Be Bolder in Boulder

The Art of Planning Your Next “Big Dumb Ride”


Words and Photos by Chris Case

Chris Case is a journalist, adventurer, and founder of Alter Exploration, which guides cyclists on transformative journeys in some of the world’s most spectacular locations, including the Dolomites, Iceland, Piedmont Alps, and Colorado. Previously, he was the managing editor of VeloNews magazine and the COO of Fast Talk Labs. He is proud to be a Shimano ambassador.

Shimano ambassador Chris Case

In a place known for world-class athleticism, it’s good to go big—ride all day, string together roads and trails and climbs, and finish feeling the satisfaction of exhaustion. Situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains, Boulder offers a beautiful mix of quiet canyon roads and steep dirt connectors, creating the perfect opportunity to plan you next Big Dumb Ride.

The Big Dumb Ride, or BDR for short is often an under appreciated and underutilized endeavor. But come to Boulder and the BDR is a typical weekend adventure for much of the dedicated cycling community. Maybe it’s because riders can take advantage of what this part of the world has to offer: narrow, twisty, quiet backroads, leading to snowy-peek vistas, complete with mountain-town pie stops and cold-creek bottle refills. This is one of those places where you get to create art with your route on the map.

The Art of the Boulder BDR

Crafting a BDR typically comes from pouring over road maps and satellite images, searching for roads and trails that connect or lightly used paths that might exist. Or, it comes from years of exploring the region, by taking countless trips down abandoned double tracks, and pedaling miles of rattly surfaced roads to find a link between point A and B.

In Boulder, we’ve discovered that the back roads above and beyond the city limits—and especially the dirt roads—are beautiful for what they are not. They are not fresh pavement. They are not well trod, nor do they lead to anywhere in particular anymore.

Given the terrain on the Front Range, it’s, of course, easy to accumulate large quantities of elevation gain. Detours can be thrown in for the gratuitous nature of their gradients. Could we halve the distance and quarter the elevation gain by turning left onto the main road? Yes, by all means. But that’s why we turn right, onto this other thing that only marginally resembles a road.

As in so many places, the names of the roads of Boulder County tell much about the location—the who, what, and where of the inhabitants of yesteryear. Rowena Trail, Logan Mill, Joder Ranch, and the list goes on. Most of them lead skyward. That’s good, because challenges bring emotion, and feelings solidify memory. You don’t remember that featureless stretch of road like you do the one that had you sweating and which, ultimately, led you to the summit.

It’s why we love to climb things—whether that’s on foot or on bikes. Feel like riding the highest paved road in North America? You can do that from Boulder. Want to ride to an alpine lake at 10,000 feet and stare at the Continental Divide? You can do that, too, in less than a few hours.

But once you’re done, reward yourself. Eat a pizza—and at least five cookies—hopefully with friends who decided to stay with you. Then whisper, “Long live the big dumb ride.” You’ll be better off for having done it.

While Boulder may have the reputation for being elite, for taking its endurance sports very seriously, it might be a mischaracterization of what’s really going on. Think of it this way, instead: Boulder attracts folks who thrive on athletic challenges. Cycling is just one medium for meeting that challenge—for creating it.

The Details

Getting there

Getting to Boulder has never been easier. Denver International Airport has blossomed into a world-class international airport with an abundance of airline options flying to the Rocky Mountain state. From there, it’s easy to either hop on the bus (Route: AB) that travels directly to downtown Boulder and outlying areas, UBER, or rent a car. 


There is all manner of lodging options, from the luxurious St. Julien Hotel & Spa or the historic Hotel Boulderado to less expensive options. This is a college town after all. For the adventure-minded, check out the A-Lodge just up Boulder Canyon from town, or AirBnB options are plentiful. 

Time of year

Colorado is home to incredible weather, and Boulder Valley is no exception. While devotees ride year-round, if you are looking for the best time to ride into the foothills, visit in June, after the spring mud and wind season passes and before the heat of summer kicks in. If you want to go even higher when the snow has vanished and the Aspen trees are golden, visit in late September into early October. You’ll also miss the high temps in the heart of the summer, which often comes with dust and, as of late, smoke from wildfires.

Key equipment

The best riding in Boulder involves going up—sometimes way up. Most of the climbs are a consistent gradient, and not overly steep. However, there are some steep pitches here and there, often on dirt, so low gearing is essential. Don’t forget, you’re also at elevation. Make sure your brakes and tires are in great condition for the rapid descents.

Speaking of tires: A gravel/all-road bike fitted with 32-35mm tires would be a great choice if you wanted to do a bit of everything. Depending on your penchant for adventure, you may want something much more voluminous—things can get chunky on the more rugged mining roads.

Recommended side trip

You are spoiled for choice. But if you want gorgeous scenery inside a national park, with dirt roads as a bonus, head toward Rocky Mountain National Park. Start in the town of Estes Park and ride up Old Fall River Road, to the Alpine Visitor Center (at 11,796 feet), then down Trail Ridge Road. You’ll never stop gawking.

Must-ride route

Ready for a big dumb ride? Of course you are. The Mosaic Monster is a route I created for my friends at Mosaic Bicycles. The hardest mile-for-mile ride in Boulder? You decide.


Must-do climbs (in no particular order)

  • Flagstaff Mountain (paved; iconic)

  • Sunshine Canyon (paved, then dirt; gorgeous)

  • Logan Mill Road (steep dirt, super quiet)

  • Rowena Trail (chunky mining road)

  • Four Mile Canyon to Gold Run (go to Gold Hill for pie at the general store)

  • Switzerland Trail (chunky, rugged jeep road)

  • Brainard Lake (high alpine lake on the edge of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area)