Last weekend we brought our daughters to visit Boulder, Colorado, the place my husband and I met 25 years ago when we were undergraduates at the University of Colorado (CU). The trip had dual purposes: a trip down memory lane for us, and a prospective college visit for them. While we have excellent colleges closer to home, our alma mater is one well worth considering. Not only does CU have top-notch educational opportunities (NASA is investing $80 million in a new aerospace building), but Boulder consistently ranks as one of the best college towns in America.
Where We Stayed
This 12-year-old hotel was “new” to us. While a bit spendy, the location was well worth the price. Not only did the hotel have a commanding view of the Flatirons, it was one block off the historic and lively Pearl Street pedestrian mall.
The highlight was Friday “dance” night out on the patio with the gorgeous Flatirons as a backdrop. Local salsa band Chicos Malos packed the place with dancers, and we had some fun trying to mimic a few of their steps.
Another great reason to stay at the St. Julien is the bicycles. They’re complimentary during your stay and a great way to tour Boulder, especially the “Boulder Creek Trail” (see below.) I upgraded from the “free” bike to the $10/hour electric bike. I’ve been wanting to try one. It took a couple of wobbly blocks to figure out how to use it, but after that I was good to go. And go and go and go. It was so much fun I’d like one for home. Unfortunately, they come with a hefty price tag.
Where We Ate
Next Door American Eatery
I’d love to have this place next door, just for the kale chips. They’re the best we’ve ever had. Order the large. We ordered the small, and then ordered a second. We would have ordered a third had we not just eaten an order of chips and guac, too.
Chautauqua Park Dining Hall
What better place to spend a warm summer day than in the shade of this restaurant’s large wrap-around porch? In continuous operation since 1898, it’s a nice destination just for lunch, or to stop for a bite after you’ve spent the morning hiking one of the many trails that leave from Chautauqua Park.
A sentimental favorite from our college days. In a “new” location a couple blocks east of where it used to be, it’s not as quaint as when they were serving food out of an old house with porch seating, but the manicotti was just as good as I remembered.
Another sentimental favorite, I thought we used to go here for the food. We really went for the margaritas and that’s still the only reason to go — as well as the rooftop deck. Enjoy the drinks and view. Eat elsewhere.
Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
Dushanbe, Tajikistan is Boulder’s sister city, and the tea house was a gift from its citizens. Artists built the whole thing by hand, without the use of power tools, in Dushanbe and then took it apart piece by piece, crated it up and shipped it to Boulder where they put it back together again. The building sits in a pretty location on the Boulder Creek, next door to the modern art museum and the location of the weekly Farmer’s Market. The menu choices span the culinary world, as do the tea choices. We had breakfast creek side, which was nice, but I’d recommend dining inside to enjoy the artist’s work.
What We Did
If you have time, take this road to Boulder from Denver. It takes longer, and you may be going in the wrong direction for awhile, depending on where in Denver you’re coming from, but it’s worth it for the views.
Highway 93, along the front range, is the way I used to drive from home to college in Boulder. I never tired of the view. It’s changed some on the east side (Denver side) of the highway with the creep of housing developments, but the west side is just as I remember with mostly open fields all the way to the base of the foothills. The rocky Flatirons lead you into Boulder.
If you have a bit more time to spare, start your journey even farther south on 93 and visit Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater and Dinosaur Ridge. No doubt you know the famous concert venue carved into the rocks, but did you know you can see dinosaur fossil footprints in the same area? This was a local secret when I was growing up, but now it’s a big attraction. Don’t miss it.
A lot of people think Denver is in the mountains. It’s not. It is flatly on the plains, and a good 20-30 minute drive to the foothills. Boulder, however, sits right at the base of the most spectacular section of the Rocky Mountain foothills — the mighty Flatirons, a series massive sandstone formations that look like the bottoms of the old metal irons that pioneers used. Take a hard hike up to the Flatirons from Chautauqua Park, enjoy the views from a choice of more moderate trails, or just stay at the park and soak them up from there.
There are fabulous views of the Flatirons from all over Boulder and the CU campus. Take every opportunity you can to gaze upon these natural wonders. I used to watch them in my rear view mirror for as long as possible, as I drove out of Boulder.
No trip to Boulder is complete without a drive up Flagstaff Mountain. Stop at a few of the viewpoints over Boulder along the way and keep a lookout for road bikes. The road is narrow and windy.
Watch for thunderstorms, too. We had to cut our visit to one of the stops short and book it off the trail as fast as we could when my husband saw lightning hit the top of one of the Flatirons. Yikes! Colorado storms don’t usually last long, but they mean business.
Pearl Street Mall
Home to many shops and restaurants, this pedestrian-only mall is the heart of Boulder. It certainly holds my heart — it was the site of the first date I had with my husband. Sadly, the restaurant where we ate that long-ago night is gone now, but the bookstore where we ended many dates remains just a few doors down. It’s still a treasure. Save some time to browse the extensive “recommended” section right inside the front doors of the Boulder Bookstore. I promise you’ll find your next new read.
Filled with flowers, sculptures, a play area, and good people watching, Pearl Street is an entertaining place for dinner and a stroll. During the summer months, there are musicians on every corner and street performers can draw large crowds. We watched a man play flaming bagpipes, a juggler who balanced precariously on a tall stack of chairs, and dueling accordions who fought it out for a lucrative corner.
Boulder Creek Trail
Boulder is a biking town whose residents like to boast there’s more bikes than cars. That may well be true during the school year when university students swell the Boulder population by 30,000. Boulder is bike friendly with plenty of lanes and convenient storage racks. While our teens enjoyed the pool, we grabbed some bikes to pedal down memory lane on the Boulder Creek Path, which runs five and a half miles from Boulder Canyon to the plains east of the city. The path is directly across the street from the hotel.
University of Colorado campus
I don’t think I’m biased when I say the CU campus is one of the most beautiful anywhere. Nearly all of it’s buildings follow the same architectural guidelines set by architect Charles Klauder in the 1920s and 30s: red tile roofs and textured sandstone walls. The style is a good match for the Flatirons that form the campus backdrop, and the beauty of both draw many students to Boulder.
Stop into Old Main, the first and oldest building on campus (1876), for top-floor exhibits on CU’s history, including a room devoted to CU astronauts and big band favorite, Glenn Miller. Behind Old Main is Mackey Auditorium (1923), where my husband and I graduated from journalism school. To the west of Mackey is the picturesque Varsity Lake where you can watch turtles swim and sun themselves.
Norlin Library is the grand bookend of the “quad” lawn where we saw Hillary Clinton campaigning for her husband, Bill, in 1992. Gaze upon the inscription over the library’s large columns: “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.”
The CU bookstore is in the University Memorial Center. Bring some swag home. We did.