There are plenty of great hiking trails in Colorado. One of the trails that we hike regularly is the South Boulder Creek Trail in the James Peak Wilderness, covering an area of 17,000 acres (small compared to the Indian Peaks Wilderness) with 20 miles of trails. There are several lakes here that you can hike to such as Forest Lakes, Crater Lakes, Heart Lake and Rogers Pass Lake. All the lakes are located at the base of the Continental Divide and have spectacular views. In the summer, wildflowers abound here. Hikes are moderate, depending on each person's condition.
The South Boulder Creek Trail covers a big area and has several side trails to some of these lakes. To hike in the James Peak Wilderness via East Portal Trailhead, follow the Tolland/East Portal Road from the town of Rollinsville - about 7.5 miles from Colorado Highway 119.
It’s a well maintained gravel road following the river and train tracks – you will cross the track twice. You won’t miss the trailhead since its location is at the east end of the Moffat Tunnel, named after Colorado railroad pioneer David Moffat. This combined railroad and water tunnel was first opened in February 1928 and cuts under the Continental Divide. Trains pass by here regularly right beside the trailhead parking lot. Yes, this six-mile tunnel is that old and is still in service. After all, it is the mainline track from Denver to the west.
- HIKING TRAILS -
From the trailhead, the South Boulder Creek Trail connects to all the trails in the wilderness – there are signs at the junctions. You have choices, and you can make your hike shorter or longer but be mindful of the weather, afternoon thunderstorms are common especially in this area. Starting early is best as you don’t want to be above treeline when thunderstorms arrive.
This is a wilderness area, which means it's common to see lots of backpackers along the trail, single or in groups of two or more. Although we haven't hiked to all the alpine lakes here, but the ones we have (Forest Lakes, Crater Lakes, Rogers Pass Lake and Heart Lake) are worth coming back to time and time again. The lakes we have not been to don't have maintained trails to them.
FOREST LAKES (Upper Forest Lake Elevation 10,862 Feet) - 9 miles
Hiking to Forest Lakes, you will see a sign at the junction pointing you to a trail to your right. This trail is about a four-mile hike from the trailhead to the upper lake. A short distance from the junction, there's a little stream to cross and then it's all uphill. But before you reach the Lower Forest Lake, you will cross a log bridge over Arapaho creek.
We usually hike here in summer, when the wildflowers are at their peak. Come too early in the season and you might encounter snow - this area gets heavy snow in winter. It is probably safe to say that wildflowers are at their peak in early August, but it varies a bit each year. We are not always lucky, sometimes we are too late - or too early.
We always end up with hundreds of photos when we hike here at the right time and when the wildflowers are at their peak. How can you not? The many varieties and colors are so amazing they enhance the beauty of the surrounding landscape.
There are Columbine, Indian Paintbrush, Jacob's Ladder, Bluebells, Monkshood, Primrose, Elephant Heads and many others - different varieties at different elevations. But the explosion of colors is a little different each year, it depends on how much precipitation nature gave them – mother nature always has the upper hand.
Before reaching the Upper Forest Lake, you will pass the Lower Forest Lake, around which you can make a detour, either on your way up or down. Fishing is allowed so bring that fishing pole if you have the time or if you are camping.
But before continuing to the upper lake, just a short distance from the lower lake is a stream. This is another nice photo opportunity since it's just by the trail. You can stop here to rest and have a snack or just simply enjoy the soothing sound of the water.
From the Lower Forest Lake to the Upper Forest Lake is just a little less than a mile. If you want to hike a loop around the lake, that will add some additional mileage, but we usually do that.
NEXT... CRATER LAKES
If you are camping, you will have time to go hiking to the top of the Continental Divide, which separates the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds.
There are many fine campsites in the James Peak Wilderness, but campfires are not allowed and group size is limited to only 12 - including pets.