There are good hikes, there are great hikes, and then there are hikes like South Arapaho Peak. This Indian Peaks treasure is the kind of hike that alters you. It stays with you. It calls for you to return. And luckily for us, it’s less than an hour’s drive from Boulder, so return we will.
What makes this summit hike so special? Imagine if you could take the best that Colorado has to offer and put it all into one hike: infinite fields of wildflowers, icy creek crossings, cascading waterfalls, historic remnants of a silver mine, incredible wildlife watching, exhilarating rock scrambles, and sweeping 360-degree views. South Arapaho offers all this and more.
South Arapaho Peak is one of Colorado’s 637 “13ers.” Along with its sister peak North Arapaho (13,502 feet), it provides a striking backdrop to the Arapaho Glacier. Both the peak and the glacier are part of the City of Boulder watershed. (Fun fact: Boulder is the only city in the United States to own a glacier!) And while the glacier has shrunk considerably in recent years, it’s purported to be the largest in Colorado and the southernmost in North America.
There is so much to love about this peak. To read about it is not enough – it must be experienced. It’s time to put South Arapaho Peak on your summer bucket list (this year and forevermore). Here is your guide to this incomparable hike.
Before heading out, always check for trail conditions and closures. Please note that much of this hike is above tree line where afternoon thunderstorms are common and lightning may pose a threat. Always consult the weather forecast, start early, and get below tree line by 1:00 pm.
This hike is accessed from the Fourth of July Trailhead. Take CO-119 west to Nederland and follow signs to Eldora Ski Area. Stay on Eldora Road (do not turn left into the ski area) as you wind through the village of Eldora, pass Hessie Trailhead, and continue to Fourth of July.
The last 5 miles to the parking lot is a bumpy dirt road. Most passenger vehicles should be able to make the trip with care, but high clearance and 4WD definitely helps. There is no winter maintenance for this road – it is essentially impassable for motorized vehicles from late fall to late spring.
Hike it (Approximately 8 miles round trip with 3,200 feet of elevation gain)
Begin hiking through the peaceful pine forest on the Arapaho Pass Trail. This is a gentle trail with a few surprises. Keep your eyes open for a plethora of wildflowers (especially columbine and paintbrush) and be prepared to get your feet wet.
You’ll encounter several creek crossings and even a spectacularly fun waterfall crossing. Trekking poles will help you on your way.
Continue on Arapaho Pass for about 2 miles until you reach the junction with Fourth of July Mine. Miners staked claim to this site in 1872 and, despite feverish reports of gold and silver in the area, the mine failed to produce anything of great significance and it was ultimately closed in 1937. At this point, bear right onto the Arapaho Glacier Trail.
The Arapaho Glacier Trail begins a modest climb as it winds through more creek crossings and endless fields of flowers. Elk and mule deer are in abundance here. You’ll soon hear the peeping of pika and marmots. Lucky hikers may even spot a long-tailed weasel. At one time, this beautiful land was one of the largest Paleo-Indian hunting camps in Colorado. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient hunting blinds, game-drive walls, weapons, and other artifacts here.
As the peak comes into view and you crest the east ridge, you’ll arrive at the Glacier Overlook. It’s a magnificent sight. Enjoy the view and a brief rest before the summit push.
From here, it’s a challenging but doable scramble up the talus. There is no marked trail here, but it’s not too difficult to find the path of least resistance.
Be sure to traverse over the false summits onto the true summit. There you’ll encounter two wind shelters, two USGS markers, and a peak finder. Soak up the beautiful panorama that surrounds you.
Variations (Do less or do more!)
Arapaho Pass is a fantastic option for hikers lacking in the time or energy that it takes to get up South Arapaho. You’ll enjoy many of the same views, the same wildflowers, and the same wildlife watching opportunities in a slightly shorter, more accessible hike. 6.6 miles round trip with 1,800 feet of elevation gain.
Diamond Lake is an ideal option for hikers of all levels or families with younger children. Begin on Arapaho Pass Trail and take the left onto Diamond Lake Trail toward its namesake lake. Enjoy gorgeous views and great picnic spots. 5.2 miles round trip with approximately 800 feet of elevation gain.
North Arapaho Peak is for the thrill seekers. If you’re an experienced hiker who’s comfortable with exposure, you can tackle the precipitous Class 3 ridge that extends northwest from South Arapaho Peak. Follow it (carefully!) for 0.75 miles and you’ll reach the formidable summit of North Arapaho. And be sure to tell this writer all about it, because she’s afraid of heights and not quite sure she’s up for the challenge.
Happy trails, Boulderites!
Photo credit: Alli Fronzaglia for YourBoulder.com — all rights reserved