Hiking Trails in Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area

Beaver Creek Trailhead

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Buchanan Pass Trailhead

East Portal Trailhead

Fourth of July Trailhead

Hessie Trailhead

Middle St Vrain Road Trailhead - 4WD Terminus

Mineral Mountain Trailhead

Monarch Lake Trailhead

Rainbow Lakes Trailhead

Roaring Fork Trailhead

Rollins Pass - Corona Lake Trailhead

Sourdough Trailhead

St. Vrain Mountain Trailhead

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Photos

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Ecology

The Indian Peaks Wilderness Area runs approximately 18 miles north-south and 15 miles east-west at its longest and widest points, respectively. It covers 76,586 acres, 35% of which are above tree line where oxygen is 60% less than at sea level.

The James Peak Wilderness covers an additional 17,000 acres of land adjacent to the Indian Peaks Wilderness (south).

Elevations range 8,400' - 13,500', with 7 peaks over 13,000'. Many of the area's peaks are named after American Indian Tribes of the west:

  • Navajo Peak: 13,406'

  • Paiute Peak: 13,088'

  • Pawnee Peak: 12,943'

  • Apache Peak: 12,873'

  • Shoshone Peak: 12,962'

  • Arikaree Peak: 13,146'

The Indian Peaks and James Peaks wilderness areas span 5 ecosystems and sub-systems. These distinct but interconnected life zones support elk, moose, bear, mountain lion, bighorn sheep and mountain goat.

MONTANE ECOSYSTEM: 5,600' - 9,500'

Ponderosa Pine is a primary constituent of the Montane. They inhabit dry, south-facing slopes in an open, park-like setting.

Grasses and shrubs fill the gaps between widely spaced trees in ponderosa parks. Ponderosa bark changes from gray-brown to cinnamon-red over time, and omits a pleasant fragrance when warmed by the sun. The long needles of ponderosa pines are attached to the stem in groups of two's and three's.

North-facing slopes of the Montane hold more moisture; here trees grow closer together and competition for sunlight produces a tall, slender growth form.

Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine and the occasional Engelmann spruce compete for resources on these colder slopes. A few shade-tolerant plants also grow on the forest floor.

Montane soil with high moisture content may support aspen, distinguished by their white bark and spectacular autumn colors.

Willow, mountain alder and water birch can be found along riparian corridors. Blue spruce may also grow near streams at these elevations and hybridize with Engelmann spruce.

Montane lowlands and swales can become oversaturated and unable to support evergreen forests.

Plants and Animals of the Montane Ecosystem

  • Trees: Ponderosa Pine Douglas Fir, Quaking Aspen, Lodgepole Pine

  • Shrubs: Antelope Bitterbrush, Wax Current, Kinnikinnick Big Sage, Common Juniper, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Holly Grape

  • Herbaceous Plants: Needle and Thread Grass, Daisy, Locoweed, Geranium Whiskbroom Parsley, Blue Grama Pasque Flower, Gumweed Penstemon, June Grass Sedge, Mariposa Lily Spike Fescue, Miner's Candle Sulphur Flower, Dwarf Mistletoe Wallflower, Mountain Muhly Blue Columbine

  • Birds: Mountain Bluebird Solitary Vireo, Western Bluebird, Black-Billed Magpie, Mountain Chickadee, Common Nighthawk, Red Crossbill, Pygmy Nuthatch, Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle, Raven, Cassin's Finch, Northern Flicker, Pine Siskin, Northern Goshawk, Townsend's Solitaire, Stellar's Jay, Yellow-Rump Warbler, Tree Swallow, Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy)
    Western Tanager, Western Wood Pee Wee

  • Mammals:Mule Deer, Elk, Black Bear, Bobcat, Porcupine, Coyote, Albert's Squirrel, Skunk, Long-Tailed Weasel, Mountain Lion

SUBALPINE ECOSYSTEM: 9,500' - 11,000'

The Subalpine Ecosystem runs 9,500' - 11,000' and changes dramatically over this span. Primary constituents include lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, aspen and Engelmann spruce.

Lodgepole pine is particularly abundant at the lower range, and in burned or logged areas where they respond well to sun. Once the forest is re-established, lodgepole will be succeeded by spruce and fir.

Limber pine is found in the subalpine's highest, most exposed elevations. They're specifically adapted to adverse conditions with flexible limbs and a short, gnarled trunk to stabilize the tree.

