It is a short, half-mile hike down a couple hundred feet along a well-constructed path to the first (largest) lake. Paths can be found that circumnavigate the lake. Along the shore, and up on the slopes, there are often beautiful flower displays in summer months. There are several ways to explore this region. We will mention two, although a short third loop (shown in green on the map) gets you to another pretty pond and is an alternate way to get up to the south of the lakes.
A lovely area to explore is west of the main lake, where there are two more perched lakes. Access can be gained by climbing some talus that begins at the west side of the main lake, where water may be draining from the first perched lake (which often has snow near it even in summer). Climbing north up some steep grassy slopes from the northeast side of the perched lake brings you to some high plateaus with beautiful views and, eventually, down to another perched lake. From a few hundred feet south of the southeast end of this northernmost perched lake, one can descend steeply to the east-northeast into a grassy valley that leads you back to approximately the half-way point along the original trail from the parking lot to the major lake. (This loop, shown in blue on the map, can be taken in reverse.)
The more strenuous but rewarding hike is to climb up to the Divide and circumnavigate the enormous "cove" in which Forest Lakes lie (red loop on map). We recommend a clockwise route (see map). From the north point of the lake, proceed clockwise around the lake to a point just short of where a large prominent boulder juts out into the lake. This multi-branched route becomes especially complex near the outflow of the creek from the SE point on the lake. There is a fairly large open area 100 feet E of the lake, with boulders and firepits. If one proceeds SE for 35 paces to some water-loving bushes, you'll see a faint trail doubling back to the west through the bushes. It curves around counterclockwise to a point (if you keep looking to your right) where there is a crossing of the outflow creek (two branches of the stream, both bridged by logs). After the last crossing, keep as close to the shore of the lake as possible, proceeding clockwise around. When you approach a "broken saguaro, benched tree" in a few hundred feet, just before the jutting boulder, turn away from the lake and head uphill through a treeless swath of meadow to the south. Part-way up, you can branch briefly to the left and continue uphill within an open forest; the route emerges at the east end of a boulder field (scree slope). Proceed south, then occasionally southwest around the boulder field (occasionally through it, but keep to the grass and islands of trees) until you find a major, steep, flowered, grassy hillside beneath a cliff that marks the northeast boundary of a major hill. There are some giant boulders at the bottom of this grassy expanse. Climb up to the patches of trees, then head SW up toward the highest peak (12,072) in the circque that marks the divide. The hike to this point is about 1 hour. It was about another hour to the top of the cirque.
Head west-southwest toward the main 12,072 ft. peak, then angle back to the south or southeast, eventually reaching the crest of the ridge to the south (which extends east from the high peak) near the uppermost patch of dwarf tree shrubs. From the nose of this ridge, there are fantastic views down to the south to Arapahoe Lakes and across to James Peak, as well as the panorama out toward Mt. Thorodin and around to the north and below to the Forest Lakes region and Needle Tunnel. Continue west-northwest, up the ridge to the top of the peak. Then descend to the north and walk around the top of the cirque. Views are splendid looking down across the patches of snow to the lakes below. The lands to the west of the Divide slope down gradually to the road that connects Rollins Pass to Winter Park. (The Winter Park ski runs are prominently visible to the southwest.)
Continue clockwise around the cirque to the final peak to the north-northwest of the lakes. Follow the ridge that proceeds down to the east from that peak, which affords gorgeous views in all directions. It reaches a "nose" perhaps 400 feet above the parking area. Before the nose, there are patches of dwarf trees and shrubs, but there is little difficulty finding paths between these otherwise impenetrable patches of growth. Several hundred feet before actually reaching the nose, clamber down the slope toward the north, trying to keep west of a major talus slope of boulders. Eventually, you can head east and circle around clockwise to the south until you encounter the Rollins Pass Road just north of the short canyon-like road-cut at the south end of which is the parking lot. (We are not sure that it is impossible to come down directly to the parking lot from the nose, but it is probably steep and you may encounter cliffs...we haven't tried it.)
