Happy Trails – Heil Valley Ranch

By Suzanne Webel

My personal involvement with this property goes way, way back. Having ridden the entire Heil Valley Ranch property with the Heil family and their neighbors many years ago, and having taken friends to ride the Heils’ livery horses there, and having roamed the whole ranch by myself with nothing but my crazy OTTB gelding and a bunch of elk for company, and having represented BCHA on the North Foothills Open Space Advisory Committee, and having been one of the volunteers who helped build the new trails, and having testified often and frequently before the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee and the Board of County Commissioners about the importance of keeping the ranch open to horses with reasonable trails and off-trail access, I can say, with understatement, that the whole process of finally getting this property open to the public has been worth every minute.

This ranch is one of the prime parks in the County’s open space system. The property comprises approximately 4,800 acres, ranging from dry “red rock country” to sunny foothills pine forests to mountain meadows to subalpine firs and spruces on the shady north-facing slopes. Wildlife includes elk that migrate across the property on their annual trek to Nelson Road, wild turkeys that were originally imported here so they could then be hunted, mountain lions that now keep the deer population from exploding, and a variety of other birds and small mammals. Historic activities included quarrying, ranching, hunting, a horse rental business, and even “renaissance questing weekends” (in which people ran around pretending to be knights, princes and damsels in distress).

To reach the park, turn west from Highway 36 onto Left Hand Canyon Drive. Proceed to Geer Canyon Rd; turn north and drive up the road about a mile to the trailhead parking lot, which will be on your right. Parking is very limited, so please trailer-pool and park only in the designated “trailer/bus parking” area (P-1) beyond the car parking lot. There is also designated trailer parking at the Picture Rock TH to the north (P-2).

The trails utilize a combination of old roads and new alignments, pass stone sheepherders’ cabins and old quarrying operations, and offer spectacular views eastward over the Great Plains and northward into Hall Ranch and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Several very large conservation areas comprising more than 60% of the entire property are permanently closed to the public to protect various sensitive habitats. All visitors are required to stay out of the closed conservation areas entirely, and these areas are signed at appropriate or historic entrance points. The property has a resident manager and is patrolled. Sheriffs are authorized to ticket persons entering these closed areas.

The trails are crammed into a narrow band so as to minimize impact to most species at Heil Valley Ranch. While wonderful, the actual trail corridor comprises less than 1% of the entire property. I might have had a bit to do with lobbying intensively, and successfully, to allow off-trail access for equestrians in areas that are not closed (after all, this was a former working ranch). So you are within your rights to use some of the old ranch roads that are currently off-limits to mountain bikes, enabling you to escape the madding crowd.

This update is being written almost exactly 20 years after I wrote the first Heil Valley Ranch Trail Log. Since then, Boulder County has built several new trails and has acquired several hundred more acres to the north, enabling a long-sought trail connection to Hall Ranch. They (“we”?) have also acquired several hundred more acres to the south, enabling a new trail connection south to Boulder via Joder Ranch…someday. The current plan includes building a new trailhead at the old ranch complex, which is fine – but it eliminates the trailer parking at the current trailhead and reduces the number of horse trailer parking spaces at the new site (P-3). Why? No answer seems to be forthcoming. Why must I keep having to repeat the refrain of “if we can’t park there we can’t ride there”?? If you’re tired of getting to a trailhead and finding no trailer parking, a nudge to POSAC and the County Commissioners would be appropriate. Yes, you!!!

Total Distance:   Wapiti Trail 2.5 mi.; Ponderosa Loop 2.6 mi.; Wild Turkey Trail 3.0 mi.; Picture Rock Trail 5.2 mi.
Total Time:         Multiple loops, variable time
Difficulty:             Easy
Dogs:                 No
Jurisdiction:       Boulder County Parks & Open Space
County:              Boulder
Maps:               Available in the trailhead kiosk

Heil Valley Ranch map