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Indian Peaks:  Pawnee Pass-Arapaho Pass Bikepack

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Indian Peaks: Pawnee Pass-Arapaho Pass Bikepack

Derek Bartz

Approaching Pawnee Pass, Apache Peak and Isabelle Glacier visible on the far left portion of the photo.

Approaching Pawnee Pass, Apache Peak and Isabelle Glacier visible on the far left portion of the photo.

Trip Date: July 19th-20th
Location: Indian Peak Wilderness
Miles: 34 + 15 mile bike ride
Vertical: 8,500'-9,000'
Start: Brainard Lakes Recreation Area: Long Lake Trailhead
Finish: Rainbow Lakes Trailhead
Why Go?  Indians Peaks is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the US; you'll find solitude on the west side Arapaho Pass.  The tundra walking on the Arapaho Glacier trail is superb.
Permit Required?  Yes, $5 per permit, reserve through the mail or walk-in within 24 hours of the trip.  Indian Peaks Wilderness is divided into 19 backcountry zones and each zone has a daily camping quota.  Get one at the National Forest Service Boulder Ranger District, Sulphur Ranger District in Granby, Roosevelt National Forest Visitor Center in Estes Park, or Indian Peaks Hardware in Nederland.
Directions:  This "loop" requires a shuttle or dropping a bike at either the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead or the Long Lake Trailhead.  I left at bike at Rainbow Lakes and rode the 15 or so miles back to our starting point at the Long Lake Trailhead as described here.  Take the Peak-to-Peak Hwy north of Nederland and take a left on Brainard Lake Road (a Federal Fee Area $10).  Drive 5-6 miles to the Long Lake or Day-Use Parking.  If biking back to your vehicle after the hike, bike down the dirt Rainbow Lakes Road, turn left (north) on Peak-to-Peak Hwy, then take Brainard Lake Road back to your starting point.  

The Trip:  We initially planned to begin our hike July 18th, but got a late start and were greeted to dark, threatening thunderclouds at the Long Lake Trailhead; so we drove all the way back to Boulder and began the next morning.  Lesson learned, start early.  

We've backpacked Indian Peaks on one other occasion about two years ago and did the Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop.  This time around we decided on the Pawnee-Arapaho Pass "Loop", which involved a 15 miles bike ride at the end of the trip to retrieve our car.

The hike up Pawnee Pass is fairly easy with awesome views of the Isabelle Glacier basin, and before we knew it we were heading down the west side of the pass toward Pawnee Lake.  This portion of the trail is a trail building spectacle, it zig-zags it's way steeply through rock and scree back down to treeline.  Continuing down Cascade Creek we eventually hit the connector trail to Arapaho Creek about a half a mile before Monarch Lake.  Heading up the Arapaho Pass Trail the forest thickened and the crowds thinned.  For the rest of the day we didn't see a soul.  Our plan was to make it to Coyote Park and camp, but upon arriving there we didn't see any established campsites and sticking to "Leave No Trace" principles we didn't want to create one in this beautiful meadow.  So we pushed on and ended up with a pretty terrible campsite next to the trail after a 23/24 mile day.  This was the longest day on trail we've had since the PCT and we were definitely feeling it.

We got an early alpine start the next day to be up on Arapaho Pass for sunrise, great way to start the day.  From the pass we made a quick side trip to Lake Dorothy, which sits at 12,061' near the base of Mt Neva.  It was one o the nicer lakes I've been to in the Rockies and we'll definitely return here to camp and swim someday in the future.  Dropping down to Fourth of July Mine was a bit painful, knowing that we would be climbing right back up to 12,750' on the Arapaho Glacier Trail.  Tired from the climb, we skipped out on South Arapaho Peak (another 500' feet up the class 2 ridge and well worth your time if you've never been up there).  The 7 or so miles back to Rainbow Lakes TH from the Arapaho Glacier Overlook was a highlight of the trip for me.  The trail stays high and takes you on a four mile stroll through alpine tundra.  

Arriving back down at Rainbow Lakes I was excited about the idea of retrieving my bike and riding back to the car.  Nearly two hours later and I was ready to throw my bike off a cliff.  The combination of tired legs, the heat, the constant uphill battle with gravity, and a very slow and uncomfortable bike all made for one terrible ride back to the car.  At one point, other cyclist asked me if I was alright as they cruised by me walking my bike up the hill; apparently I looked as rough as I felt.  Maybe not the easiest way to end a backpack; but I like the idea of an all human powered trip and I would do it again.

Flower filled meadows above Pawnee Lake

Flower filled meadows above Pawnee Lake

One of the many waterfalls along Cascade Creek

One of the many waterfalls along Cascade Creek

Beautiful singletrack through the dense, healthy forest that lines Arapaho Creek

Beautiful singletrack through the dense, healthy forest that lines Arapaho Creek

Looking north from Arapaho Pass

Looking north from Arapaho Pass

Lake Dorothy

Lake Dorothy

Hymenoxis grandiflora aka Old Man of the Mountain dominated the tundra; apparently it's an especially good year for the largest flower in the alpine. 

Hymenoxis grandiflora aka Old Man of the Mountain dominated the tundra; apparently it's an especially good year for the largest flower in the alpine. 

Shortly after leaving Arapaho Glacier Overlook

Shortly after leaving Arapaho Glacier Overlook

An unexpected lingering snowfield

An unexpected lingering snowfield

Arapaho Glacier Trail

Arapaho Glacier Trail