A Curious Bubble in Boulder, Colorado

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“I’m dying to know…how are you going to write about Boulder?” asked fellow traveler Jason Moore (of Zero to Travel) who I met up with and who calls this little Colorado hot-spot home.

Although I didn’t actually see “The Boulder Bubble” when driving in from Denver airport, after a few weeks of staying in Boulder, I felt it. Also referred to as “10 square miles surrounded by reality”, Boulder was an interesting experience – and one I’ve had some trouble formulating an opinion on.

Boulder begs to be poked fun at in many ways, and yet a tongue-in-cheek approach doesn’t quite do it justice. Nor does a glowing (nor scathing) review.

On this thoroughly ambiguous note, here are my observations of Boulder Colorado:

Here are some curious facts about Boulder Colorado USA; the people, the lifestyle, the wardrobe, and more. #BoulderCO #USA #randomobservations #traveltips #expatlife #Longtermtravel #TheProfessionalHobo

This post was originally published in 20015. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

Boulder is About the Outdoors

The mountain-lover in me fell in love with the scenery and access to all things outdoors-y in Boulder. It sits right at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and without even leaving the city limits you can get your hands on rock with rampant trails and climbing routes suited for novice and expert hikers, runners, and climbers alike.

There are also options if you don’t want to get vertical; it was the first city to tax itself for funds dedicated solely to the acquisition and preservation of open space; thus every neighbourhood has a great network of parks, paths, and green space.

Mountain views in Boulder Colorado
Great hiking in the mountains and parks all within Boulder city limits

The Flatirons dominate many vistas of Boulder, with climbing routes that have not only been traditionally climbed, but also climbed without ropes, naked, with roller skates, high-heels, pets, and a variety of other confusing incantations. Why, you might ask? Well, why not – a Boulderite might say.

It’s Quirky

With the University of Colorado in town, you’d naturally expect a fun-loving youthful quirky approach to things. But it’s not just students climbing those Flatirons in skates; Boulder in general boasts a unique approach to fun.

Frozen Dead Guy Days is a perfect (and far from a standalone) example; Boulderites flock annually to nearby Nederland to attend themed parties around – yep, you guessed it – a frozen dead guy, who was cryogenically preserved by his grandson in 1989. Some of the events you can attend include coffin races, a parade of hearses, and more.

Further proof of Boulder’s quirkiness: Mork and Mindy was filmed there, and it’s considered a badge of honour.

The Professional Hobo making a snow angel

Better like Beer

I’m sure this quirky ambiance has something to do with the fact that Boulder is part of the largest beer-producing triangle in the world, with microbreweries at every turn.

It’s a Foodie Town

It’s nice to have something in your stomach to soak up all that beer. In 2010, Bon Appetite magazine named Boulder “America’s Foodiest Town”. There is a massive concentration of restaurants in Boulder, many with a farm-to-table approach and organic ingredients.

The Pearl Street Mall pedestrian area in Boulder Colorado
The pedestrian Pearl Street Mall, full of buskers doing shows

The Whole Foods Centre of the Universe

Speaking of organic food, Boulder has multiple Whole Foods grocery stores, including the galaxy’s largest Whole Foods store – affectionately referred to as “Whole Paycheck”. I got lost in it, before finally finding the cash registers and confirming the “whole paycheck” nickname.

Boulder is (Unbelievably) Active

You’d think with all this beer and good food that Boulderites would be obese for it; quite the opposite. In fact I believe the calorie count in Boulder needs to be thus in order to support so many (ridiculously) active lifestyles.

Boulder tops all the lists for well-being, most active city, bike-friendly city, adventure town, and more. It was rated “#1 Sports Town in America” by Outside Magazine, and more people walk to work per capita in Boulder than anywhere else in the US.

Boulder also celebrates all things bicycle; in the winter, the bicycle paths get ploughed before the streets do; the total bicycle count is more than one per person. In the summer, every Thursday night hundreds of people participate in the “Thursday Cruzers” event, riding their cruiser bikes around town and shouting “Happy Thursday” to bemused onlookers.

Boulder’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains make it the perfect outdoor playground for those who are active at heart. Drive half and hour and you’re on your own in nature, surrounded by deafening silence. Another half an hour and you’re in ski country, lots of ski resorts to choose from.

footprints in the snow
Drive half an hour from Boulder and you’re on your own in nature, with deafening sounds of silence
Nora Dunn, The Professional Hobo, knee-deep in snow in Colorado
My first flirtation with snow after 8 years of permanently avoiding winter; as you can see I’m not sure what to do with it
The Professional Hobo skiing in Colorado
I eventually got my winter groove on and even strapped on some skis for some epic Colorado skiing

I Feel Fat in Boulder

All this fitness makes me feel fat here (and I’m pretty far from being overweight or unfit). Everybody is in top shape; they run (like, marathons), bicycle (like, triathlons), do yoga (like, with a higher concentration of the most perfect downward dogs than I’ve ever seen), and more.

