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Why we love it: This trail is out of the way and off the beaten path—literally. You drive 10 miles down a dirt road in order to access the Monarch Lake trailhead, where the hike begins.
When to go: Venture out before 7 a.m. The morning light filtering through the thick tree canopy on the first leg of the journey is worth setting the alarm early.
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When my friend invited me to hike Crater Lake over Labor Day weekend, I assumed we were headed to Crater Lake Trail in Aspen. The iconic route is a Colorado hiking staple. But you know what they say about making assumptions… Turns out, we were headed to the other Crater Lake, which is tucked away in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Bordered by Rocky Mountain National Park to the north and James Peak Wilderness to the south, Indian Peaks covers 76,711 acres and is a popular wilderness area for backcountry hiking and camping.
The remote location made us forget we were just on a dayhike—it felt like we’d taken a week off work to explore the wilderness. In this landlocked state, there are few outdoor ventures more coveted than those that involve Colorado’s natural bodies of water. This 14.8-mile out-and-back trek to Crater and Mirror lakes, which begins at the Monarch Lake trailhead, is no exception. Our reward at the end was two pristine mountain lakes (also the trail’s turnaround point).
From the trailhead, we followed the sign for Cascade Creek Trail. You’ll stay on this trail for the first 6.4 miles: the trail follows a creek (listen for the melodious sound of water rushing over rocks in the creek bed), rolls through thick forests of pines and aspens and opens up into lush green meadows. Photo-ops abound on the hike as the numerous waterfalls that make up Cascade Falls run alongside and over the trail: stepping stones and bridges provide a dry passage over the sections of the trail covered by the waterfall. Veer to the right at the Pawnee Pass trail split about 6.5 miles in. Keep an eye out for moose—but keep a safe distance—which are prevalent in the area. The remaining 0.9 miles of the trail are steeper and rocky at times but manageable for hikers of varying skill levels; keep in mind, though, that you will gain more than 2,500 feet in elevation during the hike. Mirror Lake is the first lake hikers will access with Crater Lake a mere 0.2 miles up the trail. Rest with your picnic lunch as we did as you enjoy the last vestiges of summer.
Getting there: Take I-70 west to exit 232 (for Rocky Mountain National Park and Winter Park). Drive 46.9 miles (over Berthoud Pass and through Winter Park, Fraser, and Tabernash, and Granby). Turn right onto Highway 34; continue on the road for about five miles, then turn right onto Arapaho Bay Road. The Monarch Lake trailhead is 9.6 miles down the dirt road.
Fees: Park rangers regularly check for payment verification on vehicles at the trailheads. The self-pay station (it’s $5 to park) is located right at the turnoff from Highway 34 onto Arapaho Bay Road.