Bristlecone pine is the oldest living tree species on earth, and arguably the hardiest subalpine resident. The bristlecone's short, twisted trunk facilitates nutrient flow and stabilizes the tree in strong winds. They can survive with minimal bark, and produce a resin that resists disease and infestation. Bristlecone may take a century to add just 1 inch in diameter, and can become nearly dormant during a drought.

Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir become shorter and stunted at the top of their range. Poor soil, thin air, strong wind, extreme weather and a shorter growing season limit growth at higher elevations.

Exposure limits new growth on the windward side of spruce and fir, leaving new growth to the lee side. Trees with branches on only one side are called banner trees or flag trees. Near treeline, seedlings may germinate on the lee side of rocks and grow only as tall as the rock's protection.

Krummholz - a German word meaning twisted wood - describes the stunted, irregular growth patterns of trees in the ecological transition zone between subalpine forests and alpine tundra.

Snow cover may protect krummholz trees during the winter, but exposed limbs do not always survive. Well-established krummholz trees may be several hundred to a thousand years old.

Plants and Animals of the Subalpine Ecosystem

  • Trees: Lodgepole Pine, Subalpine Fir, Engelmann Spruce , Limber Pine, Bristlecone Pine

  • Shrubs: Blueberry (Vaccinium), Elder, Cinquefoil, Wood's Rose, Wax Current

  • Herbaceous Plants: Arnica, Needle Grass, Fairy Slipper, Colorado Blue Columbine, Gentian, Sneezeweed, Lousewort, Twinflower, Pipsissewa, Sedge, Senecio

  • Birds: Brown Creeper, Ruby Crowned Kinglet, Pine Grosbeak, Clark's Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, White Breasted Nuthatch, Red Crossbill, Williamson's Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Pine Siskin, Blue Grouse, Raven, Dark-Eyed Junco, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Townsend's Solitaire, Stellar's Jay, Yellow-Rump Warbler, Northern Goshawk, Woodpecker (Downy and Hairy)

  • Mammals: Mule Deer, Elk, Moose, Black Bear, Bobcat, Porcupine, Snowshoe Hare, Long-Tailed Weasel, Elk, Mountain Lion


The alpine tundra ecosystem ranges from 11,000' up to the highest peaks in Colorado. 35% of the Indian Peaks Wilderness is above treeline, where there is 60% less oxygen than at sea level.

Strong wind, cold temperatures, poor soil, extended snow cover and a short growing season limit what plants can grow here.

Many flowering plants of the tundra have dense hairs on stems and leaves for wind protection, or red-colored pigments that convert sunlight into heat.

Some plants take two or more years to form flower buds, which survive winter below the surface. These buds will open and produce fruit with seeds all within just a few weeks of summer.

Lichens are comprised of two organisms: a fungus that provides structure, and an algae within the fungus that stores water and gives it color. Lichens need only a rock, sunlight, and some water every few years to survive.

Enclosed algal cells can photosynthesize above 32 F, and the outer fungal layers can absorb more than their own weight in water.

A 1” diameter lichen may be hundreds of years old; some lichens can live for thousands of years. Lichens help turn rock into soil by secreting acids that dissolve it into minerals.

Cushion and mat plants help build soil by capturing organic debris in their foliage, plots in which grasses and taller plants can eventually root. This turns fellfield into alpine turf, a process that can take centuries.

Alpine vegetation is very fragile, and can take centuries to recover from a disturbance.

Plants and Animals of the Alpine Ecosystem

  • Shrubs: Willow

  • Grasses and Grass-like Plants: Alpine Blue Grass, Alpine Timothy, Skyline Blue Grass, Spike Trisetum, Tufted Hair Grass, Spreading Wheatgrass, Kobresia, Spike Wood-Rush and Pyrennian Sedge

  • Forbs and FLowers: Alpine Avens, Queen's Crown, Alpine Bistort, Marsh Marigold, American Bistort, Mertensia, Pygmy Bitterroot, Rydbergia, Snow Buttercup, Alpine Paintbrush, Dwarf Clover, Alpine Phlox, Parry's Clover, Moss Pink, One-Headed Daisy Alpine Sandwort, Black-Headed Daisy, Saxifrage, Elephantella, Sky Pilot, Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Alpine Sorrel, Arctic Gentian, Alpine Wallflower, King's Crown and Blue Columbine

  • Birds: White-Tailed Ptarmigan, Rosy Finch, Horned Lark, White-Crowned Sparrrow and Water Pipit

  • Mammals: Snowshoe Hare, Pika, Chipmunk, Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Pika, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goat

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Wildlife

The Indian Peaks Wilderness spans 5 ecosystems and sub-systems. These distinct but interconnected life zones support deer, elk, moose, mountain lion, bear, bighorn sheep and mountain goat.