Named “skinniest city in America” by Gallup in 2012, Boulder is just a sample of what you can find in Colorado in general; a 1992 survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that Colorado had fewer overweight people per capita and more people who exercise than any other state.

Function is Valued Over Fashion

If it looks like everybody is dressed like they just came from the gym or off the trail, it’s because they did. I saw more spandex on the streets in three weeks of staying in Boulder than I have in the rest of my life put together.

I had heard (but was unable to substantiate with some sort of statistic) that Boulderites are among the worst-dressed populations. But it’s more like a different kind of fashion; although you’ll see a lot of spandex and active-wear in Boulder, you can bet that a lot of it came from some speciality brand-name designer shop. They may not be runway-worthy fashion statements, but they’re fashion statements nonetheless.

“Spandex is timeless,” said one Boulderite in defence of this observation; need I say more?

There’s Money in Boulder

…and a lot of it. (People have to pay for all that fancy spandex somehow). It’s touted as one of the most expensive cities in America to live in; as evidenced by the high concentration of restaurants, brand name (active-wear) stores, and a booming real estate market.

People are Smart

With money comes smarts. Boulder boasts the highest number of educated people in the US (and I had heard the highest number of nobel laureates but was unable to substantiate that rumour). It’s the #1 city for brainpower, and has the highest concentration of tech employment. Move over Silicon Valley: Boulder is on the scene.

the tip of a snoeshoe

The Other/Under Side of Boulder

The above facts about Boulder Colorado are largely positive. It’s a happy-healthy-educated-active-prosperous place. What could be wrong?

Well, nothing, in a sense. Boulder rocks (as long as you fit the bill). But if you don’t fit this profile, Boulder might be a bit overwhelming. Topping so many of the “best this” and “most active that” lists, it’s an extreme place, full of extreme people. I heard comments like “it’s hard to live in a place where everybody is so fit, so successful, and so rich”. It seems that just being mediocre isn’t in the cards.

“To live in Boulder, you have to be driven, successful in business, AND an extreme athlete,” said a woman who lived in Boulder for many years and became somewhat disillusioned by it after surviving cancer and a few life changes that stopped her in her tracks. Suddenly she didn’t fit the profile and felt alienated by her own home town.

Like many North American cities, Boulder is a busy place; want to go for coffee with a friend? Better schedule it a few weeks in advance. And if you’re hoping for a deep soul connection with your coffee date, you might need to schedule that one at least a month out.

I saw a spiritual side to Boulder, but as with many things spiritual, it begged the question how much of it is spirituality versus being fashionably spiritual. Throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a yoga studio – full of fit tight-bodied perfectly-clad people executing every pose to (and perhaps beyond) perfection. Next door you’re likely to find a health food store, organic restaurant, or trendy coffee shop, where you’ll overhear somebody talking about their 10-step method to enlightenment. And don’t forget to get your dog some specialty gluten-free dog food before you go home.

People in Boulder almost seem “too” good at everything. It’s intimidating.

But then again maybe it’s just me. The majority of the people I met in Boulder were pretty awesome, well-traveled, and engaging folks. Colorado in general is a beautiful state, and seems to attract an eclectic nature-loving active populous. As with many cities, Boulder is a bit hectic for my taste, and living there in a financially sustainable way would require some serious income.

But you can’t complain (too much) with 300 days of sunshine per year. Or if you did complain, nobody would hear you; they’re all off hiking/skiing/biking/paddling/running somewhere.

Loveland Pass in Colorado, the Continental Divide

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36 thoughts on “A Curious Bubble in Boulder, Colorado”

  1. It’s not just you; Boulder is totally overwhelming! I went to school there and stayed for a little while after graduation. It’s definitely hard to be a moderately fit person with a stable, albeit middle-class, income and feel like you’re failing compared to everyone around you.

    I don’t think I’d want to live there again but I LOVE going back to visit. In the summer when the students leave and it is super quiet with perfect weather, Boulder is hard to beat.

