Hiking the Indian Peaks Wilderness

The Indian Peaks Wilderness consists of 76,586 acres, which includes over 50 lakes, and 28 hiking trails that cover about 133 miles.

It's a wild place that has a definite backcountry feel to it and has elevations that range from 8,400 to just over 13,500 feet. Here, I'll be giving you descriptions of the easy to moderate trails.

The Indian Peaks Wilderness is located about 22 miles west of Boulder and has several main trailheads.

For this reason, I'll give you specific directions to the Indian Peaks' main trailheads at the beginning of the hiking section.

It usually takes about 45 minutes to an hour, (driving time), to reach the trailheads from Boulder, and about one and a half hours from the Denver area.

Brainard Lake, Colorado

Some of the wildlife that you might see in the Indian Peaks Wilderness includes: moose, elk, mule deer, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, coyote, red fox, beaver, marmots, and pica, among others. We've seen marmots and pica here but so far, we haven't seen any of the other residents.

One of the places you can access the Indian Peaks Wilderness is at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. If you go there, you'll need to pay a fee of $11.00 for a three-day pass, or $60.00 for a season pass. (In 2017). Some of what that pays for is restrooms at the trailheads and more parking spots.

Because of the high elevations in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, trails can be wet, muddy, and snow-covered through June and even early July. (The Columbine Lake trail was muddy when we hiked it in late July, but it was a heavy snow year.) So if you prefer dryer conditions, my advice is to hike these trails in about mid July or later.

If you have a dog, then one other useful piece of information is that your canine companion is welcome to hike the Indian Peaks Wilderness with you, as long as you keep her/him on a leash.

And last but not least, you may or may not know that the Indian Peaks Wilderness is one of the most often visited wilderness areas in the United States. For this reason, it's better to hike here on week days and to arrive as early in the morning as possible. (On weekends, it's best to arrive by 8:00 a.m.) Arriving earlier in the morning also keeps you safer from the afternoon thunderstorms that often come up.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Hiking Trails

Directions to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area: from Boulder, follow highway 119 up through Boulder Canyon and on to Nederland. In Nederland, turn north onto highway 72 and just beyond Ward, turn left onto County Road 102 which is Brainard Lake Road. Follow the road to the fee station, pay the fee, then continue on to Brainard Lake and beyond. (The fee is only charged during the summer.)

Directions to the Hessie Trailhead: from Boulder, follow highway 119 west through Boulder Canyon and up to Nederland. Drive through Nederland and turn right on County Road 130. (At the sign for Eldora.) In about a mile, you'll see a fork in the road. Keep right at this fork and go straight. Drive through the small town of Eldora and the paved road will soon turn to dirt. Follow the dirt road for about one mile and park at the fork that you'll see at that point.

Directions to the Fourth of July Trailhead: follow the directions above, to the Hessie trailhead. Then, instead of parking in the left fork for the Hessie trailhead, follow the dirt road to the right which will lead you to the Fourth of July trailhead. It's about 4 miles to the trailhead from the Hessie trailhead, and the road is kind of bumpy, so it's best to have a higher clearance vehicle. (A regular car can do it, but not easily.)

Hikes that start at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area:

Mitchell Lake, Colorado

Mitchell Lake
Trailhead-Mitchell Lake
One way distance-.9 miles
Difficulty level-easy
Approximate one-way hiking time-25 minutes;
Restroom facilities: yes
Elevation at the lake-10,725 feet

Directions to Mitchell Lake trailhead: from Brainard Lake, follow the lake around to the right, then turn right to the Mitchell Lake trailhead. You'll see the small Ranger's cottage near the trailhead.

Mitchell Lake makes a short and easy hike to an alpine lake and is probably a good choice if you are still getting used to the altitude. (Or if you're short on time.) The trail takes you through a wonderful-smelling spruce forest, then climbs gently to a spot where it crosses over Mitchell Creek on a bridge.

Shortly after this, you'll see the sign for the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Next, you'll be following Mitchell Creek and before you know it, you'll see Mitchell Lake on your right. If you're interested, it's possible to explore around the lake, but the footing might be a little wet and soggy.

