A bit of Flatiron history

The Third Flatiron. (Credit: Mark Lewis) 
From the 1950s to the 1980s, when the City of Boulder painted over them, the Third Flatiron bore the letters “CU.”

Some readers might recognize these rock formations as The Flatirons, a Boulder, Colorado, landmark. Symbol of the city, they rise from the foothills just southwest of town and are visible from miles away. (Weather permitting, they can be seen with some of the webcams listed at the bottom of the page.)

I’ve long sought a really great photo of The Flatirons, just because they symbolize a lot to me, and I finally came across this one the other day. It leapt off the page as far and away the best I’d seen and I grabbed it. Wikipedia has a good photo of all five Flatirons, but this photo is still my favorite.

My first childhood view of Boulder, as it is for so many, was from the southeast, coming in on Highway 36, the Denver-Boulder Turnpike (back then it was a free road, then was made a toll road until improvements were paid for, then became free again). You’re heading northwest with the mountains drawing ever closer (and if you’re rolling in from Oklahoma City after 10 hours on the road, you can almost smell them), top a certain rise, and suddenly the entire Boulder Valley opens below you. Conspicuous in the middle of the city are the pink tile roofs of the main Colorado University campus and to the left, against the foothills, are The Flatirons. I decided early on that I wanted to go to school there (and I did, for a year) and live there (never quite managed that).

There are five primary Flatirons, counting from north to south, and a number of smaller ones; the one featured in this photo, the most famous, is the Third Flatiron. Rising above a spectacular city park and green belt, it’s very popular with hikers and climbers, but I remember it for a different reason. “Back in the day” during my freshman year at CU, 1961-62, it bore the letters “CU” in white, 50-foot-high letters. Environmental awareness was in its infancy; I found those letters a source of pride.

Today, although faint, the letters are still visible.

And yet, being from Oklahoma and raised as a Sooner, I had to cheer when some enterprising OU students, on the eve of the OU-CU football game in Boulder, climbed the Third Flatiron and changed the “C” to an “O.” And as I recall it remained that way throughout the game, clearly visible from the stadium.

(Oh yes, CU won both the Big 8 Football and Big 8 Basketball championships that year. It was a good year to be a CU student.)


In 2009 the Boulder Daily Camera ran a detailed article about how the Third Flatiron was originally painted and about the controversies and changes in the years since.

11 thoughts on “A bit of Flatiron history

  1. Those are beautiful. I have a particular love for mountains and rocks – strange I guess. Never been to Colorado but going just to see those up close and personal could be enough motivation for me.

    1. You can walk up to the park and those formations from campus, and I did once or twice. Having that within walking distance of a major campus and city is amazing to me. But then, I’ve been totally smitten with Boulder since I was a kid.

  2. I’ve never seen them much in the winter. What a gorgeous shot. Always thought the CU campus is what a college campus should look like – a couple of my friends went, but I couldn’t afford out of state tuition. Smitten as a kid, too as we drove past. I thought there used to be white letters there. (Whew, it wasn’t wishful thinking after all.)

    1. That was my impression too. The perfect, gorgeous, classic college campus in a setting that, in my book, could not have been more perfect. I applied several other places, just in case, but CU was always my first choice.

      1. Sigh. We’ll just have to be satisfied with visits and cams – we used the one outside the bicycle shop a lot when daughter was there. Run by waves. (FYi, next post will have Boulder Creek in it – you’ll want to vote…when I get organized and can sit down Fri/Sat)

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