Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness: Arapaho Glacier via 4th of July trailhead

BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. - For decades, Arapaho Glacier (officially spelled without the e) has been a destination for tourists. In the 1920s, people came by touring cars and horseback to see the views and slide on the glacier.

While you're not allowed on the glacier anymore, thousands of hikers still trek to Arapaho Glacier and the peaks above it every year for the incredible views. Arapaho Glacier is technically not a glacier anymore, it's considered a snowfield, but the name hasn't been changed. And the glacier is important to Boulder because the glacier and the lakes in the watershed below it, provide 40 percent of Boulder's water supply, according to the Boulder Area Sustainability Information Network.

There are two ways to hike to the glacier -- via the Fourth of July Trailhead or the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead. Both hikes involve steep 2,700-foot ascents. However, the hike via the Fourth of July Trailhead is four miles each way, while the hike via the Rainbow Lakes Trail is six miles each way.

We decided to start at the Fourth of July Trailhead (directions below). After finding a parking space, hike to the upper parking lot to find the sign that says Arapahoe Pass Trail No. 904. It lists several destinations in the area, including Diamond Lake, the Arapaho Glacier Trail and Arapaho Pass. Note, Arapaho Pass is not on the Arapaho Glacier Trail, it's about a mile away, near Lake Dorothy.

The hike starts on a single-track trail through the forest. There are a few sections that can be wet, so boards have been placed there. The hike has a steady climb starting right at the beginning - you'll gain 500 feet in the first mile.

But just after you finish that first mile, there's a beautiful treat. A loud and large cascade that goes right over the trail. This can be a challenge to cross at times, but it's a great place to take photos. As you hike here, you may also notice a long cascade across the valley, that's the outflow of Diamond Lake.

A short distance after the unnamed cascade is the first trail split. This is where hikers going to Diamond Lake turn off. We turned right toward Arapaho Pass.

Here the hike gets steep again, but there are more spots where the trees open up and you can see the incredible valley you're hiking in. Whenever you need a break to catch your breath, step off the trail and enjoy the amazing scenery.

In this section, it may be easier to tell that you're hiking an old road. There are reports that the road was actually paid for by the federal government. The wagon road was supposed to go from Eldora, to the Fourth of July mine and over the Continental Divide, but workers ran out of money, so the road was never finished.

You'll know you're getting close to the Fourth of July mine when the trail flattens out and goes through a marshy area. Try your best to rock hop here or walk in the water and avoid stepping on the fragile plants in this area. They have a very short growing season and it's better to get your boots wet than ruin these plants.

At the mine, you'll find just a couple remnants of the old machinery and a couple tailings pilings. The WhatsThatInColorado blog says the mine was named Fourth of July because it was staked on Independence Day in 1872. Miners found gold, silver, copper, lead and zinc here before the mine was abandoned in 1937.

However, the mine is an important landmark because this is where you turn off. Hikers going to Arapaho Pass, Caribou Pass and Lake Dorothy continue up the road. For Arapaho Glacier, we're turning off here.

See that tall hill to the east, we're climbing that (and more). At this point, you've done about half of hike distance to the top (2 miles), but there's another 1,450 feet of elevation to climb. So take a couple photos of the old mining equipment, catch your breath and let's go.

After winding your way through another marshy area, you're climbing again. The trail is just a series of long switchbacks up the hill. While this is a steep trail, the views are great here. Take your time and enjoy the scenery.

At one point, you should be able to see Diamond Lake on the other side of the valley. You may also see the small dots of people above you on the trail -- just keep hiking up. Once you get to the top of the initial hill you saw from the mine, you'll notice you're not there yet. There's still more climbing. That peak in front of you? The glacier is just below that peak, on the other side of the ridge you're heading to.

After four miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain, you'll arrive at the ridge, look over and see the icy glacier hugging the sides of the bowl below you and the peak above you. After walking through so much tundra, it's odd to see this large ice field. Look at the blue color in the ice, look for signs of melt, look for rocks that have fallen off the peak onto the ice.

Many hikers sit on this ridge, overlooking the glacier, and enjoy lunch. After a break, it's time to decide which way you're heading. You can return to the Fourth of July Trailhead for a hike of about 8 miles roundtrip. Or, if you have pre-placed a car at the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead, you can hike six miles down the next valley enjoying the lakes of the Boulder watershed.

Details: From the Fourth of July trailhead, it's 4 miles and 2,700 feet of elevation gain to Arapaho Glacier.

Directions: From Boulder, take Highway 119 west to Nederland. In Nederland, stay on Colorado Highway 119 around the traffic circle and begin driving out of town. Turn west onto County Road 130, signed for Eldora. Follow the paved road through the valley to the Town of Eldora, where the pavement ends. Continue beyond the end of the pavement to the end of the road, about five miles. Expect the dirt road to be rough and rutted.

Print this article Back to Top