My first backpacking trip in Colorado did not disappoint! Indian Peaks Wilderness is located a short drive from Boulder, Colorado and offers a plethora of trails with something for everybody.
After COVID-19 dashed my plans of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2021, I finally got back on the trail. Venturing to Boulder, Colorado, I decided to just wing it and wander about the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Straddling the Continental Divide, the wilderness area is located just south of Rocky Mountain National Park. The region was visited by Native American tribes for thousands of years, with the Arapaho tribe spending summer here. Now Indian Peaks Wilderness is a perfect place for hiking with countless trails connecting the mountain lakes, glaciers, and peaks. Having never backpacked in Colorado, I was excited and nervous to hike at altitudes I had yet to experience.
Every view was breathtaking as I backpacked for two days through the mountains. Check out the video of my epic hike!
Without a car, I hopped the bus from downtown Boulder and headed up into the mountains. At the end of the line I was still four miles from the trailhead and stuck my thumb out as I walked along the road. The traffic along this remote road was as expected for a Monday…scarce. Thankfully, after a half-mile of road walking I was picked up by a local and dropped off at the Hessie Trailhead. Overnight permits are required for camping in the wilderness and I came prepared. I’d booked permits for two nights but wasn’t exactly sure where I’d end up each evening. I figured I would just wing it.
The Hessie Trailhead parking lot was busy with day hikers and their dogs off for a morning stroll. They were smart and had started their hikes before the heat! Having never hiked in Colorado, I stopped every few steps to take in the views of quiet ponds, wildflowers, and rocky mountains on the horizon.
From the Hessie Trail I soon joined the King Lake Trail and hiked steadily upwards into the mountains. I had to stop and rest frequently, not used to hiking at 10,000 feet above sea level. On my Appalachian Trail hike I never even made it to 7,000 feet and never above 6,000 on New Zealand’s Te Araroa. I found it quite pleasant to take my time, resting as often as needed. Unlike my thru-hikes on the AT or TA, I was not pushing myself to conquer more miles. It was nice to saunter through the forest, carefree.
As I left the tree line, I found a nice overlook to enjoy. I relaxed in the breeze and had a snack. Ahead of me I could see the Continental Divide looming in the distance. The views were simply stunning. Eventually I left my perch and continued on up the trail, climbing ever higher. At last I arrived at King Lake, a cold pool nestled beneath the snow-covered cliffs. Several fishermen were positioned along the shore which surprised me. How did the fish get all the way up here?
A high ridge towered over the lake and thats exactly where the trail led. As if I wasn’t high enough, I hiked on around the lake until I was straight above it. On top of the ridge there was no shelter from the wind and it nearly blew me off. I fashioned my buff around my head to ensure my hat didn’t fly away; the new look was quite fashionable. The top of the ridge afforded spectacular views from the Continental Divide. Any water to my left would flow to the Pacific and on the right, the Atlantic. I had left the King Lake Trail and was now hiking on the High Lonesome Trail, part of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Someday I hoped to tackle the CDT!
The High Lonesome Trail, though stunning, was desolate. Small tundra brush grew all around but this was not a place to spend the night. Only the hardiest of plants and creatures can live in these conditions. I was lucky enough to spot a pika running amongst the rocks. These small rodents gather food all summer in hopes to make it through the winter. I was unable to snap a photo but did manage to capture some footage to feature the little guy in the video above.
With all the forest fires in the West, I was fortunate enough to have clear skies with no signs of smoke or the usual afternoon thunderstorm. Storms can pick up quickly but I was high and dry. The trail led me across the vast openness of the divide as I became increasingly exhausted. I was hiking around 12,000 feet and the sun and altitude wiped me out.
At last I crested back over the ridge and into a valley. I crossed a tiny snow patch and began descending toward some mountain lakes. I was aiming for Devils Thumb Lake where I would camp near its shore. Along the way I encountered a marmot, the largest of the squirrel family. It resembled the groundhogs that I spotted frequently in Michigan. This furry friend is also featured in the video above.
The descent from the ridge was rapid and I soon made camp near the lake. The moment I stopped hiking I was overwhelmed with fatigue and my head ached. My nose became completely stuffed and I had to breathe through my mouth. It looked like the altitude had finally got me! I fumbled around to get my tent set up while the mosquitoes attacked (perks of being near a lake). Inside my shelter I was too exhausted to blow up my air mattress and laid down to nap at around 11,000 feet. Whew!