Mature males (bulls) can stand well over 5' at the shoulder and reach 600 - 1,000 lbs. Adult females (cows) typically measure 4' at the shoulder and weigh 300 - 400 lbs.

Much of the year, a bull's giant antlers are encased in a velvet skin laced with thousands of blood vessels to deliver blood and nutrients. As they finish growing, and when the rutting season hits, bulls thrash their antlers against trees to remove the velvet.

Elk descend from the high country in autumn for the annual mating rut. Cows form large herds and bulls linger anxiously on the periphery while battling for dominance. Though violent clashes occur, mature bulls prefer bugling and displaying their antlers, necks and bodies to fighting.

Mature males emit strong, musky odors and bugle loudly to attract mates. Fittingly, rut is derived from the Latin word meaning roar. Cows and younger bulls may also bugle, but can't match the strength of the older bulls' calls.

Prime bulls (8-9 years old) stand the best chance of mating, a taxing process that severely weakens the animal. Some of the most successful males from a breeding standpoint fail to survive the following winter.

Though predation has been reduced with the extirpation of grizzlies and wolves, elk face habitat fragmentation and limited access to winter feeding grounds due to accelerated development on adjacent lands.


Adult males (bulls) can weigh 1,500 pounds and stand over 6' at the shoulder. Males are distinguished from other Cervidaes by their palmated antlers, which can reach 6' wide and weigh 90 pounds.

Adult females (cows) are smaller, averaging 700 - 800 pounds and 5-6' at the shoulder. They do not grow antlers.

Both sexes have a distinct flap of skin that dangles from their neck called a bell. It's more pronounced in males than females, and its purpose for each is debated. Some believe that its size may indicate a male's fitness to a female, serving as secondary sexual criteria to antlers.

Despite their bulky build moose are exceptionally fast runners; they can reach 35 mph in short bursts and maintain a steady 20 mph trot. Moose spend a significant time in water and are proficient swimmers.

They can swim for several miles across lakes, and hold their breath up to 30 seconds. Moose have poor eyesight and are believed color blind, but make up for this with strong smell and hearing. Poor eyesight contributes to dangerous human encounters.

Moose are more common on the Indian Peaks' west side, where marsh and aquatic plants are more abundant. They will venture east in late summer and through fall once mountain passes have cleared.


Bighorn Sheep live on high mountainsides, alpine valleys and steep cliffs.

Males are called Rams and weigh 175 - 300 lbs (desert subspecies are on the smaller end of this range). Males reach full maturity by age 8 and live 9-12 years

Only rams grow the large, distinctly spiral-shaped horns that curl behind their ears and back up towards the face. Ewes sport mush shorter and straighter horns. A mature male's horns can weigh over 30 pounds can measure over 30” in length and 15”in diameter.

Horns help determine rank within the herd, though males will deliberately shorten them by scraping rocks if the horns impede vision.

Females are called Ewes and weigh 75 - 175 lbs. They have an average lifespan of 10 - 14 years.

Ewes live in groups of 5-15 but form larger bands in the winter. Males will travel in smaller groups of 2-7 until joining the female herds for the autumn rut.

Big Horn Sheep have extremely acute eyesight. They can spot and track predators and people from over 1 mile away during the day. Impossible terrain dissuades many would-be predators, though mountain lions are very capable of reaching them in their lower range. Golden eagles are proficient at knocking younger, less sure-footed animals off cliffs.


Mountain Goats range across North America's northern mountains, with large populations in Idaho, Montana and British Columbia . They were introduced to Colorado in 1947 to bolster the state's hunting allure, though debate continues regarding their indigenous status.

Mountain goats live in small groups at the highest elevations, feeding on alpine tundra grasses, mosses, lichens and sedges.

Males (Billyies) can weigh up to 300 lbs, and Females (Nannies) are somewhat smaller. Both have sharp black horns that can reach 12 inches. Heavily cushioned, skid-proof hooves give them exceptional balance and traction, and double-layered wool coats can withstand extreme weather conditions.

Since they rarely venture below treeline, mountain goats have few natural predators. Avalanches and rocks slides are their primary concern, though eagles are known to knock smaller animals off cliffs, and mountain lion have some success hunting in their lower range.