Blue Lake, Colorado

Blue Lake
Trailhead-Mitchell Lake
One way distance-2.5 miles
Difficutly level-easy to moderate
Approximate one-way hiking time-1 hour and 35 minutes;
Restroom facilities: yes
Elevation at the lake-11,440 feet

Directions to Mitchell Lake trailhead: please see directions above, for Mitchell Lake trailhead.

The trail to Blue Lake first takes you to Mitchell Lake. Shortly beyond Mitchell Lake, the trail starts to climb more noticeably, and after a while, you'll be able to look back and see Mitchell Lake below you. Next, you'll start seeing little ponds in various spots that looked to us like places where moose might hang out. (We didn't see any though.)

We did come across some people who said they got a glimpse of a large brown shape, but they couldn't see it well enough to know what it was. So keep an eye out, and if you see something similar, do keep your distance from it.

Anyway, it won't be long until you start noticing that the vegetation around you is getting shorter. As you continue climbing, you will soon find yourself above treeline. The big, rocky face of Mount Toll will be directly ahead of you, and that's how you'll know when you're almost there. Blue Lake lies in a basin just below Mt. Toll.

Lake Isabelle, Colorado

Lake Isabelle
Trailhead-Long Lake
One way distance-2.1 miles
Difficulty level-easy to moderate
Approximate one-way hiking time-1 hour and 15 minutes;
Restroom facilities-yes
Elevation at the lake-10,870 feet

Directions to the Long Lake trailhead: from Brainard Lake, follow the lake around to the right, then follow the signs to the Long Lake trailhead. As usual, try to get here as early in the morning as you can. Although the parking lot holds maybe 40-50 cars, we arrived a little after 9:00 a.m. on a weekday, and got the very last available spot.

Anyway, this is one of the very popular hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and with good reason. It's a relatively easy trail that leads to a spectacular lake, and if you're there at the right time, (usually about mid July to mid August), you'll find lots of wild flowers in various places along the trail.

This hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness starts off on an easy path through the forest, not far from Long Lake. Since there are no signs directing you to Lake Isabelle, follow the signs for Isabelle Glacier and Pawnee Pass. After a short time, the trail will start to climb gently and become a bit rocky.

As you continue to climb, this popular Indian Peaks Wilderness hiking trail starts to open up, and some parts of it even reminded me of my hiking days in Switzerland. Keep working your way up and when you're almost at treeline, you'll see a bridge crossing a creek. Cross the bridge and you will soon reach the trail junction for Isabelle Glacier and Pawnee Pass. Go straight, (Isabelle Glacier trail), and you'll soon be at the beautiful Lake Isabelle.

The following hike starts at the Hessie Trailhead:

Lost Lake, Colorado

Lost Lake
Trailhead-Hessie
One way distance-1.5 miles
Difficulty level-moderate
Approximate one-way hiking time-1 hour and 15 minutes;
Entrance fee-no
Restroom facilities: no
Elevation at the lake-9,800 feet

Parking is pretty limited at the fork in the road. (I think I counted about 13 spots.) So if you don't get one of those spots, you can park on one side of the road. Or if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you can take the left fork and drive the 1/2 mile to the actual trailhead. This last part of the road travels through a streambed and is often full of water.

There is no fee to hike here, so when you're ready, take the left fork, then look for the small hiking trail on the right side of the road. It will take you around the water and through the trees for the 1/2 mile to the actual Hessie trailhead. Of course, this means that you'll have a 2.0 mile one-way hike to Lost Lake from your car.

Lost Lake Trail cascades, Colorado

This hike starts out on an old jeep road and is quite rocky. The first part is also relatively steep so take your time.

Within a short time though, you'll start hearing the roar of water on your left. When you do (and if you like waterfalls), go take a look.

There are some smaller but nice waterfalls and cascades here.

Lost Lake Trail waterfall, Colorado

Shortly after that, the hike becomes easier. Then you'll come to some trail signs and a bridge that crosses the creek. You want to cross the creek. Just a short ways after that, you'll see another and bigger waterfall on your right. There's a narrow little trail that goes right to it for a better look.

From that waterfall, you're probably almost 3/4 of the way to Lost Lake. Keep following the trail and you will soon come to a fork in the trail. Take the left fork to Lost Lake. At this point, the trail becomes a regular hiking trail rather than a jeep road. This is the last stretch of trail to the lake so enjoy, and if you brought lunch, it makes a nice spot for a picnic.

