South Boulder Creek Trail – James Peak Wilderness/Roosevelt National Forest
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
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.
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.
Even at the beginning of the trail you will see wildflowers. There are pockets of meadows full of wildflowers along the trail so keep your heads up and eyes open. It's what keeps us coming back here, and makes our hikes longer as well, since we stop often to take photos. Wildflowers sure add to the pleasure of hiking.
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)
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.
CRATER LAKES (Main Crater Lakes elevation 10,600 feet)
Back on the main South Boulder Creek Trail, continue past the first junction if your aim is the Crater Lakes. The the sign at the second junction will direct you to that trail. Going to the two main Crater Lakes is a six-mile round trip hike from the trailhead. If you want to go to the Upper Crater Lake, be prepared for a steep ascent going up to the ridge. From there you still have to climb up a ways which brings you to a viewpoint above the upper lake. Then you will have to do some scrambling over big boulders to get down to the Upper Crater Lake. There is another way up, but you won't get the great view looking down on the lake.
Hiking here in June you will still find snow in some areas, so the trail might be difficult to follow. Unless someone else already created a temporary trail over the snow which you just have to follow. It helps to have a GPS with you which my husband, Hermann, always carries, not only to record our hike but also to know where we are.
Wildflowers also abound here, if you are lucky to pick the right time. In the meadows, as well as by the streams and lakes, you will find wildflowers everywhere!
It's a steep climb to the Upper Crater Lake, but don't hurry, look back down from time to time and you will see the view getting better as you reach the ridge. The mountains and the lower lakes below are such an amazing landscape you will be in awe, as you can see on the photo. Nature is really amazing, isn't it?
We also hiked here in early Autumn and we found some wildflowers by the trail still in bloom (photo below). Hiking in Colorado you will find many surprises.
ROGERS PASS LAKE (Elevation 11,028 feet)
If your aim is to hike to Rogers Pass Lake and Heart Lake, follow the South Boulder Trail all the way. Combined, it's about 9 miles round trip from the trailhead to the two lakes. But due to greater elevation gain, this hike is a bit more strenuous than Crater or Forest Lakes.
This is a beautiful hike as well; there are streams and amazing meadows of wildflowers along the trail, especially up by the lakes. See photo below.
Hiking here in autumn is also great. There will be very few wildflowers but most of the foliage will be transformed from green to red, yellow and orange - a different view of the landscape altogether. You might get lucky to find marmots if you stay a while. They are shy animals, which is good.
HEART LAKE (Elevation 11,300 feet)
So, if you hike to Rogers Pass Lake you might as well hike all the way to Heart Lake. That is, if you still have the stamina or time. It is a steep climb but only about a quarter mile further and about 200 feet above Rogers Pass Lake. You can do it and you won't regret it. The view from up there is fantastic.
This lake is located at the base of the Continental Divide. Heart Lake is shaped like a heart, but only if you look at it from above. Google it.
You can find amazing meadows of wildflowers here, especially columbines (photo below). As you can see, snow still remains in the nooks and crannies of the mountain in summer. Whether it be summer or autumn, it is wonderful up there. One thing we learned, the later in summer we go, the less people we encounter and will almost always have the place to ourselves. All we can hear is the sounds of nature, most especially the shrill sound of marmots.
From Heart Lake you will get a good view of James Peak and Haystack Mountain.
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.