Vien R. Guenther
Indian Peaks Wilderness - Front Range, Colorado
Updated: Mar 28, 2020
The Indian Peaks Wilderness borders the James Peak Wilderness to the south and Rocky Mountain National Park to the north - between a one and two-hour drive from Denver. The Indian Peaks, as well as the James Peak Wilderness (protected lands designated in the Wilderness Acts), are located in the Front Range, straddling the Continental Divide, within the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Their close proximity to the metro area makes these two wilderness areas popular and heavily used.
Indian Peaks Wilderness trailheads are located near the towns of Allenspark, Ward, Nederland, and Eldora. There are no fourteeners here. The seven major peaks (named by botanist Ellsworth Bethel in the 1900s after Native American tribes) vary from just under 13,000 to just over 13,500 feet in elevation. Also, much of the terrain is steep with thick forest, but some of the trails are family friendly. You can begin your hike on any of the four major trailheads - Hessie (Eldora), Brainard Lake Recreation Area, Fourth of July Trailhead and Peaceful Valley Trailhead, depending on where you want to go. You have plenty of choices and all trails are worth hiking for wildflowers in summer or fall colors in autumn. And for those better equipped, many of the trails make for excellent winter hiking.
- HESSIE TRAILHEAD -
The Hessie Trailhead connects to several different trails - Lost Lake, Woodland Lake, Devils Thumb Lake and Jasper Lake to name a few. The nearest town to this trailhead is the small historic town of Eldora. You will reach Eldora from the town of Nederland. Follow the County Road 130 (Eldora Avenue/Eldorado Avenue) to where the pavement ends and becomes a gravel road at the end of the town. Continue driving until you reach a junction. To the left is Hessie Road - you will drive through a creek bed on this road, so a high-clearance vehicle is required - or you can take a risk scraping the bottom of your car. Then about a quarter of a mile from the junction you will find a parking area on the right beside the road. To make the hike even shorter, drive farther until you reach the foot bridge, but you might not get a spot, parking there is very limited.
LOST LAKE – 1.4 miles to Lost Lake one way
Hiking to Lost Lake is just about 1.4 miles (Devils Thumb Lake, Jasper Lake and Woodland Lake are much farther). That is too short a hike for us, so to make the hike longer, but without going all the way to the other lakes, we hiked further past the lake turnoff until we reached the creek crossing to the Devils Thumb Bypass trail, then headed back down. Altogether this hike was about 6.5 miles.
It’s a moderate hike to Lost Lake, the trail is steep only for about half a mile at the beginning of the trail, on gravelly old road.
The trail is partly within the wilderness area but Lost Lake itself is located outside of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Regulations do not apply here and permits are not required for camping as they are for the wilderness during summer months.
WOODLAND LAKE – 4.3 miles one way
On this hike we skipped Lost Lake and hiked all the way to Woodland Lake. The Devils Thumb Trail will take you to the junction of the Woodland Lake Trail which will take you all the way there - as well as beyond to Jasper Reservoir. The lake is about 10,993 feet in elevation. It's a fairly long hike; we hiked about 9.5 miles including going around the lake, but the trail is moderate. The trail will pass a small waterfall - stay a while and you might see some trout trying to climb up the waterfalls. We did and it's fun to see.
Hiking in autumn, the colors enhance the beauty of the landscape. It's a different photo opportunity than in summer. Going back down, take the Devils Thumb Bypass Trail, it will cut the hike a little shorter but not by much.
- FOURTH OF JULY TRAILHEAD -
Hiking to Diamond Lake or Lake Dorothy? Head to the Fourth of July Trailhead. Drive on the same road (Eldora Avenue/Eldorado Avenue) to the ski town of Eldora all the way to the junction. This time take the road to the right, the 4th of July Road (Hessie Road is on the left).
This portion of the road is rough but passable; we drive here using our car, but a high clearance vehicle is best. From the junction, it’s about four miles to the trailhead. This is a popular trail and parking is limited. I can understand why, trails here are beautiful especially in summer when the wildflowers are at their peak.
DIAMOND LAKE & UPPER DIAMOND LAKE – 2.6 Miles to Diamond Lake, 4 Miles to Upper Diamond Lake one way
The Arapaho Pass Trail will take you to the Diamond Lake and Upper Diamond Lake turnoff. This is a moderate to strenuous hike, depending on how far you want to go. Our hikes here have varies, depending on what we feel like that day. The longest hike we did was about nine miles round-trip to the upper lake. Sometimes we only hike to Diamond Lake, and another time we hiked up to the small pond above Diamond Lake, and then another time we hiked all the way to the Upper Diamond Lake.
The shortest hike is to Diamond Lake, just about 2.6 miles, one way. It's uphill for about 1.2 miles and you will pass below a waterfall just before the trail to Diamond Lake forks to the left (going straight will take you to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy). Even by the trail you will find wildflowers, but wait until you see the meadows full of them higher up. The best wildflowers on this hike can be found above Diamond Lake going up to the pond and Upper Diamond Lake.
From the fork in the trail to Diamond Lake, it's slightly downhill all the way to another waterfall, which is just a little ways off the trail. Past the waterfall you will cross a creek, then the trail goes uphill again for another mile all the way to Diamond Lake.
Above the pond is the Upper Diamond Lake. From the trailhead all the way to the Upper Diamond Lake is about four miles or more, one way, depending on the route you will take. There is no designated trail to this lake – there is a “social trail” that you can follow but having a GPS with you would be nice. It’s easy enough to find, you can follow a stream and the terrain opens up as you hike higher. The Upper Diamond Lake is about 11,743 feet in elevation. It sits below Mount Jasper (12,518 feet in elevation) nestled between two mountain ridges.