The following two hikes start at the Fourth of July Trailhead:

Diamond Lake, Colorado

Diamond Lake
Trailhead-Fourth of July
One way distance-2.6 miles
Difficulty level-moderate
Approximate one-way hiking time-2 hours;
Entrance fee-no
Restroom facilities-yes
Elevation at the lake-10,940 feet

Diamond Lake is another very popular hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The parking area can hold maybe around 20-30 cars, but you can also park along the side of the road. We managed to get one of the very few available spots left, and when we finished the hike, there was a long line of cars parked along the side of the road. So, this isn't the place to find solitude, but the scenery along the way is well worth it.

And as if the mountain scenery wasn't good enough, this is also a great trail for wild flowers, with the peak bloom being from about mid July to early August. In addition to that, you'll pass by two cascading waterfalls; well, actually three if you count the one on the other side of the valley from the trail.

Anyway, the trail starts out in a forested area but soon becomes more open as you climb. Keep going, and after a short while you'll reach a cascading waterfall. It crosses the trail in front of you but rocks have been placed across it so you can reach the other side with dry feet. Speaking of dry feet, this trail can be very wet in early to mid summer, (or even later.)

To help remedy the situation, the forest service has placed logs in many places along the trail, which help to keep your feet dry. Remember that all that water makes for great wildflower displays :-). Anyway, keep making your way up and eventually, you will hear, then see a pretty little waterfall off to your right. There's a short side trail that takes you right to it.

Soon after that, you cross Boulder Creek on a bridge that has a handrail on one side. From that point, it's only a mile to Diamond Lake and you'll pass more wildflower meadows along the way. At the lake, there are various places where you can sit and enjoy the scenery. Have fun. :-)

Fourth of July Mine trail, Colorado.

Fourth of July Mine
Trailhead-Fourth of July
One way distance-2.3 miles
Difficulty level-moderate
Approximate one-way hiking time-2 hours
Entrance fee-no
Restroom facilities-yes
Elevation at the mine-11,245 feet

Before I tell you about this trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, you might be interested to know that mid to late July is the peak bloom time for the wild flowers, if you’d like to see them at their best.  

Anyway, the first 1.3 miles of this trail is the same trail that goes to Diamond Lake, so if you did that hike, the trail will be familiar. It’s a rocky trail that starts to climb steadily, and stays that way for most of the way until you reach treeline, at which point the trail becomes flatter and easier. Along the way, you’ll see a tall waterfall off to your left, across the valley from where you’re hiking.

Not too much longer after you see the tall waterfall off to your left, you’ll cross a cascading waterfall on the trail on some rocks, and soon after that, another one. In addition to that, there are other smaller creeks that you have to cross along the trail. As you see, there is lots of water along the way, (the Indian Peaks Wilderness gets pretty good amounts of snow), so it’s best to wear hiking boots. The trail is pretty open, (except for the lower portion), so you’ll have wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.

Eventually, you’ll reach the trail junction of Diamond Lake and Arapaho Pass. The Fourth of July Mine is not marked on the sign here, but you want to follow the direction for Arapaho Pass, which goes off to the right. (The Diamond Lake trail goes straight.) The Arapaho Pass trail is narrower than where you were, and even more open. It also has creeks to cross but they’re not hard.

The trail continues to climb steadily, and you still have great views of the mountains all around you. After a while, you’ll reach a flatter, easier and open area at treeline, which also has plenty of water to get across. Keep following the trail, and before long, you’ll reach the trail junction for Arapaho Pass and Arapaho Glacier.

Just beyond the sign at this junction, you’ll see the mining equipment, including a rusting boiler that has seen better days. This is of course, the fourth of July Mine.

Columbine Lake, Colorado

There's another hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness that I've added to a different page of this site. The hike goes to Columbine Lake, and it's the type of lake that you'll find at the base of a cirque, which I think adds to its beauty. For more information about it, just go on over to my Colorado Lakes page and scroll down to it. Here's a picture of it. -->

I'm planning on doing more hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness at some point, but in the meantime, you can look at these and see which ones you think you'd like to do. Maybe all of them!

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This site was last updated on March 25, 2017.


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