The entire loop is about 3 miles long. The elevation gain from the lake is nearly 1300 feet, and perhaps 1100 feet above the parking area. It is scenic beyond compare and is not terribly strenuous, given the steep slopes and inherently high elevation. Be wary of adverse weather conditions along the Divide.
A region a couple of miles west of this trail can be accessed from Magnolia Road, about 2 miles west of Lazy Z, at the top of a short climb where the road turns sharply to the left. Park here and follow closed Forest Road 606 either clockwise or counterclockwise around the hills (less than a mile). Nice views of meadows, hills, and open country. A detour on mountain-bike trails to the west and north leads to several overlooks of Boulder Canyon and Barker Reservoir. (These trails are partly on National Forest lands, partly on the newly acquired Reynolds Ranch Open Space.)
If you proceed down Forest Road 606 from the parking area (beginning the counterclock-wise loop), a trail branches to the right, down into the valley, shortly past the abrupt end of the forest on the right. After an S-shaped traverse in the bottom of the valley, the "Blue Dot" mountain bikers trail gradually ascends the mountainous region to the east. We have crossed over this region to connect to the original trail described at the outset, but a topo map is essential since the trails are indistinct in this area. Views from the top of local peaks in this area are spectacular.
Just before the intersection of a small creek with the main one, the trail diverts to the north and begins a 1.5-mile climb to the parking lot off Flagstaff Road. This is the least pleasant part of the loop, and would be even more so in hot weather since it would be a relentless climb up a hot, south-facing slope. (It's not especially steep, however, being negotiable by trail bikes. It remains an old auto track.) Partway up, the views improve and the trail comes close to a rocky knob between Castle Rock and Langridge Dyke.
The remainder of the route, beyond the Flagstaff Road parking area all the way down and around to the Cresent Meadow parking area, is shown with poor accuracy on the "Go Boulder -- Open Space/Parks and Trails Map". To start with, instead of climbing between two peaks, the trail (now a real hiking and biking trail rather than an old road) skirts around the south side of the peaks (with modest elevation gain) and then proceeds east along a ridge before descending on the short switchbacks down a north-facing slope (which may be icy in winter). At one point before the switchbacks, there is a crest (with a trail marker nearby) where one first sees the subdivision north of Walker Ranch. At that point, a not-prominent mining road takes off to the southwest, which gently climbs to a rocky outcrop (where we had lunch) with marginal views of the Divide to the west and magnificent views from Mt. Starr counterclockwise around through El Dorado Canyon to South Boulder Peak and Green Mountain.
At the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail follows an intimate gulch to the intersection with the Bison Road trailhead. At that point, we followed an old road (with buried gas pipeline underneath), trending southeastward, which undulates gradually downward (then more steeply) to the intersection with the El Dorado Canyon trail. A few hundred feet beyond, one reaches the chasm of South Boulder Creek (upper stretch of El Dorado Canyon). A wide footbridge crosses the canyon to a spectacular rocky region next to a series of small falls. At this point, the trail diverges from South Boulder Creek by climbing the southeast wall in a series of steep but well-constructed staircases.
The trail reaches a level ridge, which trends southwestward and affords wonderful views back towards South Boulder Peak, down to El Dorado Canyon, and across to the railroad track hugging the southern side of the canyon. Then the trail ascends, very gradually to the west-southwest, keeping a few hundred feet below and to the north of the crest of an east-west-trending ridge, affording views across to the railroad tracks and down into Johnson Gulch -- but there are never any views north into the South Boulder Creek canyon. (This differs from the map, but it is apparently a new route for the trail, designed to be free of snow as much as possible. The new foot- and biking-trail is very smooth and has gentle grades, although the views aren't as spectacular or interesting as elsewhere along the loop.)
After going through a particularly dense grove of towering trees, the trail gradually ascends into more sparsely forested terrains, finally emerging into the Crescent Meadows. It climbs gradually toward the parking area, with the busy train tracks not far to the north.
