All the stunning panoramic scenery of a 14er- packed into a 13er! Topped off with a glacier and beautiful alpine lake, making James Peak a must hike in the Peak to Peak Region. The flagship and highest peak in Gilpin County- where I call home- can be reached in number of ways. I recommend the route via Saint Mary’s Glacier near Idaho Springs. After the hike, there are good many options to finish off a great day of trekking- and relax those tired muscles. As for the itinerary:
o Getting there is a breeze, but with a few important things to remember.
o Saint Mary’s Lake and Glacier
o The Flats, Lunch Rock, and Alpine Meadow
o Switch backs up to the Summit
o Heading back…
o Indian Hot Springs.
o Idaho Springs.
Getting there- Start early.
Off I-70, west of Idaho Springs, take the Fall River Rd towards Alice, CO. Keep your eye trained to the right- on Fall River Rd, there is an inconspicuous painted pink pig shouting words of encouragement as you pass by. GPS St Mary’s Glacier Trail Head; parking will be on the right just short of the trail head. There is another spot a quarter of a mile up. We had no problem parking at all, but I’ve been told it can fill up fast on the weekend. There is an un-manned pay station at each parking lot- with menacing threats of being towed. You will need five in cash or a check (sorry, no plastic) to drop in the box. I’d recommend a cheerful note about how life is too short to tow folks, or something to that effect. Last chance for porta-potties are at the parking area as well…
Saint Mary’s Lake and Glacier- The trail head is a few hundred feet just up the road. The beginning is a rocky four-wheel drive road (it reminds me of dry river bed) leading steadily up. All throughout the hike I was surprised how little the trail was marked. It forks off to another parking lot and, multiple times, seems to go towards camp sites- I think. If in doubt, take the trail that goes up. In no time at all you’re rewarded by Saint Mary’s Lake. The lake itself is tucked against a sheer rock wall, ancient pine trees, and a glacier winding around it. It reminds me of Tasmania, though I’ve never been there- but the cartoons at least. If you’re not used to the altitude, or if just getting to the lake smoked you, this is a great stopping point. Spending time on the glacier and around the lake would make a great day in itself. Otherwise, head around the lake to the right, working your way up to the glacier. Die hard skiers and snowboarders are on the glacier year-round- wishing for dreaded summer to end, I presume. It’s a strenuous, half-mile accent to top of the glacier.
After the glacier, it flattens out for a remarkably long time. James Peak is straight ahead of you, but more importantly, at this moment, Lunch Rock is just to your right. This is your guide to get you back to the glacier on the way back. There is no trail that leads you directly to and from on this route, and it would be easy to miss it on your way back. The trail leads to a four-by-four trail- at this point I dropped a GPS mark (39.84005, -105.66562). You can bush-whack straight to the left (south-east) of the peak to reach the switch backs. I prefer to turn right on the road and head a mile or so down, and then hang a left on the first fork you come to. This leads you to a dead end- and a stunning view of the canyon that leads to Moffat’s East Portal. From there, skirt around the base of James- keeping the boulders to your right. You will soon reach the switch back trail.
Switchbacks to the summit- Take time to take in the views of multiple alpine lakes on your left as you traverse the summit. This is pretty straight forward, and with a little effort you’ve made it to the top! Scan the area for a man-made wind break, and you should find a register book. Many a weary hiker has marked their thoughts down, and you should too. As your looking out over the horizon, understand your being looked at too – Marmots! These chubby, beaver-lookingcustodians of the mountain top are more than willing to pose for a great photo op. To the north west, you should see winter park- and if you’re lucky, you may catch a train entering Union Pacific’s Moffat Tunnel, West Portal. Enjoy your time above the clouds- but not too long, afternoon showers in the summer are very common. Before you head down, make sure you head to the east edge which has, in my humble opinion, the best view.
Heading back- Follow the switch backs to the base of the peak – but not too far. Remember my earlier advice, it’s easy to miss Saint Mary’s Glacier Trail. The switch back trail will lead towards the town of Alice, so scan for Lunch Rock (or the GPS stamp you placed), and bush-whack your way back to the trail road. From there, it’s straight forward back-tracking the way you came.
Indian Hot Springs- A great way to reward yourself after a long hike is a dip in the water at the Hot Springs. To get there, just GPS Indian Hot Springs. It’s right outside of Idaho Springs, on Soda Creek Rd. They have gender specific (clothing optional) caves with hot spring water up to 112 degrees. The common pool area is available to everyone, with very tranquil warm spring water feeding into it. It kind of reminds me of a “Hippy Safari”- complete with a glass dome and palm trees. Some important details:
o Geo-Thermal Caves
o $ 22 per person Monday-Thursday
o $ 24 per person Friday-Sunday & Holidays
o Mineral Swimming Pool
o $18 per person Monday-Thursday
o $20 per person Friday-Sunday & Holidays
o More info at indainhotsprings.com
Idaho Springs- After all that hiking, and swimming, you’ve got to be thirsty! A historic downtown, for food and drink. For a drink, stop by The Vintage Moose, just dive-y enough to feel at home. For food, Beau Jo’s (famous Colorado Pizza) is really good, and not too expensive.
All in all, the hike took a leisurely seven hours- and 12 miles to complete. In my opinion, this is the perfect beginner summit hike in Colorado.
Thanks for reading!
What I brought-
o Day Bag, which included (water bladder, sunscreen, cap stick, stocking cap, light gloves, light rain jacket, first aid kit, and snacks…)
o Trekking Poles
o A good pair of hiking shoes
o Boonie Cap
o Sunglasses- I had a cheap pair, I’ve been told to get a good pair for UV protection.
What I wish I brought-
o Ice cleats, to play around on the glacier a bit more.
o Dziezynski, James. Best Summer Hikes in Colorado. Wilderness Press, 2012.
Special thanks to Editor Andi