    • Hi Jenna,
      Yep – I feel pretty much the same way; I think Boulder is a great place to visit, but I’m not sure I could hack living there. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Boulder. I’ve lived in Boulder for almost three years now and love the outdoorsy culture but am unsure about the long term possibility of settling down here because of the outrageously high cost of housing. I think you captured the essence of Boulder pretty well, especially the obsession with being fit and the casual dress. Even in my office everyone wears their work out clothes all day unless a client is visiting!

    • Hi Angie,
      I’m glad my observations of Boulder resonated with you! I was shocked at the price of real estate and the degree to which it’s a seller’s market right now. My boyfriend had over 100 people through his house in three days, and had 9 offers – most of them way above the asking price with no conditions. Wow!
      So maybe, best to hold off buying something if you’re wanting to stay in Boulder. 😉

  3. Hi Nora,

    let us know your new boyfriend with a photo!

    is he also so reserved and a bit paranoic like your previous one who didn’t want to appear in your blog?

    Enjoy Costa Rica!

    All the best!


    • Hi Fab,
      Although I’ve made a few subtle references to my boyfriend and relationship, for the moment I want to keep him to myself! So no pictures yet.
      All in good time…

  4. Nora, this is a wonderful article, fair, savvy, informative, balanced, insightful. I really appreciate the time and thought you put into it.

    It has special meaning for me because for about three intense years I was the yoga editor and then associate publisher of elephant journal, that quintessentially Boulderesque online magazine. (See I loved it, but I was always trying to figure out the Boulder mentality, since I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and only visited Boulder twice in all that time. (Everything else was facebook, skype or website.) I would say you hit all the nails directly on the head, as far as I’m concerned–all the good and all the, well, not really “bad”, but maybe “annoying”.

    Great work. On another topic, my wife Jane and I will be in Cusco July 15 to August 31. I’m just starting to look for an apartment now. Still considering Pisac, too, although I think we’ll end up in the Cusco. Perhaps our paths will cross.

    Thanks for all your great writing. Yours is one of only a handful of blogs I never miss.


    • Hi Bob,
      Thank you SO much for your very kind words! I’m thrilled that I hit the nail on the appropriate heads – since that’s not always an easy thing to do in a three week visit.
      Hope to see you in Peru!
      Cheers, Nora

  5. Hi Nora,

    How neat!

    LOL on the frozen dead guy. And the day. And the coffin stuff. Boulder sounds 1000% more intriguing after reading your post. Much going on in this area.

    Fun share!


    • Hey Ryan,
      Thanks! Frozen Dead Guy Days is just one of many strange and curious events you can attend in and around the Boulder area – great sense of humour they have there.
      Let me know your own observations if you ever check Boulder out!

  6. Well, Nora – missed your weekly epistle so I though I would check in here! I see you are still moving and writing. Good!

  7. As long as you focus on the outdoors, good food and beer everything else falls into place. No matter what you think of Boulder we loved having you there Nora! Come back anytime:)

  8. Of all the places I visited last year Colorado was my favourite even though I hate snow and winter. There’s just something so surreal about driving through giant mountains. After reading your post I wish I’d spent more time in Boulder instead of just the one night.

  9. Hey Nora,

    I so understand and resonate with all of the points you make about Boulder. After college, I very briefly “moved” to Boulder. I thought it was the perfect place to go after spending 4 years in Vermont, but various circumstances led to me only sticking around for 6 weeks!

    While I was there I absolutely felt this sense of “I must be doing something active and productive at all hours of the day”! I biked to work, took the kids I worked with to parks and spent all day outside, I hiked and ran and even joined one of those yoga studios. I paraded my lululemon paraphernalia around proudly! And despite being a very active person (I actually love hiking and biking and always having something fitness inspired to do) I remember praying for a rainy day so I could lay in bed and watch movies all day without feeling guilty!

    I haven’t returned to Boulder since, but like you said it has so many amazing things going for it, but perhaps only meant to be experienced for a short time (on both of our parts). I highly recommend checking out Burlington, Vermont- my home for the last 9 years and a similar situation to Boulder though much more subdued!

    I really enjoyed this read, thanks!

    • Hi Katie,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! Sounds like I’ll need to add Vermont to my travel list. 🙂

  10. Wow, you have snow there.
    Here in my place I saw snow last time in the winter of 2013.
    Since then, nothing.
    You can consider yourself very lucky 🙂

    • Hi Lisa,
      …and I’m guessing that snow is expected wherever you live. I personally haven’t missed it (at all) in the last 8 years since leaving Canada, and although it was nice to play in snow for a short time in Boulder, I’d had more than enough of the chilly temperatures and short days by the time I left. I’m good for at least another 8 years of no winter!