At the juncture, the Diamond Lake Trail proceeds mostly on the level for quite a distance, then descends to the creek. Just upstream before crossing the creek is a beautiful view of cascading waterfalls. In July, the wildflowers were profuse, varied, and beautiful. The first half of the hike affords increasingly striking views of the snowy peaks immediately north of Devil's Thumb. Along the whole trail, there were numerous streams, but one was rarely in danger of getting one's boots submerged in water in July.
After crossing the creek, the trail is level for a while, then proceeds up through a fir forest to the lip of the plateau that holds the lake. This route had patches of snow, and a little mud, but was otherwise easy -- with only occasional views across to the north side of the valley. Upon coming up on the lip, there is a gorgeous meadow, with snowy mountain vistas beyond to the south. Shortly after crossing a log footbridge, the trail hit a high (5 foot deep) area of snow when we went in July; the final 500 feet south to the edge of the lake was entirely on packed snow, which presumably lasts throughout the summer. One can circle counterclockwise to the egress of the stream flowing out of the lake (just above the cascading waterfall that can be seen from across the valley on the ascent).
From the pass (with its historical signs by a parking lot, which vehicles can reach by a road from Winter Park), proceed northwest and ascend a steep section of the National Scenic Trail (Continental Divide Trail) with occasional excellent views of King Lake and snowfields below. Hiking maps show the Divide trail and the High Lonesome trail either passing along the divide or down a few hundred feet to the west, but there is little precise resemblance between the various trails (with prominent cairns) on the ground and the maps. We recommend trying to stay close to the Divide, although it is advisable to circumvent some of the higher peaks. The talus looks forbidding, but it is quite easy to hop from rock to rock.
Be careful not to miss the intersection with the Devil's Thumb Trail just before a high bluff (signs are missing). The views from the Divide where the Devil's Thumb trail drops down to the east are quite spectacular. From that point down to the small lake above Devil's Thumb Lake, the trail is very steep (it would be lung-stretching, indeed, climbing up, in the opposite direction). At Devils's Thumb Lake, one reaches the treeline (and beautiful flowers); don't miss the profile view of Devil's Thumb itself from a distance of less than half a mile (prior to this, the Thumb is not recognizable since it is projecting toward the south). Although the trail is fairly shallow-sloped below Devil's Thumb Lake, it is quite rocky as well, so it's a bit slow. There are occasional confusions: when the choice is between a trail and an old road, we recommend the trail. One exception is at the southeast end of Jasper Lake, where the foot-trail crosses a very wet and full stream, but the dry route across the dam's spillway is fine. The old road east of the spillway eventually connects with the trail again.
The descent is very pretty (several small lakes in addition to the larger ones on maps, high mountains on left and right). After reaching lower elevation, we chose the Devil's Thumb Bypass trail to the left (which bypasses any stream crossings and is often out in the open, with views of the surrounding mountains and aspen groves), rather than the regular Devil's Thumb Trail. The bypass meets the regular trail again at a bridge by a roaring fork of Boulder Creek. From this point, it is a long mile back to the Hessie Township.
Directions to Hessie: This is an easy, short (15 minute) drive from the ranch. Proceed west on Lazy Z to Magnolia Drive. Bear left on Magnolia and continue to its terminus at the paved Peak-to- Peak Highway. Turn right and descend toward Nederland. As you enter the outskirts of Nederland, look for the Eldora turn-off on your left. Proceed (slowly) through the town of Eldora (do NOT take the lefthand branch that goes up to Eldora Ski Area). Shortly after Eldora, the road becomes dirt. In half a mile, there is a turn-off for the Hessie Trailhead, with many cars often parked on the road at this point. If your car has high clearance and it is past the wet season, it is possible to drive in half a mile, through a stream, to the Hessie townsite (abandoned) where there is ample parking. Four-wheel-drive vehicles can continue another quarter mile to the actual trailhead, but parking is limited.
