Length: 6 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: Thanks to the quick and easy access, this moderate hike through shady forest is an idyllic half-day excursion or an easy overnight backpack.
When to go: July through October, when the trails are clear of snow
Pre-hike buzz: Drop by The Stage Stop in Rollinsville for a fresh cup of locally roasted coffee and a hearty platter of steak & eggs or fried catfish.
Restrooms: Outhouses at the trailhead
Dogs: Must be leashed

This moderate out-and-back hike explores the heart of the James Peak Wilderness, which encompasses 17,000 scenic acres on the eastern side of the Continental Divide northwest of Central City. Since it’s smaller and doesn’t adjoin Rocky Mountain National Park, this wilderness area tends to get fewer visitors than the popular Indian Peaks just to the north, so camping permits are not required here.

From the trailhead, follow the South Boulder Creek Trail (#900) up the main valley. Although this begins as an old mining road, in just a few yards a trail (creatively signed “trail”) branches off to the right. Follow this path, which rejoins the road in about 0.25 mile.

The trail then continues through several aspen groves and passes the wilderness area boundary and an old mining cabin before arriving at a clearing, where there is a trail junction signed for the Forest Lakes. Stay straight on the main trail (#900), which is signed for both Rogers Pass and Crater Lakes.

After re-entering the dense spruce-fir forest, the trail continues up the valley for another mile to the next trail junction, which is signed for Crater Lakes. Turn right here and begin the climb up the increasingly steep slope. Along the way, there are a few spots where the route can be a bit confusing. If you’re unsure of where to go, look for logs that are blocking off minor trails as well as cairns pointing out the correct route.

The trail levels out in less than a mile, and you soon catch sight of the turquoise-blue South Crater Lake off to your left. Continue straight until you see North Crater Lake on your right. As you head towards the shore along one of the many small paths, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for a few landmarks to make it easier to find your way back to the main trail. Once you reach the shoreline, there are many good places to sit, where it’s easy to while away a few hours savoring a picnic, fishing for native cutthroat trout, or simply gazing up the steep slope behind the lakes towards the rugged Continental Divide.

Getting there: From Golden, head north on CO 93 for 7.3 miles to the junction with CO 72 (Coal Creek Canyon Road). Turn left and follow CO 72 west about 18.5 miles to its junction with CO 119 (the Peak-to-Peak Highway). Turn left onto the Peak-to-Peak and proceed south for about 2 miles to the town of Rollinsville. Turn right (west) onto Main Street/East Portal Road, which is signed for both the East Portal and Rollins Pass. Follow this good dirt road about 8 miles to a large dirt parking area on the left just before the Moffat Tunnel’s East Portal. The trailhead is located on the north side of the road just opposite the western edge of the parking lot.

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.