The ‘rise’ of Boulder’s newest iconic sport

Paragliding becoming a prominent Boulder activity

By Jess Mordacq Nov 4 2021

On any given day, look up in Boulder, and you’ll see tiny dots of peoples’ bodies drifting along the Front Range, suspended from colorful fabric.

Some soar high, some low, all of them adding a dynamism to Boulder’s airspace. With two prominent launch sites, three flying schools, and a growing community of professional and beginner paragliders, the scenic, adrenaline-filled sport has officially taken off in Boulder.

When the weather’s nice, I like to write pieces like this one underneath a tree at North Boulder’s Foothills Community Park, next to a field that serves as an expansive landing zone for paragliders.

They hover over me, always much smaller than I expect them to look, and practice landing procedures down from a northern and southern launch site about a mile up either side of the jutting foothill just north of Wonderland Lake.

Dusty Miller. Credit: Boulder Free Flight

Sitting on a picnic table next to paraglider Dusty Miller, he points at three hawks soaring in the clear, blue sky above our grounded bodies. They flap their wings and float in the same circle in thermal, a tall column of rising air that carries them upward, calling to each other to join when one experiences a lift. We keep our heads upward, watching as Dusty explains the logistics of their climb rate.

Thermals dictate when Boulderites will look up and see paragliders hovering above, and when they won’t, since they most often happen in the summer when the air is warmer.

It’s what Dusty enjoys most about paragliding, piecing together invisible indicators like the wind, air pressure and temperature. He had a spiritual experience in Chelan, Washington at the U.S. Open Paragliding Nationals paragliding with, and calling to, falcons in the same way they do with each other.

Credit: Boulder Free Flight

As a solo and advanced instructor at Boulder Free Flight, one of three Boulder schools that offers courses for solo and tandem pilots, Dusty’s excitement for air-bound antics aligns with many paragliders’ in Boulder’s growing community.

As paragliding season comes to a close with the end of summer’s upwinds, and thermals allowing for higher, longer flights, Dusty and his peers celebrate another successful year growing their community.

Though North Boulder boasts a launch site on the west end of Locust Street by Foothills Community Park, two weeks ago in Villa Grove, Dusty helped organize an unofficial fun fly, where local pilots met on the front range to celebrate the growing local paragliding community.

But the expanding support isn’t without its risks, as just last week, a paraglider was hospitalized with life threatening injuries after crashing at Boulder’s south launch site below North Cedar Brook Road, just west of the site. The rescue lasted around two hours, and the paraglider is now expected to make a full recovery.

Dusty says more and more pilots are succeeding in getting above the ridge, a move where experienced flyers soar up a slope, close to a mountain top to rise with air deflecting upwards. He’s also seen and flown in more gaggles of five or more pilots in thermal this year, something that, in his experience, rarely happened with more than two or three before now.

Credit: Boulder Free Flight

“Paragliding is the new mountain biking,” Dusty says of the growing sport. “The more students we have, the more pilots we get, the more people see us flying,” the more people who want to fly.

Once trained, paragliders can purchase their own equipment, which includes a harness, parachute and helmet. This packs up into the size of a backpacking rucksack, which they carry as they hike 35 minutes up to Boulder’s launch spots before flying.

Learning to fly

Dusty grew up around aerodynamics. By age 12, he was flying and competing with radio controlled airplanes throughout the U.S. in distance, thermal and soaring events. Two years later, he flew internationally at the F3J World Championships.

In 2012, Dusty started paragliding and has since flown internationally in Guatemala, Mexico and Norway. If you’re interested in seeing a 3D, interactive map track log of the path Dusty flew through the mountains from Voss to Aurland, Norway, click here.

In addition to teaching at Boulder Free Flight since 2019, Dusty serves as a paragliding site representative for the Boulder Open Space & Mountain Parks.

Boulder Free Flight, Boulder Paragliding and Red Rail Paragliding all offer intro courses, pilot certifications and tandem flights. All three schools launch a short hike west from North Boulder’s Foothills Community Park, off a massive, rolling chunk of the front range.

Featured image of paragliders over North Boulder’s landing site provided by Boulder Free Flight.