ARAPAHO PASS/LAKE DOROTHY – 4.5 miles one way
Hiking to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy is long, about nine miles round trip. It is a beautiful trail though, wildflowers abound even by the trail.
The Arapaho Pass Trail goes uphill all the way to the pass. Halfway to the pass, right by the Arapaho Glacier Trail, are some remnants of the Fourth of July Mine - so called because miners staked their claim on Independence Day of 1872. The amount of gold, silver, zinc, lead and copper that the mine produced didn't amount to much, as expected, and was closed in 1937.
To reach Lake Dorothy, you have to turn left off the trail at the pass and just follow the ridge to the lake, which is a little bit lower at 12,089 feet in elevation, sitting below the highest peak nearby, Mount Neva (12,814 feet).
From the pass look down to your right and you will see Caribou Lake below. Looking from above, the lake seems near, but it's a long switchback descent down to that lake. If you continue on the Arapaho Pass Trail, it will take you to Caribou Pass from where you will see Columbine Lake below.
- BRAINARD LAKE RECREATION AREA -
Hiking to Long Lake and Lake Isabelle or to Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake, you have to drive to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. From Nederland, drive 13 miles north on Colorado Highway 72 to the town of Ward - you will see the sign for Brainard Lake Recreation Area just past the town. Follow the County Road 112 (America Street/Brainard Lake Road) to the fee station (if you have senior pass, it’s free). Past Brainard Lake, on the west side, is the Long Lake Trailhead. Drive north and it will lead you to Mitchell Lake Trailhead. You can find these routes using Google Earth. Hiking trails here are family friendly. If you plan on hiking several trails in the area, it’s best to camp at the Pawnee Campground by Brainard Lake, that way you can start early. Parking at the trailheads fills up very fast.
LONG LAKE & LAKE ISABELLE – 1.0 mile to Long Lake & 3.0 miles to Lake Isabelle, one way
The Long Lake Trail (also called the Pawnee Pass Trail) will take you to, of course, Long Lake and Lake Isabelle (it will also lead you to Pawnee Pass and the Isabelle Glacier Trails. This is a popular trail so you might not feel the real wilderness vibes you were seeking, unless you go farther up to Lake Isabelle - most hikers just stop at Long Lake or at least walk around it on the loop.
Either hiking in summer or autumn is nice here. In summer, when the wildflowers are at their peak, you won't be able to resist stopping and take a few (or more) pictures. So don't forget your camera! You might even find some spots of snow by the trail. In autumn the landscape will transform into golden color, a different photo opportunity but quite stunning all the same.
Hiking this trail took us about seven miles, round trip, including hiking around both Lake Isabelle and Long Lake. We also detoured slightly off the trail to the South St. Vrain Creek (named after Ceran St. Vrain, a French fur trapper and trader in northern Colorado in the 1830's), fed by the Isabelle Glacier, as well as some ponds along the way. Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is usually a whole day affair for us.
Hiking to Long Lake is just a few hundred yards from the parking lot, one way, but if that is too short a hike, take the Long Lake loop, also known as Jean Lunning Loop. It's an easy hike and family friendly. The lake is long; hence the name, and fishing is allowed so some people just come here to fish.
To Lake Isabelle is about two miles from Long Lake, one way. The lake is about 10,914 feet in elevation. It sits below three mountain peaks - Navajo (12,991'), Apache (13,441') and Shoshoni (12,967'). Take note, you might find Lake Isabelle almost empty of water - it is drained every year in late July/early August by a private company that owns the rights to the water – for agriculture purposes. The mountain landscape here is spectacular, as you can see in the picture below.
MITCHELL LAKE & BLUE LAKE – 3 miles one way
The Mitchell Lake Trailhead provides access to, what else, Mitchell Lake, but also to Mount Audubon, via the Beaver Creek and Mount Audubon Trails. Hiking to Mitchell Lake is short, from the trailhead it is just one mile to the lake. But even from there you will see some of the Indian Peaks, a beautiful backdrop for Mitchell Lake.
The landscape gets even better as you hike farther up to Blue Lake. Another two miles and you will reach it, but the trail also gets steeper. To break up the ascent, take time to check out some of the beaver ponds along the way; you can find some good photo opportunities there - the photo below was taken in autumn. Beautiful isn't it?
Blue Lake (11,363 feet in elevation) sits below Mount Toll (12,979 feet), Paiute Peak (13,088 feet) and Mount Audubon (13,223 feet). It's above tree line and it can be really windy and chilly up there, so bring along a jacket.
A short distance after a steep ascent, the trail levels off and the stunning landscape of Blue Lake is right in front of you. You will want to linger there for some time, if its not too windy or if there is no thunderstorm coming. We usually take our time here eating our lunch and just absorbing the beauty of the place.
Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is limited to 12 people (in groups) only. If you have a dog it must be on a leash at all times. Some people ignore this rule, but it’s good to heed the warning since it’s for your and your dog’s welfare and for other people using the trail. Not to mention the wild animals that dogs might encounter along the trails, especially bears and moose.
It is best to come early when hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, parking fills up fast especially on weekends and holidays. There is a free shuttle that runs on weekends and holidays May 26 - Oct 7 from the Nederland Park-n-Ride to the Hessie Trailhead. Check out the Hessie Trailhead Bus schedule for more information.
Permits are required for overnight campers, limited to up to 12 people only. You might need to reserve a permit in advance, especially during the summer season. Check www.indianpeakswilderness.org for restrictions. There are certain rules in areas and time of year.
If you are camping, take note that there is an increase in bear activity in the last few years in the Indian Peaks Wilderness - particularly at the Diamond Lake and the Jasper and Woodland Lake areas. Bring bear proof canisters for food storage or hang your food, if y