After a short rest, my headache seemed a bit better. I cooked up a dehydrated meal and ate along the shores of Devils Thumb Lake. The high altitude ruined my appetite but I forced myself to finish my meal. I didn’t think black bears frequented elevations above 10,000 feet but I didn’t want to risk a bear smelling my leftovers. Without any rope to hang my food, I slept with my food bag in my tent…a risky move. As I lay down to rest, I was quite warm in my summer sleeping bag, rated to 55ºF. And to think I was worried I’d get cold!
All in all it had been a good day back on the trail. Too long had passed since I’d seen the inside of my trusty tent. The beauty and peacefulness of nature had afforded me time to decompress, gather my thoughts, and mourn the loss of my mother who died just months ago. Life always moves so fast and I find it difficult to make time for myself to just be in the moment and reflect. Just one day in the woods proved so therapeutic.
Day’s Distance: 9.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,500 ft
The night was awful. Though I received no visitors of the bear kind, I slept horribly. I could barely breathe with my stuffed nose and tossed and turned all night. Though I was hot in the beginning, the temperature dropped to the low 40s and I found myself wearing thick socks and a puffy jacket inside my bag. My feet never could keep warm. Not feeling rested at all, I packed up camp before 7am and hit the trail. Though I had planned to spend two nights in the wilderness, I decided one would do just fine.
Once moving, the fresh air seemed to clear my sinuses and I did my best to continue hydrating to stave off any more altitude issues. But a new problem arose. My trusty water filter that I’d carried across New Zealand was on its last leg and had slowed to a trickle. It took nearly five minutes just to filter one liter of water. I had two full liters for now and would see how far that would take me. I didn’t have a destination and so I looked at the map and figured I would head into another valley to see what I could see.
I followed the Devils Thumb Trail past Jasper Lake, which was absolutely stunning in the morning light. I had been unable to obtain a permit to camp here and I could see why they booked up so fast. After Jasper Lake I decided to leave the Devils Thumb Trail which would have taken me back to my starting point. Diamond Lake was nestled in the next valley so I set off, energized my the morning’s beauty.
I noticed instantly that the Diamond Lake Trail was not as well maintained or traveled as the trails from the previous day. The track was more rugged and the trail less defined. To reach the lake I first had to climb over a mountain so I headed up past the tree line. Butterflies fluttered around like confetti with wildflowers all around. The hills were truly alive and I hummed along to the Sound of Music.
In the distance I spotted South Arapaho Peak, a 13,000 foot beast. I had never hiked to such a height. In fact, the 12,000 feet I reached the day before had been my highest. Was I up for the challenge? I checked my map and calculated the climb would be about 8 miles return with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. Could I handle it? A competitiveness within myself was resurfacing. I remembered how I pushed myself to my limits when thru-hiking. Why did I always challenge myself to go farther and faster and higher? I know my mom would tell me to stop using myself.
Perhaps it was my poor night’s sleep, the altitude, or the trail conditions, but hiking to Diamond Lake seemed to take longer than anticipated. Eventually I arrived at yet another peaceful lake. From here I joined the Arapaho Pass Trail which would take me to South Arapaho Peak.
It was already noon and most of the day hikers who came out to tackle the big mountain were already returning. They knew it was best to climb early when it wasn’t so damn hot. There was hardly a breeze in the valley and I was sweating. I followed the trail to the abandoned Fourth of July Mine. I was above tree line and the sun was not making things easy. With my nearly useless water filter, I decided it was in my best interest to skip the big mountain and continue on up to Arapaho Pass. The trail was much gentler and would still offer nice views.
And so I walked up the rocky trail to Arapaho Pass, straddling two beautiful valleys. I was pleased with my decision to skip the peak and enjoy this a pleasant hike instead. Nestled at the top of the pass was Lake Dorothy, another snow-fed lake. I could not get enough of the views from over 12,000 feet.
As the sun rose higher I began the quick and easy descent. From the Arapaho Pass Trail I joined the Fourth of July Trail to the parking lot of the same name. My wandering from trail to trail had taken me 12 miles away from my bus stop. My only hope was to get lucky with a hitch. Most of the day hikers had begun their hikes early to beat the sun and already finished. My hopes for a hitch were slim. I began walking the 8-mile dirt road toward my original starting point which was still 4 miles from the bus stop. It wouldn’t have been so bad if my water filter was working.
After two miles of walking I met salvation. A friendly local picked me up and was heading to Boulder. Alls well that ends well. And with that, my Indian Peaks Wilderness hike was finished. Though Rocky Mountain National Park is more popular for Denver and Boulder visitors, I highly recommend this wilderness area. The hiking was superb and the views just as incredible! Happy hiking!
Day’s Distance: 13.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,000 ft
Total Distance: 23.3 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 6,500 ft
The highlight of the hike was the incredible view of the mountains in the morning as seen in the photo below. Prints of this photo are available here!
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