Directions to east side of Rollins Pass (allow 3 hours roundtrip from Nederland due to rough dirt roads): Return to the outskirts of Nederland, turning right (south) on the Peak-to-Peak Highway; a couple of miles past Magnolia Drive (beyond the intersection of C72 and a small lake) you enter the small town of Rollinsville. Turn right on the main east-west road (a well-graded dirt road). Well beyond Tolland, the road crosses to the north side of the valley. Take the righthand turn-off to Rollins Pass, NOT the main road to the terminus of Moffatt tunnel. The road becomes very rough several miles before Yankee Doodle Lake and becomes narrower and even more difficult above the lake, but it is passable (slowly and with care) by passenger cars. The road is closed (by huge boulders) several hundred yards shy of the collapsed Needle Eyes Tunnel. Park here. (Note: about a mile shy of the end of the road, there is a very narrow, one-vehicle-wide section of road between two high walls. Just south of that is parking for a trailhead. The trail descends to the first of several "Forest Lakes", a beautiful area for short day hikes.)
The dirt road continues upwards to the west, then levels out and bends to the southwest. Cross the next bridge over a torrent of rushing water. A little above the bridge is a smaller waterfall. The walking can be a bit treacherous (if the trail is still snow-covered early in the season) in a thicket of bushes, trees, and unstable snow, near the point where the stream from Lost Lake intersects the major stream. Not far above that point, the trail reaches a saddle, with nice slabs of rocks to the right from which there is a view of peaks of the Continental Divide above some rapidly growing aspens.
It is at this point that the Lost Lake Trail branches up to the left. Less than a quarter mile up, a small sign indicates horses should bear to the right (which is where the map shows the trail bending right). But we suggest taking a small footbridge across the Lost Lake drainage and into woods just north of the lake. A few switchbacks suddenly brings you to the lake. Across the small lake is a massive, snowy edifice, with obvious mine tailings.
Near the northwest part of the lake, the trail becomes temporarily difficult to follow, with several branches attempting to cross wetlands (and they are very muddy) and others requiring that one pick one's way across talus boulders, which impressively cascade down the steep slopes to the north. To this point, the trail is broad and level or gently uphill almost the entire way from the parking lot. It then narrows and climbs up two steeper sections, the first past a lovely waterfalls just a few steps off the trail. Finally, one emerges on top of an upper plateau, with braided streams meandering among boulders and tufts of grass. The trail picks its way across these to the southern slopes of the valley, where the trail keeps above the bogs, climbing somewhat until it reaches the lake that is at the foot of the perched Isabelle glacier. This upper stretch can have patches of snow, even in mid-summer.
The little lake is situated in a spectacular cirque of towering mountains. Continue along the northern shore of the lake, watching for the trail to begin its steep switchbacks up the talus to the glacier. This last stretch up to the glacier is very steep, gravelly, and exhausting at elevations near and above 12,000 feet.
Note: the road into the Brainard Lake parking lots is closed during the winter near Red Rock Lake (if not even further down the road); it is opened rather later than necessary in the spring and closed at the first excuse in the autumn. Once closed, it is at least 2 miles of additional hiking to get to the trailheads. On busy weekend summers, the Longs Lake lot is filled early in the morning. An alternative place to park is further along the loop road around Brainard Lake; a spur trail connects directly to the east end of Longs Lake and continues as the Jean Lunning Trail.
A good path proceeds counterclockwise around the lake, climbing to a small bluff at the northwest end. A bit higher than that, there is a large lunch spot next to a rivulet of water cascading through patches of flowers, affording views of a waterfalls that empties into the west end of the lake (it drains a large snowbowl immediately north of Mt. Toll).
