Length: 12.2 miles roundtrip and 2,700 vertical feet
Difficulty: Difficult
Why We Love It: This high-country hike features forest, flowers, and beautiful glacier views—all in one outing
When To Go: July through September, once most of the snow has melted
Pre-hike Buzz: Enjoy a cup of locally roasted coffee with a gooey cinnamon roll on the spacious deck at Nederland’s New Moon Bakery & Cafe
Restrooms: Outhouse at the trailhead
Distance from Denver: About 56 miles
Dogs: Must be leashed per Indian Peaks Wilderness regulations

In the early 1900s, many Coloradans enjoyed the novelty of hiking, skiing, and picnicking on the Arapaho Glacier—a patch of blue glacial ice perched high on the slopes of North Arapaho Peak, a toothy summit that straddles the Continental Divide west of Boulder. But following an outbreak of cholera, the area was fenced off, and access to the watershed has been restricted ever since to help protect Boulder’s water supply.

Hikers can still get a great view of Arapaho—Colorado’s largest glacier—from an overlook on the Arapaho Glacier Trail, which runs from the Fourth of July Trailhead west of Eldora Mountain Resort to the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead northwest of Nederland. Logistically, it’s easiest to hike this trail as an out-and-back from the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead, which tends to be the less hectic of the two.

The trail begins by winding northward through a forest of stately pines sprinkled with pockets of quaking aspen. As you continue to climb, spruce and fir become more prevalent, and there are even a few gnarled bristlecones near tree line. Once you leave the trees (about two miles and 1,000 vertical feet from the trailhead), you’re treated to a beautiful vista of the Continental Divide, which is crowned by North Arapaho Peak’s craggy cliffs, as well as views of the Goose Lakes in the valley to the north.

The Arapaho Glacier Trail features forest, wildflowers, and beautiful views of the Continental Divide. Credit: Greg Willis via Wikimedia Commons

After ascending the windswept tundra toward the top of the ridge, the trail swings to its south side, which (temporarily) obstructs your views of the Continental Divide. Fortunately, the fabulous displays of colorful wildflowers will distract you, as will searching for the wilderness area’s abundant wildlife, including pudgy, yellow-bellied marmots, shaggy mountain goats, and nimble bighorn sheep.

After gaining another 1,000 or so vertical feet, the trail crosses the ridgetop, where there are beautiful views to the south, including Mt. Evans, James Peak, and the upper slopes of Eldora ski area. At about 12,600 feet, the gradient finally eases. From here, the trail traverses around a large bump on the ridge before finally reaching the long-awaited overlook, which has amazing views of the crevassed glacial ice at the base of 13,502-foot-high North Arapaho Peak, as well as the glistening lake that sits at the glacier’s toe. In good weather, it’s a great place to relax and refuel.

Unless you’ve arranged for a friend to shuttle you back from the Fourth of July Trailhead, it’s easiest to retrace your steps back to the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead and your car. You may be exhausted, but the journey—and the views—are well worth it.

Getting there: From Boulder, head west on Canyon Boulevard/Highway 119 to Nederland. At the town’s main traffic circle, take the first exit (signed to Estes Park) and follow Highway 72 west for about 7.2 miles to the junction with Forest Road 298, which is signed to the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station. Turn left and follow this dirt road for about 0.8 miles to a junction. Veer left here on the road signed to Rainbow Lakes and follow this another 4.2 miles until you reach the parking area for the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead, which is located just before the campground of the same name.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.