I am moving to Boulder, CO for my PhD and am interested in doing a lot of hiking on the weekends. To get to trailheads near Boulder and Rocky Mountain NP, all year around, do I need:

  1. High clearance (Are roads paved,...?)
  2. AWD (Are roads groomed, muddy,...?)

I am intersted in what I really need, (to not get stranded).

Thank you.

  • Been there once, after a big snow fall. There are paved access roads for certain peaks and others were rocky off road. My very opinionated answer is "both" clearance and AWD which you will find in my make of choice SUBARU! When I was there the parking areas went something like this: Subaru, Subaru, Subaru, Jeep, Pick up truck, Subaru, Subaru, Subaru...My WRX has taken me everywhere I've ever wanted to go but there arw many other suitable models like the Forester or Outback...Goood Luck let us know what you end up with!
    – AM_Hawk
    Mar 23, 2015 at 1:55
  • Obviously we don't do shopping advice, but I'm also a huge Subaru fan - have had WRX's and Foresters because they survive and get you there. That said, any good offroader will be a good idea.
    – Rory Alsop
    Mar 23, 2015 at 8:10

3 Answers 3


In my experience, most of the trailheads in the Boulder, RMNP area are accessible to little cars almost the whole time they are open. I'm not saying all are, but most.

That said, you could easily go three ways with the choice of vehicle:

AWD, little clearance -- Something like a Subaru will get you to almost all the trailheads that are open almost all the time. You might occasionally have to pick a different trailhead, but most of the time it'll be just fine. (This is what lots of people would recommend, with good reason.)

4x4, high clearence -- An Xterra or similar small suv on a truck frame, will get you to basically every trailhead at any time. I personally wouldn't go this route in the Boulder area, because I feel like it's totally overkill. You won't every have to pick a different trailhead, but the extra gas money and higher purchase price isn't worth it in my mind.

little car -- Something like a civic will get you to a (not maybe the one you want) trailhead anytime you want. This would be my personal choice, you'll have to pick a different trailhead once in a while, but most of the trails in Boulder are accessible to little cars most of the time. If you're not open to changing plans get an AWD with a little clearance.

TL:DR -- Most of the trailheads are accessible by almost any car. A bit of extra clearence and AWD might make you more comfy, but are probably not needed.


There are many trails and therefore many trailheads with a variety of road types leading to them. Most of the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park can be traveled by ordinary passenger cars, at least when it's not snowy. The roads in the nearby national forests vary widely. The main forest roads can be traveled by ordinary passenger car, but a more capable car will give you access to more places.

If you want to maximize your ability to access lots of different trailheads, particularly in the more remote parts of the National Forests, you want something with high ground clearance and all-wheel drive.

I've been on many remote forest roads throughout AZ, NM, UT and CO, both with passenger cars and high ground clearance all wheel drive vehicles. There is a lot you can get to with just a passenger car.

If I had to pick between high ground clearance and all-wheel drive, I'd definitely choose the high ground clearance. In pratise, one usually comes with the other though. The roughness of some of the roads is much more of a issue than getting stuck due to lack of traction. In some cases I was in a high ground clearance vehicle that had to be manually switched into all wheel drive. While I did that in a few cases, most of the time it wasn't worth the trouble and possibility of forgetting to switch back to two wheel drive when getting to a paved road.

You can go a lot of places with a ordinary car if you're careful and are willing to stop, get out, look at the road, and plan your route. I've actually re-arranged rocks in a stream bed to be able to drive over it in a passenger car.

Snow on the road totally changes the tradeoffs. Lots of back country roads are closed in winter instead of being maintained. Unless you have a snowmobile, you'll have to get out and ski or snowshoe them anyway. If you want to go as far as you can with a car in winter, definitely get chains and a vehicle that can do all wheel drive. In some areas, chains are actually required at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.


If you're hiking in and around Boulder, you don't need anything special for a car. If you live near a bus route, there are routes that can take you to the edge of the city and within 15 minutes easy walk of the trailheads at Boulder Chautauqua , which are all great day hikes on their own. Off the top of my head and experience (I live in Boulder), You won't have any problems getting to any of the trails you want to get to with a "normal" car, with the exception of the winter, in which most places that necessitate off road capable vehicles are either closed or well marked as "off-road only", but most of these are a ways from Boulder.

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