Boulder isn’t just brawny, with all its bike paths, Crossfit studios and Spandex-clad cyclists clopping around downtown. This college town is also brainy, thanks in part to the presence of the University of Colorado, federal labs and the entrepreneurs and artists who call this place home.
And Boulder wears its geek badge with pride. If you’re visiting, you’ll find plenty of landmarks, museums and other spots that will delight your inner nerd.
Here are the best places around town for science enthusiasts.
See the Atomic Clock at NIST
Boulder, Colorado, is the official timekeeper for the United States. A federal lab in Boulder bestows a high-tech, cesium fountain atomic clock known as NIST-F1, which is among the most accurate clocks in the world. Physicists say it shouldn’t gain or lose a second in more than 100 million years. Watches, computer clocks and other devices are often linked to the atomic clock and the NIST “official time” is disseminated to devices several billion times each day. It’s also used as the official timestamp for financial transactions.
Unfortunately, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (or NIST) no longer offers widespread public tours, citing security reasons. However, the federal lab does offer a limited number of guided tours for high school and college students, with priority given to those who have an educational interest in science and engineering. An important note: These tours typically need to be set up at least a month in advance. Here’s how to inquire about a tour.
The NIST lab is located at 325 Broadway in Boulder.
Learn About CU’s Connections to Space at the Heritage Center
The University of Colorado has some entrepreneurial alumni. Among them? Spencer Silver, who is credited with developing the sticky adhesive used in Post-it notes. (Sorry to steal the spotlight from Lisa Kudrow’s character, who fibs that she invented Post-its while trying to make a name for herself in “Romey and Michele’s High School Reunion.”)
You can learn about the famed and obscure alumni at the University of Colorado’s Heritage Center. Housed on the third floor of the Old Main building on CU’s campus, the Heritage Center is operated by the CU Alumni Association. Here, you can learn more about famous alumni, such as Thomas Hornbein, who designed the breathing mask that made climbing at high altitudes possible and Theodore Maiman, who developed the first laser.
A special “CU in Space” exhibit pays tribute to the university’s NASA connections. Since the late 1940s, NASA spacecraft have launched hundreds of CU-Boulder instruments into space. On top of that, 20 astronauts with university ties have gone on a total of 52 space missions. Military academies excluded, CU is in the top five U.S. schools with astronaut alums. Some of the must-sees in this museum include artifacts that accompany alumni Ellison Onizuka aboard Challenger in January 1986 and were recovered from the wreckage and a moon rock collected by Apollo 15 astronauts. Admission is free. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed on university holidays.
The Heritage Center is located on the CU-Boulder campus and you can find a campus map here. You can park at meters on University Avenue, just east of Broadway.
See Millions of Stars at Fiske Planetarium
The Fiske Planetarium is one of Boulder’s, well, stars. The planetarium offers all types of fun events including star talks, live talks from space experts, concerts, movies about space exploration and laser shows. It’s the place to be when there are major astronomical events. Fiske is home to the “MegaStar” projector that can show 10 million stars and the Milky Way, creating an expansive indoor sky that’s a sheer delight for stargazers. (By comparison, the naked eye can only spot about 6,000.) Also a bragging right for Boulder: the 65-foot diameter dome that covers Fiske is the largest between Chicago and Los Angeles. Next door at the Sommers-Bausch Observatory, you can enjoy free telescope viewings on Friday evenings, weather permitting. You can check out the Fiske Planetarium’s events calendar here.
Fiske Planetarium is located at 2414 Regent Drive, Boulder.
Get Up Close to Ice Age Tools at The Museum of Natural History at CU
At this museum, you can get a glimpse of more than 80 ancient stone tools, collectively known as the “Mahaffy Cache” that were found in a Boulder backyard back in 2008. The tools are more than 13,000 years old and were used toward the end of the Ice Age.
In all, this museum has five exhibition galleries where you can explore natural and human history. The collection spans ancient artifacts and fossils to modern-day research.
The artwork is also woven in throughout the museum, at exhibits such as “Cannabis: A Visual Perspective,” which presents botanical illustrations of cannabis in watercolor, colored pencil, print and mixed media. The Cannabis exhibit is at the museum through Jan. 28 and also highlights cannabis research that’s come out of CU.
The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. It’s closed on university holidays. Admission is free.
The museum is located on the CU-Boulder campus in the Henderson Building at 15th and Broadway.