How COVID-19 Has Changed Hiking on Colorado Trails

Hikers walking along the South Boulder Creek trail on March 18.
Hikers walking along the South Boulder Creek trail on March 18. Photo by Michael Roberts
Many folks hunkering down in their homes amid the COVID-19 outbreak are already feeling as if they've been sentenced to a stretch in solitary confinement. Fortunately, Colorado offers the most glorious change of scenery imaginable: the great outdoors. The result has been a big uptick in hiking at various areas around the state.

But even in these bucolic settings, the virus has changed the rules. Owing to the extremely infectious manner of the disease, Colorado nature lovers find themselves in the position of navigating new standards for safety and etiquette, as I learned yesterday, March 18, in Boulder County.

I had made plans to hike in the area with my twin daughters and two of their good friends, all of whom were suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. As part of their evolving personal protocols, in order to strike a balance between total isolation and willfully ignoring social-distancing recommendations from health professionals, they had designated a group of ten people they would allow themselves to see face-to-face at present, and all of us made the cut.

A few hours before we were scheduled to set out, Boulder County Parks & Open Space issued a press release that noted a big increase in trail usage since the closure of many gathering places around the area, especially along some of the most popular routes. As a result, the agency was offering tips about how to deal with the presence of other hikers — among them, ringing a bell (really) to announce yourself.

For our jaunt, my companions chose the South Boulder Creek West trailhead, which was among the least crowded open-space areas a few years back when by daughters attended the University of Colorado Boulder. But while it was common back then for the trailhead's parking lot to be all but deserted, it was practically full yesterday afternoon. We snagged the last space.

Not that the trail was jam-packed. Along the five miles we hiked, we passed about thirty individuals or groups going one direction or the other — and because the trail is narrow in many places, each encounter required a decision about what to do in order to maintain enough space. Some runners, many with dogs, simply raced straight ahead, relying on everyone else to get out of their way. Others walking in twos or threes would move as far to the far edge of the pathway as possible, creating a gap shy of the suggested six feet but still substantial.

The biggest challenge came when a gaggle of nine people (one shy of the limit cited by President Donald Trump, who regularly ignores it) headed straight for us along a stretch where the trail was perhaps two feet wide. When it became clear that they weren't going anywhere, we moved well off the path into an area of wild vegetation. None of them so much as acknowledged us or how we'd given them the right of way — the new definition of virus-era elitism.

click to enlarge The sign directing visitors to the South Boulder Creek West trailhead. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The sign directing visitors to the South Boulder Creek West trailhead.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Another challenge: The South Boulder Creek West trail has a series of gates that must be opened and then closed, typically by the use of a chain loop. Since these are the kinds of hard surfaces on which COVID-19 is said to linger, and because every hiker had to touch them, we designated a single gate opener who made sure not to touch her face between them and then slathered her mitts with hand sanitizer after we'd passed through the last one.

Employing such strategies during what was supposed to be a time to clear our heads in the fresh mountain air felt bizarre, but also necessary. Suddenly, there's the potential for invisible danger everywhere — even in the wilds of Colorado.

Here's the release from Boulder County Parks & Open Space:
Boulder County trails see increase in visitation

Tips for safe visits to open space

Boulder County Parks & Open Space staff appreciates the desire of community members to visit open space trails amid increasing concerns of COVID-19. Getting outside for fresh air and exercise is recommended by Boulder County Public Health at this time, but precautions are necessary. It's important to follow careful guidelines as increasing numbers of residents visit open space trails:

• DON’T visit if you’re sick! Stay home and help protect others.
• Plan your visit carefully. Know your limits and the county Rules & Regulations while on the trail. Don't put first responders and medical personnel at risk.
• If a parking area is full, move on to another park or trailhead.
• Visit areas that are less crowded. Here are a few ides for less popular places to explore:

Ride our Regional Trails! You can ride and walk from Erie to Boulder and Longmont to Boulder on the LoBo Trail, Coal Creek Trail, and Rock Creek Trail.

If the Coalton Trailhead parking is full, park at Superior’s new Oerman-Roche trailhead just north of Key Bank on McCaslin to hike and ride the county’s Mayhoffer Singletree Trail.

Lagerman Agricultural Preserve just east of Longmont provides long, flat trails and great views of the mountains.

• Don’t organize large group gatherings.
• Announce your presence to others to help maintain the recommended six feet of social distance. Be sure to signal your presence with your voice or a bell when passing others.
• Practice strong hygienic measures. Frequently clean and disinfect any shared hiking, climbing or sporting equipment.

Please stay informed. Check before your visit for up-to-date information for possible visitor restrictions or closures in response to trail and park conditions and the COVID-19 virus. For the latest county updates and guidelines on how to manage COVID-19, please visit
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts