The 4 Best Indian Peaks Backpacking Trips
Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to living in Colorado. For the locals, by the locals. Register today!
It’s 7 a.m., and I don’t know where Maggie is. But I’m not concerned. The sun has carved out the granite amphitheater beyond our campsite, revealing a turquoise pool that reflects a crown of chalky spiers on its surface. There is no wind – a rare pleasure at 11,000 feet – and no noise either. Here, even whispers would spoil the beauty.
I zip up a puffy jacket to cut through the morning chill and head to our makeshift kitchen, hidden in a grove of fir trees, where Jenna already has a French press and watches a flapjack bubble over a small frying pan. We have been hiking partners for years.
I ride past it to the rocky outlet, where the water from Diamond Lake slides over ancient stones before pouring into the North Fork Middle Boulder Creek, then on to Boulder, where we live. I see Maggie perched on a log, staring at the rocky cathedral. Indian Peaks morning service is in session.
Of all the treats we Front Rangers can boast of (craft beer, blowing powder, stickhandling from Cale Makar), our backyard lineup is perhaps the most impressive. Just beyond the foothills we call home, glaciers freeze 13,000-foot peaks, prairies teem with late-summer wildflowers, and black bears, moose, and elk roam the evergreen forests. There are 133 miles of groomed trails, over 50 lakes, six passes across the Continental Divide, and my four must-do hiking trips.
The only problem with the Indian Peaks Wilderness is that it’s so spectacular it’s, well, justifiably popular. Mid-season, its main trailhead parking lots fill up before 8 a.m. Overnight permits for its main sites are picked up months before the hiking season even begins.
But after September 15, permit requirements are waived (for groups of less than eight people). And that’s when the season is just getting started: daytime temperatures are warm enough for swimming, but nights are cool enough for comfortable sleep. The skaters have fallen. Wildlife is more active. If My Nature is on your side, you might even be lucky enough to come across an early-season stand of golden aspens.
These are the conditions under which Jenna and I conspired to set the scene for Maggie’s first backpacking trip. We had cut our office work a few hours early the night before, then drove to the 4th of July trailhead in the Netherlands and started the hike before 5pm. The hike to Diamond Lake is relatively short, just 2.6 miles; after some discussions between best friends, we had already arrived.
We explored the shore with headlamps, but I know that the twilight amble is not comparable to what Maggie discovered this morning. The Indian Peaks suspended time for her. And yet, she will always be home in time for lunch.
4 hiking trips to do now in the Indian Peaks
Whether you missed a permit this year or just want to get out one more time before the snow falls, there’s still time to sneak in another backpacking trip. Here, my four favorites.
- Difficulty: Easy
- Number of nights: 1
- Distance: 5.2 miles, round trip
- Elevation gain: 1,067 feet
Yes, Diamond Lake is a beauty – its blue Caribbean waters cut into a granite basin – but that’s not even the main sell. It is: It sits at the end of a criminally short 2.6-mile jaunt that only gains 1,067 feet (virtually flat by Indian Peaks standards). That makes it my choice when introducing overnight beginners or for quick mid-week trips when I can split up after work and still be back at my desk for late morning meetings the next day.
To reach the frozen pool, where snow often lingers year-round, park at the 4th of July trailhead (39.99518, -105.63427) in the Netherlands and take the Arapaho Pass trail. Parallel to North Fork Middle Boulder Creek, gently ascending through evergreen forest with occasional peek-a-boo views towards the Continental Divide. At an intersection near mile 1.1, continue straight on the Diamond Lake Trail and head towards the Alpine Pool. The campsites on the northwest rim have water views, but I prefer the solitude of the northern rim.
Red Deer Lake
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Number of nights: 1
- Distance: 13.6 miles, round trip
- Elevation gain: 1,796 feet
The shores of the lake are hard to find outside of Denver (the only downside to living in the hiking capital of the country). But that’s what awaits hard-core hikers willing to tackle the 6.8-mile trek to Red Deer Lake, a small aquamarine tarn at the foot of its namesake rampart. Throw yourself on a patch of hard-packed grassland that frames the lake to the east, then negotiate your way to the water for a dip.
Park at Camp Dick (40.12984, -105.52374) in Allenspark and take the Buchanan Pass Trail as it climbs steadily into a valley where Middle Saint Vrain Creek tumbles. Near mile 5.2 turn west to stay on the Buchanan Pass Trail which crosses the river. Keep walking until you reach another crossroads at mile 6.2; here, split north on the spur of Red Deer Lake, a last-ditch leg burner to reach your home for the night.
- Difficulty: Hard
- Number of nights: 1+
- Distance: 17 miles, round trip
- Elevation gain: 2,298 feet
There are several ways to reach Crater Lake, but the easiest route starts at the Long Lake trailhead (40.07789, -105.58436) in the popular Brainard Lake National Recreation Area, which currently operates on a timed reservation system. to park. Take the Pawnee Pass Trail past Long Lake and glacier-clad Lake Isabelle before ascending to the 12,541-foot Pawnee Pass, a low point along the Tiara of the Continental Divide. Pick your way up the embankment on the east side of the spine, skirting a handful of tempting sights at Pawnee Lake. Reach a T-junction near mile 7.7 and split south on the spur to Crater Lake.
The stage you will find from the shores is the closest to the Dolomites without leaving the country. Crater Lake sits at the 11,919-foot base of Lone Eagle Peak, a steeple-shaped mountain that towers over a thirteen-year-old backdrop. There, pitch your tent on a shore facing beauty and wiggle your weary legs.
Boulder Double Bypass Loop
- Difficulty: Epic
- Number of nights: 2+
- Distance: 25.7 miles
- Elevation gain: 6,984 feet
Never miss a step on this life-list circuit, which offers new scenery stopping on your trail around every switchback, of which there are plenty. Colloquially called the “Boulder Double Bypass”, this nearly 26-mile loop offers two mountain passes with long-range views of the snow-capped peaks beyond, as well as subalpine meadows, aspen forests and some of the most striking lakes in the range. You can camp at a number of A+ spots along the way, including Crater Lake, but here’s how I like to do it.
From the Mitchell Lake trailhead (40.08326, -105.58164) in Brainard Lake National Recreation Area, connect the Beaver Creek and Buchanan Pass trails along the flank of 13,000-foot Mount Audubon and through a forest of aspens to climb the 11,837 foot Buchanan Pass near mile 8.5. Descend from the Continental Divide and pitch your tent at Fox Park, a grassland area along Buchanan Creek where moose often hang out, near mile 10.5. The next day continue on Buchanan Pass Trail to an obvious junction at mile 14.2. Head west on the Cascade Creek Trail, which follows its namesake through sun-dappled forest to the Crater Lake intersection, three miles beyond. Spend the night at the Alpine Pool or continue to Pawnee Lake, 2.5 km from the Pawnee Pass Trail. On the final morning, continue through Pawnee Pass and return to the Lost Lake trailhead. This is a quick 0.7 mile walk along park roads back to the Mitchell Lake trailhead.