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The Indian Peaks Wilderness is a designated wilderness area just 50 miles Northwest of Denver. This area has more than two dozen hiking trails and is a spectacular gem so close to a large city. At over 70,000 acres and more than 130 miles of trails, there are many amazing hiking options. The topography of the Indian Peaks Wilderness includes alpine lakes, wide-open meadows, and tall mountain peaks.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness was established as a Federal wilderness area in 1978. The area is under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service and is located within the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests.
For thousands of years, this area was often occupied in the summer months by the Arapahoe tribes. Please consider educating yourself on the history of the indigenous tribe that occupied this land well before the U.S. government established this as a recreational area.
The highest point in the wilderness area is North Arapahoe Peak, at a staggering 13,502 feet. The major peaks in the area are named after Native American tribes of the western United States. The wilderness area itself straddles the continental divide. This area sits between Rocky Mountain National Park and the James Peak wilderness area.
Table of Contents
- Allenspark Trailhead Access
- Brainard Lake Recreation Area
- Monarch Lake Trailhead
- Fourth of July Trailhead
- Hessie Trailhead
- Backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
Due to the rugged topography of the continental divide, the Indian Peaks Wilderness area is only accessible from several main trailheads. These trailheads are mainly accessed from the east of the divide. Most hikers coming from the Denver metropolitan area will access the recreation area from the east side. Accessing the western trailheads involves driving several hours down and around the continental divide. While Boulder is the closest large town, there is also the smaller town of Nederland just a few miles from many of the trailheads.
In addition to being a fantastic recreation area, it also provides much of the drinking water for the Boulder area. Much of this drinking water comes from the Arapahoe glacier, which is one of Colorado’s largest glaciers. The Arapahoe glacier is off-limit to recreators to prevent the contamination of Boulder’s drinking water.
While the wilderness area is partially accessible in the winter, the best time to hike in this area is from June-September. It is not uncommon to encounter snow at high elevations in the area well into the summer.
Being that this area is so close to both Boulder and Denver, the trailhead parking lots often fill up quite quickly. During the summer, there is a shuttle from Nederland Highschool to the Hessie Trailhead.
This article will highlight some of the main hiking areas of the Indian Peaks wilderness area. Listed in each section will be information about the area’s most popular hikes and trails. As always, check out the Colorado Trail Explorer to explore many of the trails in this area. Happy hiking!
Length: 8.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 3,238 feet
If you are looking for a quiet trail with fantastic views, one should check out the northern portion of the Indian Peaks Wilderness recreation area. This trailhead actually ends up in Rocky Mountain National Park after about 3 miles, so it is important to keep this in mind if you are planning to bring a dog on the hike. Dogs are not allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park. This trailhead ends up intersecting Buchanan Pass, another trail option in the Allenspark area. This area is generally a less popular hiking area than Brainard Lake.
Brainard Lake Recreation Area
The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is the most popular area in the Indian Peaks wilderness due to its easily accessible trails and gorgeous trail system. During the winter season, the Brainard Lake gate is closed and hikers must hike several more miles to access the lake and further trails. Brainard Lake Recreation area requires a $12 cash fee for entrance. Or, gain access with your America The Beautiful pass.
Length: 8.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,664 feet
The Isabelle glacier is one of the more challenging, yet beautiful hikes from Brainard lake. This hike starts from the Long Lake Trailhead right next to Brainard Lake. This hike gives you the chance to see one of Colorado’s last remaining glaciers. To lessen the elevation gain significantly, consider stopping at Lake Isabelle, as the elevation gain would be nearly 900 feet less. Hiking to Lake Isabelle would drop the total mile down by about a mile as well.
Length: 10.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,480 feet
This steep and challenging hike takes hikers though one of several passes in the Indian Peaks wilderness area, and takes hikers up to the continental divide. The top of this trail has fantastic high alpine views of the nearby peaks. This hike also starts from the Long Lake Trailhead.
4) Long Lake
Length: 1.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 88 feet
This easy trail from the Long Lake trailhead gives hikers a sneak preview of what the Indian Peaks wilderness has to offer with such a short hike. The trail is practically flat, giving even non-hikers a chance to explore the Brainard lake area.
Length: 7.4 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2,670 feet
While the trail on the way to the summit is not that interesting in itself, the summit is well worth the hike. This hike gives you stunning views of the Indian peaks wilderness as well as nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. Once you gain the ridgeline be prepared for heavy, cold winds blasting along the continental divide. This is a great, steep, and not-so-popular hike to a beautiful summit to include in your hiking to-do list!
6) Blue Lake
Length: 6.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 994 feet
This gorgeous alpine lake gains elevation very gradually in its one-way hike of 3 miles from the Brainard lake trailhead. This is a local favorite for the beautiful color of the alpine lake. This is a great hike to do if you want to see wildlife, as many trail users report seeing moose off of this trail in the summer months. There are a few steep sections on the rock staircases later in the hike.
