If the saying goes, “There’s no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing,” then with the right gear you can explore some great places deep in the mountains of Colorado. With just over 17,000 acres, James Peak Wilderness Area gives you a multitude of options for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Covering my two favorites, are the Crater Lake Trail (just outside of Rollinsville) or tackling James Peak Summit- the flagship of the wilderness area.
Crater Lake Trail- The trail works its way above the Moffat Tunnel (fourth longest railroad tunnel in North America), and along the South Boulder Creek. There are a lot trails you can pick from here, and all seem to lead to an alpine lake of some kind. Crater Lake is the best for snowshoeing, with the Continental Divide dramatically crowding around the lake (and the steep accent seems to deter the cross-country skiers).
Getting to the trailhead is easy. Just off of the Peak to Peak Byway, hang a left at Rollinsville when you see the recently closed Stage Stop Bar 8’(. Follow the road for roughly four miles or so to East Portal, (beginning of the Moffat Tunnel). You’ll pass the tiny, somewhat ghost town of Tolland along the way. The only year-round resident being the Gilpin County Sheriff (so behave!). In the summer months, make sure to bring a few extra dollars- the kids like to sell roadside lemonade. Parking and entrance to the park is free, there are a few (last chance) outhouses here, and a sign-in box at the trailhead.
When I snowshoe, I like to alternate between cleats and snowshoes. I use my cleats in the beginning when the trail is hard and snow packed. Knowing when to change into your snowshoes is easy, once your feet start sinking waste deep- it’s time to change. The first mile or so can be a bit busy, especially on the weekends. You’ll start to feel like a second-class citizen with all the cross-country skiers doing fly byes yelling, “ON YOUR LEFT!” In the beginning, you also follow the frozen South Boulder Creek and a multitude of snow packed bridges (which can be fun crossing). After the first mile, an open meadow greets you with nice panoramic views. The trail splits off to the right, and continues straight from there. The trail to the right leads to the Forest Lakes. Probably the best trail for the spring, with a powerful waterfall and many a wild flower. Continue straight, from here you’ll run into three or four forks in the trail. Take the fork to the right every time. Each fork you pass, you notice less and less people. As you come to the last one, your almost all alone.
The last markers states, “Crater Lakes- One Mile”. Maybe as the crow flies, but it sure seems much longer than that. Once the crowds thin out, the forest comes alive. The towering pines out here feel very old, ancient maybe. In the thick of the trees, the mountains peak through from time to time. The wind is howling above, but it’s still as can be in the trees. An occasional glob of snow falls with a resounding thud. The scene makes me feel as if Burl Ives may pop his head out and start singing, “Silver and Gold”. At least it was stuck in my head from time to time as I was hiking.
Eventually, the trees open up to Crater Lake. Mountains steeply surround the frozen lake. If you started a little late (like I did) you may be greeted with thick clouds, which has a different beauty in its own right. The large clearing and lake give you an opportunity to get out off the trail with your snowshoes. The dry powder crunches underfoot in a therapeutic cadence, as you zig zag around trees and over the lake. Once you had your fill, it’s time to head back.
Head back the way you came in. If you get confused, always take the trail that leads downhill. As soon as the snow pack hardens and widens, I shed my snowshoes for cleats. I pick up the pace without my clumsy shoes, and head for a warm pub.
James Peak Summit- If your more interested in hiking above the tree line, then head to James Peak. More than an hour’s drive from Rollinsville, it’s hard to believe you’re in the same park. This is essentially the same hike I laid out on my summer hike post. In the summer, St Mary’s Glacier is a sad, beat up block of ice. In the winter, it’s at its full potential. With its deep chalk blue ice, it’s just like a glacier should be. It’s fun to watch all the creative ways people play on the glacier. Everyone comes out of the woodwork, from kids with saucer sleds, snowboarders, and cross-country skiers. They were even giving ice axe lessons up here.
Now is the time to don your snowshoes and take note of Lunch Rock- a small out-cropping of boulders to lead you back home. I only used my snowshoes for the big, mile long meadow from the glacier to the switchbacks leading up the summit. Reaching the top, you’re welcomed with stunning panoramic views. In the winter, the views are even more special- with the snow packed peaks and clear skies. Unfortunately, in the summer you can have a lot of haze from the increase of forest fires. From here, you can spot Winter Park. See if you can spot trains entering the Moffat Tunnel. On the way back, it’s important to keep an eye out for Lunch Rock- there are a lot of ways down, and no clear route back to St Mary’s Glacier.
What might have been unattainable because of weather, with a little gear and proper clothing, becomes your own winter play ground to explore in James Peak Wilderness Area.
Thanks for reading,
Special thanks to Editor Andi