BOULDER, Colo.-- As we visited this city by the foothills of the Rocky Mountains for a few days last month, this is what we saw:
• Throngs of cyclists going every which way on well-maintained -- and wide -- bike paths along roads, through parks, under intersections and across elevated pedestrian/bike crossing lanes. On some roads where cyclists did have to ride on the road, they were separated from cars by a painted 4-foot buffer zone -- a measurement that has become a bone of contention in Pittsburgh's auto-bike conflicts.
• Hordes of hikers of every age and skill level traversing mountain trails that reached deep into the neighborhoods and close to the city center.
• A bustling independent bookstore crammed with 150,000 titles along the vibrant Pearl Street pedestrian mall filled with shops, outdoor cafes and myriad street entertainers. Trash receptacles were designated for recycle, landfill or compost.
• All shoppers toting reusable bags at the grocery store (and it wasn't even a Whole Foods).
• Perhaps the largest number per capita of aging hippies, including lots of white people with dreadlocks.
• Medical marijuana dispensaries -- even on its premier shopping street -- in a state that last November also legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Could this place be real?
For years, I had wanted to visit what has earned accolades as one of the healthiest, most bike-friendly cities in America. (In 2012 it received a renewal by the League of American Bicyclists of the platinum award -- the highest rating at the time -- of being a bicycle-friendly community.) TripAdvisor named it one of the "Top 25 Destinations in the US" and one of the "Top 100 Destinations in the World." It also offers acres of open space and mountain parks for hiking and a lively food scene.
If you go ... Boulder, Colo.
- Getting there:
United, US Airways and Southwest offer nonstop flights to Denver, a more than three-hour flight from Pittsburgh, and less than three hours back.
Chautauqua Park, a National Historical Landmark. 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, CO 80302; 1-303-442-3282; www.chautauqua.com.
Hotel Boulderado, 2115 13th St., Boulder, CO 80302; 1-800-433-4344; www.boulderado.com.
Read more on things to do in Boulder
An added bonus is that it is just a 40-minute drive from Denver International Airport, a nonstop airline destination from Pittsburgh. And from Boulder, it's about an hour to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park and its endless possibilities for observing wildlife, bird-watching, picture-taking and hiking.
This city of 100,000 people with clear skies and crisp air is home to the Celestial Seasonings tea company, founded here in 1969, as well as to natural food industries, satellite offices of Google and other tech companies, many entrepreneurial startups, a national atmospheric research station and the largest university in the state -- the University of Colorado with more than 30,000 students. The sun shines for more than 300 days of the year, and when it snows, residents say, the white stuff melts by the next morning.
Often such places don't live up to the hype, but Boulder met all of my expectations and more.
My family, however, wasn't too sure. Boulder to them felt just a little too perfect.
On my first trip here last fall for a reunion with some high school buddies, we stayed in a cottage at Chautauqua Park, a National Historic Landmark that was part of the Chautauqua movement of the late 19th century. It was just footsteps from hiking trails that led into the Flatiron mountains.
Like its New York counterpart, the Chautauqua concept is based on lifelong learning, a love of nature, voluntary simplicity and appreciation for arts and music.
The Boulder settlement was started by the Texas Board of Regents, which was looking for a place in a cool climate to establish a summer school for teachers. Officials of Boulder, which had been founded in 1859 by gold prospectors, wooed them here by offering land and facilities.
Originally called the Texas-Colorado Chautauqua, it opened July 4, 1898, and is the oldest Chautauqua site west of the Mississippi in continuous operation.
It draws more than a million visitors a year to its grounds for retreats and relaxation. With its location next to the Flatirons, Chautauqua Park enthusiasts helped create the network of hiking trails that cover the city's surrounding hillsides, according to the book "Boulder Hiking Trails" by husband and wife Ruth Carol Cushman and Glenn Cushman.
The Chautauqua Climbers Club was formed and eventually incorporated as the Rocky Mountain Climbers Club and started building trails.
"We had no trail in those days ... we just clambered around like mountain goats," one member wrote at the time, according to the book.
Another group, The High Hikers (no snickers, please), also constructed trails throughout the county. These eventually became the Boulder branch of the Colorado Mountain Club, the premier hiking club of the Rockies that also advocates for preservation and access to recreation.
Unlike with so many American cities, the layout of Boulder and its preservation of open spaces have been well-planned. Boulder City Council got this started in 1898 when it purchased 80 acres on the east slope of nearby Flagstaff Mountain for open space.
Then in 1908 Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. came to town. The noted landscape architect was the son of the man who designed New York City's Central Park.
Olmsted, according to an article in the Boulder Daily Camera, was invited to Colorado by the Boulder City Improvement Association, a group of private citizens. He rode around the town on bicycle, noting changes he wanted to see. He later presented a 106-page plan for city improvements.
Among these, he:
• Urged for the planting of a variety of trees.
• Suggested that every home be at least 1/4 mile from a park.
• Discouraged advertising billboards and heavy manufacturing.
• Pushed for the creation of parks throughout the city.
City leaders didn't implement all of his suggestions, but his views helped shape a city vision. He returned in 1923 to help plan the development of the five-mile Boulder Creek Path, which runs through the center of the city and connects to its popular network of bike trails.
Later, in 1959, Boulder's Open Space Program pushed forward the Blue Line Ordinance, which, to deter development and preserve the mountain backdrop, created a boundary at an elevation of 5,750 feet above which the city would not provide water and eventually sewer service.
In 1967, voters passed a small sales tax to be used for greenbelt acquisition. With these efforts and others, more than 45,000 acres of open space have been preserved. The city itself has 60 urban parks.
Today there are several wheelchair-accessible trails and paths. Most trails are well-marked, and at all times of the day you'll see hikers and what are likely members of the cross-country teams -- girls and boys -- of Boulder High School or University of Colorado running along these sometimes narrow rocky trails at a fast clip.
Among other initiatives, Boulder has been pushing to become a zero waste community. It has placed compost bins among other recycling receptacles on Pearl Street as part of a pilot program toward this effort. And a law that took effect July 1 imposes a 10-cent fee for disposable plastic bags at all large grocery stores in Boulder, encouraging people to bring reusable bags.
While Boulder is a fun vacation spot for outdoor lovers, the cost of living is expensive. A bike store employee who rented us bikes went on and on about how great Boulder is, but later acknowledged he couldn't afford to live within the city limits.
Boulder Magazine was marking its 30th year in its summer edition and asked longtime residents their impressions of their city.
"Things are always changing, yet it feels that nothing seems to change," said one.
Some lamented the proliferation of chain stores on historic Pearl Street (Steve Madden, Patagonia, American Apparel, to name a few) but among the 1,000 businesses roughly 85 percent are locally owned and operated, city officials say.
A longtime Realtor noted about Boulder, "I do wish there was more diversity -- economically and culturally." She was right; it was probably one of the least diverse communities I had ever visited.
Still, it's a model of what other communities could become as they try to incorporate bikes and more outdoor activities in a city's daily life.
A relative, who owns a condo in Boulder, said she loves the town but acknowledged that even though she's spent time there for years, she's still in search of the "authentic Boulder," even though she's not quite sure what that is.
As we drove out of Boulder on our last day last month, I asked my family members what they thought. My daughter seemed to sum up the rest of the family's views.
"It's pretty, but it isn't reality."
Virginia Linn: email@example.com; 412-263-1662. First Published September 8, 2013 4:00 AM