This one of the few major trailheads accessed west of the continental divide. The nearest close town to this trailhead is Grand Lake. One can also access the western side of Rocky Mountain National Park from this area.
Length: 16 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,322 feet
This is one of the most stunning hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, and arguably in all of Colorado. The final viewpoint of Lone Eagle Peak is out of a movie. This is a highly recommended hike for experienced hikers. One can also hike this from the Brainard Lake recreation area, but the hike involves even more mileage and more elevation gain. If there was one hike that is a must-do in this article, it would be this one!
The fourth of July trailhead is another incredibly popular trailhead. Due to its proximity to the Boulder, CO region, this trailhead fills up quickly on the weekends. The closest town is Nederland. Nederland is a great place to stop after a hike for a bite to eat! During the winter months, hikers cannot access the trailhead itself and need to park several miles back from the trailhead itself. The last several miles of the Fourth of July access road is quite rough and a 4WD car is recommended, although it is often driven with 2WD cars. The Fourth of July Trailhead provides some of the easiest access to the continental divide.
Length: 6.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,240 feet
This moderate out and back hike includes beautiful views of the Indian peak summits including North and South Arapahoe peak, a waterfall, and a gorgeous alpine lake. If you want to check out other alpine lakes, feel free to keep hiking past Diamond lake for access to two other lakes.
Length: 6.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,758 feet
The Arapaho Pass Trail is one of the most popular trails in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This trail gives access to the Arapaho pass summit, as well as the summits of South Arapaho peak and North Arapaho peak. This is a highly recommended trail for experienced hikers looking to get up to high elevations and have stunning views of the continental divide. The higher altitudes will hold snow deep into the summer.
10) South Arapaho Peak (and North)
Length: 8.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,231 feet
This hike leads to one of the most famous peaks in the region. South Arapaho Peak is part of the larger Arapahoe area that includes both North and South Arapaho Peak, above the Arapaho Glacier. The Arapaho glacier itself is off-limits to hikers because it is an important drinking water source for the Boulder community. Being that this starts from the main trail at the Fourth of July trailhead, be sure to consult the map when you start hiking. It can be easy to get lost from all of the splitting trails in the area. While the hike gets rather steep once you get to treeline, even getting to treeline will gift you with some spectacular views of nearby peaks and alpine lakes. This hike is not to be missed! If you are experienced with scrambling, consider scrambling the 3rd/4th class ledges out to the northern summit, North Arapaho peak. This scramble is not for those without other scrambling experience and those that are afraid of heights!
The Hessie Trailhead is another incredibly busy trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. As mentioned at the top of the page, there is a shuttle that can be accessed from the Nederland Highschool on weekends in the summer.
Length: 4 miles
Elevation gain: 830 feet
This relatively mellow trail provides access to a beautiful alpine lake. It includes a waterfall and there is a backcountry campsite at the lake. This is a great first hike to get introduced to the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. It is highly recommended to hike this very early on a weekend, or hike it on a weekday, as this will be one of the most crowded hikes in the region due to its easy accessibility.
12) King Lake Trail
Length: 12.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,539 feet
This challenging hike brings hikers to a stunning alpine lake just underneath the continental divide. This makes for a great long day hike or an overnight backpacking trip. From King Lake itself, there is easy access via a 0.5 trail up to the continental divide. This hike primarily includes beautiful views of wildflowers, and open meadows, with the occasional view of a high peak.
Length: 12.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,467 feet
This hike includes some of the most variated scenery in the region. While 12.1 miles is a long hike, the elevation gain is relatively distributed over the hike. The hike has the option to ascend up a steep final section to the continental divide. This hike has breathtaking views that include several lakes and great wildflowers in the summer. The beginning of the hike is mainly through wooded terrain before you pop out at the many lakes.
Backpacking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
The Indian Peaks wilderness area is also a fantastic place to go for an overnight hike. For the summer season, overnight permits are required from June 1- September 15th. Many of the hikes mentioned above are a good start to backpacking in this area including the King Lake trail and the hike to Crater Lake. Another very popular backpacking loop is the 26.5-mile Pawnee-Buchanan loop which starts from Brainard Lake, and passes some of the gems of the Indian Peaks wilderness including Crater lake, and other expansive views of the continental divide. If are wanting to start a backpacking trip from the Westside, another good option to consider would be the Hell Canyon Loop, a 17-mile loop with over 4k in elevation gain.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness is a spectacular playground so close to the Boulder-Denver metropolitan area. There are plenty of options from easy to multi-day hiking trips. We hope these trail suggestions help you plan your next trip!