  11. Colorado is a land of spectacular locations and natural attractions packed with rugged snow topped peaks, impressive canyons, lofty sand dunes, undulating prairies, beautiful valleys and forests and mountain streams and rivers.

  12. I loved your article and as many other people said previously, your description was “right on the money”. I had lived 13 years in NM which is super down-to-earth and then we moved to Boulder where my husband thought I’d “fit in”. (We lived there for 5 years).. It took me a year to figure out what you described in your article! I couldn’t figure out how people would describe themselves as “spiritual”, but relationships were not down-to-earth REAL and deep… Later, after we moved to Denver, a man who was a former editor of New Age Magazine said to us that we were so smart to get out of Boulder. He described Boulder as a place of “spiritual materialism”…Bingo. He described it. Boulder was the first place that I ever lived where I did not make long term deep relationships. But, on the other side of the coin, your description of the positive aspects were true and appreciated.

    • Hi Shira,
      WOW – thanks so much for your point of view and for sharing your experience. I’m thrilled that my analysis resonated with you, especially given that I was only there for three weeks!

  13. I lived along the California coast for the first 35 years of my life before moving to the Boulder area. Even though I was more active in Cali (surfing, cycling, etc) I’ve found that burning fat at altitude is much easier than at sea level. I know Boulderites like to think they are all sports gods but I have the feeling that any of them that move to lower altitudes might find themselves having to put in a lot more work to keep that <10% body fat.

    Also, I've had so many bad excuses for cuisine in this area that I've all but given up on eating at most of the resteraunts. It all tastes like stuff I've had in other states but has had the flavors toned down for Midwestern pallates. I guess the food is ok if you've never eaten at good resteraunts in other states (or even other parts of Colorado).

    • Hi Scott,
      Great point about the altitude – I’d never thought of that!
      As for the cuisine, I didn’t find the restaurants outstandingly exceptional, but I found some nice places to eat. What amazed me was the sheer concentration of restaurants – there was certainly no shortage of choice.

  14. I enjoyed your post about Boulder, almost to the point of laughing about some of the points made. I’ve visited Boulder a couple of times. In 2008, it had the dubious distinction of selling me the expensive diesel fuel that I’ve ever purchased-$5.25/gal.

    I generally visit other parts of Colorado 2-3 times a year. In fact, I’m skiing in Telluride right now. I enjoy your blog!

    • Hey Gary,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post (and my site)! Have fun skiing….I really enjoyed strapping on some skis while I was there and experiencing some world-class hills.

  15. Stumbled upon this looking for info on the guy who climbed the flatirons in high heels. Nice write up considering what sounds like a short period of exposure for you! As a long time Boulderite, I enjoy poking fun at and laughing at elements where we are indeed overboard as a community. You’ll enjoy this read from Outside mag in 2006 – I still send it to all new transplants: http://www.outsideonline.com/1886676/gore-tex-vortex

    As to relationships, I can see the challenge there. On the upside, if you are on top of your fitness and outdoor skills, you do end up having multi-day, challenging, exhilarating adventures with friends that evolove into unique, deep, loyal, trusted relationships. That said, I can indeed see how not having that the fitness or ability can leave one on the outside looking in. It’s not for everyone but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Gotta go – getting off the RTD bus to ride my single speed bike to a lunch meeting in Denver. I’m ready for the “oh so Boulder” comments. 😉

    • Hey Kevin,
      OMG that’s an awesome article in Outside! Very well written, and pretty much on the mark from what I could tell!
      And let’s get it right: I’m a fit girl. I climb mountains and stuff. But I still felt vastly inferior…..maybe I wasn’t wearing enough Gore Tex. 😉

  16. “Mork and Mindy” wasn’t filmed in Boulder. The house they show at the beginning is located here though. ?

  17. Folks, I hope it is just a matter of chilling out and being yourself. I just moved to the Boulder area from Silicon Valley, 38 years of slinging code in the same. I am not looking for a endless measuring up game or some fit mountain climbing yogi and entrepreneur standard. I am more into being somewhere where I can find my own center and inner flowering. I want something with less measuring up and making it angst. Now I am in Louisville which is almost too chill. But the mind space and vibes of the place are much cleaner than what I have had for many years. Its really nice.

    • Hey Samantha,
      I’d love your take on Boulder once you’ve been there for a bit and found your groove! I’m sure you will….on the whole I’d say it’s a pretty cool town, and likely much more chill than Silicon Valley (and less chill than Louisville) – ha ha!

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