The recommended route to the Divide starts from the lunch spot and tends to keep atop talus-free ridges, which would not be true of the talus-filled valley through which the waterfalls-feeding stream runs. Angle up from the lunch spot, across the rivulet and ascend the next cliff via another small valley. At this point, low ground-hugging "trees" must be circumvented by following a line of talus rocks (this is the last place that plants are a problem -- beyond that, one is reliably above the treeline). The next major edifice is composed of en echelon layers and ledges sloping gently up to the left. It is easy to ascend the bluff using the ledges as a series of ramps, emerging onto a grass/tundra covered broad ridge that ascends toward Mt. Toll, but gradually levels out. At this point, keep away from the edge overlooking the stream, but instead head for the base of a small cliff that borders the grassy area on the north. The cliff gradually peters out and becomes the lip of a valley to the north in which the next lake sits back towards the mountain ridge farther north. The lip provides good access to the next bluff (above the upper level of the water falls, just below the end of the snow bowl). There is a short section of additional talus-block-hopping until one gets atop the bluff, which turns out to be the end of a tundra-topped ridge that runs west-northwest towards the right side of the snowbowl. It is a very convenient route to the foot of the final talus slope before the Divide.
The talus slope is steep but it is a fairly easy route (in terms of footwork -- it is a steep climb requiring frequent stops to catch your breath): aim for the larger, more secure blocks and try to avoid the slippery snow. You finally reach a rocky cliff that is easy to walk along until the place to make the final 20 foot ascent to the Divide. You emerge 20 feet above a little winding canyon that may provide a lower route to the western side of the divide (except that a large snow drift blocks the way).
This spot on the Divide provides totally stunning views, although it is not quite like being on the top of the world. Indeed, only a small part of distant lands to the west are visible. The view southwest is dominated by another range of 12,000 foot mountains a few miles away -- they are extremely jagged and very snowy on their NE faces. Mt. Toll towers above to the south, and the snowbowl dives away below to the east, down toward Blue Lake, which looks very far down from this vantage point. It is an enthralling and stunning vista, although your body feels oxygen-deprived.
Beginning at 10,000 feet it takes 2 hours to ascend, at leisurely pace, to a remarkable viewpoint at 11,000 ft. Most of the climb is in rather monotonous forest. The first half- hour is in fairly dense forest, proceding northerly. Shortly after encountering "No Trespassing" signs for the City of Boulder watershed (which do not follow the actual boundary between the Indian Peak Wilderness and the City of Boulder Watershed, but rather hug the righthand portion of the trail much of the way), the well-built trail narrows and briefly steepens, then the forest thins a bit (affording a few views) and the grade levels out, with even a few gentle downhills. At the point where there is a prominent $100 fine for trespassing sign, the trail switchbacks up to the left (south), away from the watershed boundary signs, beginning a series of switchbacks up the south side of a major ridge.
Shortly before leaving the forested region, one can bushwack north, to the right, a few hundred feet up to a cliff-edge (watershed boundary, again); or one can proceed on the trail to the open country and backtrack a bit along the edge of the canyon. There are glorious views in all directions, but mainly west toward the glacier and around to the north and down toward Silver and Island Lakes. The trail then switchbacks up the lower flanks of Caribou Mountain. At about 11,500 ft. elevation, we suggest following a contour off the trail to some large, dark-green bushes, next to a major snowpack in a great bowl.
From there, instead of returning by the same route, the adventurous can bushwack down toward two small northerly lakes in front of a prominent small peak. Stay near the edge of the bowl, down to the first point of continuous dwarf forest. (That would be a great tenting place.) The tundra gives way to deeper grasses with abundant flowers. On a few occasions, in order to avoid getting trapped in low forest tangle, follow short animal trails through to the next meadow. (The first, important connection is from a hundred feet NW from the lowermost patch of short-grass tundra-meadow.) Finally, follow a small rushing stream down through the woods to the Rainbow Lakes. There was no trail, but there were routes, chiefly along the stream. (This is the most inconvenient part of the route.)
The Rainbow Lakes trail proceeds east along the north sides of two nice lakes. The trail is wide, but very rough, initially. It becomes smoother, probably an old road, then diverts onto a newly-constructed single track for a while, before emerging again on the old, wider trail. The bushwack down takes more than 1.5 hours, and the walk past the lakes another half-hour. The total loop time, not counting stops, is about 5 hours to cover 4 miles.
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