles
- Elevation Start: 5500 feet
- Elevation High: 7505 feet
- Elevation Gain: 2915 feet
- Estimated Time Expert: 2–3 Hours
- Estimated Time Beginner: 3.5–4.5 Hours
- Bike Types: Mountain, Gravel
- Terrain: Paved Road, Dirt Road, Single Track/Jeep Road
4th and Mapleton: Mile 0
I've lived in Boulder a long time and did not know about this ride until I did some exploring. What I discovered was a strenuous ride punctuated by one of the best descents I've ever ridden. The ride is worth it just for the descent. And if you make it that far, there are a number of options to get back home, some that involve climbing and some that don't.
The ride starts at 4th and Mapleton. It's a popular beginning for a lot of Boulder activities because it's close to the popular Mt. Sanitas hiking trail and Red Rocks hiking trail system and because many different rides up Sunshine Canyon begin here. The initial climb to our first noted point is relatively gentle, so if you find yourself winded, you might want to work your way up to this ride.
Sunshine Canyon and Timber Trail: Mile 1.4
I've been up Sunshine Canyon many times and never took this turn off. While it's not necessary to turn here, it gets you off the pavement and away from the cars. Fortunately, Sunshine Canyon isn't that busy compared to some of the other canyons, but if you're riding a mountain bike or gravel bike, it's kind of nice to roll along a different surface.
This dirt road spits you out back onto Sunshine Canyon at the 2-mile mark, so it's only 0.6 miles long. It's a bit steeper than opting for the pavement. When you get to this point on Sunshine Canyon, you'll hang a left and wind around through the neighborhood.
Sunshine Canyon and Poorman Road: Mile 2.6
Poorman Road is well known in Boulder, as it's the connector between Sunshine Canyon and Fourmile Canyon. It's a common ride for many people as Fourmile connects to Boulder Canyon.
The other significance of this point is that this is where it gets pretty steep for a while. If you're a beginning rider, or not in that great physical condition, you may end up thinking something like "how much harder can it get?" It gets steeper. Fortunately, it's less than a mile. It's the kind of steep where road riders have to stand up depending on their gearing.
You'll be at the 2.6-mile mark here. As you go up, you'll hit the top at 3.2 miles. At 4.3 miles, the parking lot for Bald Mountain Open Space will be on your left. This is another potential ride since Bald Mountain allows bikes. It's also a nice hike if you don't have a lot of time. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's a loop that only goes for one mile. The entire loop takes about 35 minutes to hike.
Sunshine Canyon and CR83: Mile 5.7
The turn-off to County Road 83 comes at the 5.7 mile mark and occurs right before Sunshine Canyon turns to dirt. As you head west on Sunshine, you'll turn due north and start descending for a short time.
The total downhill distance is 0.8 miles, at which point you'll come to a "No Outlet" sign. If so, you're headed in the right direction. At the "No Outlet" sign, you'll begin heading uphill for another mile.
Before you descend completely, you'll pass by an old schoolhouse at the 6.1 mile mark that is abandoned and built in 1900 (picture below).
One of the things I love about this part of the ride is that, as you pass by the houses, you feel like you're in another world. It feels so remote.
Jeep Road Descent: Mile 7.5
If you've made it this far: congratulations!
It's no small feat to get here. When you come to this point, there are two gates, one to the west and one to the east. There's a small parking lot here and I've seen five or so cars parked here at any given time.
As of the writing of this article, I have not taken the road that goes up, but I plan to.
The road down is one of the best descents I've ever ridden. It's long and gentle, though there are a couple places where it narrows. There are also a couple of places that have some technical bits. There are also a couple of places where falling would be bad. Overall though, it's a beautiful, long descent through the woods that empties onto Lefthand Canyon. This is the part where the mountain bike comes in handy. If I were riding a gravel bike, I'd do this loop in reverse and come up on a gravel bike.
The descent to Lefthand Canyon is 1.88 miles long and descends about 350 feet.
Lefthand Canyon: Mile 9.4
Once you've reached this point at the bottom, you have a number of options to get back to your starting point.
The first is to turn around and go back up. The reason I suggest this as an option is because it keeps you out of Lefthand Canyon. Descending Lefthand Canyon involves more pavement, though it's a very beautiful ride. Since the ascent is pretty gentle going back up, turning around and retracing your path is a good option. There's also the option of heading back to the jeep road entrance and then crossing over to the other jeep road and heading up even more.
The second option is to head all the way down to US36 and ride the highway back to your starting point. If your legs are roasted, this might be a good option. It involves the least amount of climbing to get back. However, US36 involves a lot of cars and can be dangerous at times. Cars don't always respect bikes on that road. It's a highway.
The third option is to descend to Old Stage Road and head back that way, which will involve a little climbing. This option will connect up with my fourth option, which is the one I'm detailing for the purposes of this ride.
The fourth option, detailed here, involves descending down Lefthand Canyon to Lee Hill Road, which connects Old Stage Road and Lefthand Canyon. It involves some additional climbing, but not that much. It also involves a pretty fast descent down Lee Hill Road along with some great views.
Lee Hill Drive: Mile 11.6
After dropping down Lefthand Canyon 2.2 miles, you'll come to a turn-off for Lee Hill Drive. From here, you'll have a steep climb for 0.7 miles that will turn into a more mild climb for another 0.6 miles.
At this point, you'll reach the intersection of Deer Trail Road and Lee Hill Road. This is an important intersection because the jeep trail that goes up at the 7.5 mile mark has to come out here. Deer Trail Road is the artery you'll need to find at the end of that jeep road ascent.
From here, it's a 3.1 mile descent to the intersection of Lee Hill Drive and Old Stage Road. There is some very slight climbing, but it's mostly descent and some of it is very steep. Be careful with your speed, which can exceed 40 mph on any bike easily.
Lee Hill Drive and Old Stage Road: Mile 16.0
You're almost back in Boulder at this point. From here, the descent down Lee Hill Road is just another 0.9 miles to the entrance to the path that will take you back to your starting point.
Foothill Canyon Creek Trailhead - Mile 16.9
This is a good way to get back to your start point because it requires the least amount of additional climbing. For the most part, you'll be going due south. No matter how you go, there won't be much climbing, but going this way allows you to stay as high as possible, so any uphill stuff is mostly minor.
Once you enter this dirt path, you'll go from the entrance to Poplar Ave, which is a couple of miles. This path is multi-use, so don't go too fast. People will be hiking and walking dogs. After the trail, you'll ride on some paved path for a bit until you get to Linden and Wonderland Hills Drive.
From here, it's straight south until you're back to your starting point, riding along 4th St.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Allen Donald
Allen Donald (author) from Colorado on October 08, 2020:
Thanks for reading. It's a narrow market, but it's fun to document these rides, so why not?
Liz Westwood from UK on October 08, 2020:
This is a well-documented and well-illustrated account. You have produced a very useful guide for anyone planning on doing this bike ride.