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Jonathan Stull | 08.12.2016

Just west of the Denver metropolitan area, the 73,391-acre Indian Peaks Wilderness is one of the most visited wilderness areas in the United States, and for good reason. Although it boasts none of Colorado’s famed fourteeners, several of its peaks surpass the 13,000-foot threshold and are as spectacular Front Range backcountry as anywhere else in the Colorado Rockies. Its lakes, pinnacles and meadows are no less attractive to the backcountry wanderer than those to the north in Rocky Mountain National Park, but Indian Peaks' wilderness designation means they offer greater accessibility to people (and pets!) and less congestion. At least 133 miles of trail crisscross the region, climbing six times to the Continental Divide and circling many of the area's more than 50 lakes.

Classic Rocky Mountain Highs

Two must-see lake-and-peak adventures in the Indian Peaks Wilderness: Crater Lake and Lake Isabelle. Crater Lake is a stage for the singular backdrop of Lone Eagle Peak, bell-shaped and spired like a wat in Vietnam. Lake Isabelle is as identifiably Rocky Mountain as it gets, a wide alpine bowl inset with the lake's blue-green waters, on-par for beauty with Mills Lake and the Keyboard of the Winds in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Popular and well-trod, the trail to Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake is a moderate, classic Rocky Mountain ascent. Great for wildlife viewing, the area is often visited by moose. Plan to arrive early, by 7am at the latest, to secure parking!

Brainard Lake Recreation Area, the busiest in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, offers year-round adventures on its 20 miles of trails. Rich with wildlife and colored by wildflower blooms during the summer, its trails also beckon snowshoers and cross country skiers in the winter.

  • With 39 sites and potable water, Pawnee Campground offers convenient access to Brainard Lake and Indian Peaks trail networks. The only developed campsite in Brainard, plan to camp here (and make reservations) unless backcountry camping is your goal.
  • The Jean Lunning Trail to Long Lake is short and flat, a great adventure opportunity for the kids to join. Keep the camera close, too—eagles, deer, elk and moose frequent the area, and there are fantastic views of the Front Range to enjoy.

Diamond Lake is a fine example of lake hikes in Indian Peaks. Its 5.3-mile stretch features a beautiful waterfall and the option to continue beyond its shores above treeline, where the trail intersects with connections to Jasper Lake and Devil’s Thumb Lake.

Winter Wonderland

Winter or spring, Saint Mary’s Lake offers snow and ski adventures to winter-loving wanderers. The short, rocky trail may prove a challenge for some, but skiing at Saint Mary’s Glacier is year-round—although, sadly, the glacier is receding.

Lefthand Park Reservoir Snowshoe is local favorite. Keep on the lookout for Niwot Ridge and its peaks capped in winter snow.

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