280 bird species have been reported in the Rocky Mountain National Park and Indian Peaks Wilderness districts. Most are unique to mountainous habitats of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Specialty species include:

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Blue Grouse, Gray Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Williamson's Sapsucker, Three-toed Woodpecker, Mountain Chickadee, Pygmy Nuthatch, American Dipper, Western Tanager, Pine Grosbeak, Red Crossbill, Townsend's Solitare, Wilson's, MacGillivray's and Virginia's Warblers, Brown-capped Rosy Finch, Black Swift and Northern Pygmy Owl.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Geology

The Indian Peaks Wilderness Area has been repeatedly uplifted and eroded during a complex geologic epoch spanning almost 2 billion years.

Although many ancient mountaintops have been flattened by erosion, recent glaciation has left steep scars, U-shaped valleys, lakes, and moraine deposits.

The area's oldest rocks were produced when plate movements subjected sea sediments to intense pressure and heat. The resulting metamorphic rocks (schist and gneiss) are estimated to be 1.8 billion years old.

Later, large intrusions of hot magma finally cooled about 1.4 billion years ago to form a core of crystalline igneous rock (mostly granite).

The greater Indian Peaks and Rocky Mountains were variously submerged, lifted up, and eroded during the long Paleozoic Era.

Early in the Mesozoic Era (c. 100 million years ago), dinosaurs roamed the shoreline of a shallow sea that extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean.

Animal remains were deposited in layers of sand, silt and mud. The resulting sedimentary rock layers (including fossils) are now exposed in the foothills east of the high peaks.

The Rocky Mountain Uplift began almost 70 million years ago as giant blocks of ancient crystalline rock, overlain by younger sedimentary rock, broke and were thrust upward.

Streams eroded newly exposed strata and washed new sediments downstream. When the sedimentary rocks were mostly gone, erosion continued leveling ancient Precambrian rocks until only a few isolated areas projected above the gently rolling landscape.

The gentle slopes of Pawnee Pass are remnants of this erosion surface.

During the Cenozoic Era, some faulting and regional up warping lifted the Rocky Mountain Front Range as much as 5,000 feet to its present height. Some volcanic activity left young volcanic rock in contact with Precambrian rocks.

Differential movement along faults disrupted drainage patterns, resulting in higher mountains, waterfalls and large valley areas.

Streams had established drainage patterns with V-shaped valleys cut into hard rock before the climate became cooler, perhaps 2 million years ago. In the higher valleys, snow changed to glacial ice that flowed downhill and carved V-shaped valleys into U-shaped valleys.

Converging rivers of ice flowed down into lower valleys where the ice warmed, melted, and distributed the debris it carried from mountains above. Loose rock material carried by the ice was deposited along the sides, forming lateral moraines. At the ends of the glaciers, ice carried rocks were dumped to form terminal moraines.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Camping


Indian Peaks Wilderness: Permits ARE REQUIRED for all overnight use in the Indian Peaks Wilderness June 1 - September 15. Permits are $5 per party. Permit applications are not accepted online - Mail or In-Person pickup only.

James Peak Wilderness: Permits ARE NOT REQUIRED for camping in the James Peak Wilderness.


  • Permits are required for all overnight use June 1 - September 15.

  • Camping is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone May 1 - November 30. This includes Mitchel Lake, Blue Lake, Long Lake and Lake Isabelle.

  • In the Diamond, Jasper, Crater and Caribou Lakes Backcountry Zones, camping is permitted only at designated campsites.

  • Campfires are prohibited on the east side of the Continental Divide, as well as Caribou Lake, Columbine Lake, Gourd Lake, Crater Lake and in the Cascade Creek drainage above Cascade Falls.

  • Camping is prohibited within 100' of lakes, streams and trails.

  • Where there are no designated campsites, camp in established (previously used) sites to minimize impact. These sites are intuitively found along trails and creeks.
  • Dogs are permitted on trails in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Pets must be on a held leash at all times.

  • Day and Overnight Permits are required for large groups (8 or more people) and/or organized groups such as scouts, churches, schools, internet outdoor groups and hiking clubs.

  • Group size is limited to a maximum of 12 people or people and packstock combined.

  • Motorized or mechanized equipment, including bikes, wagons, carts and chainsaws, are not permitted.

  • Packstock is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone, the Cascade Backcountry Zone above Cascade Falls, and on the Diamond Lake Trail #975.

  • Hobbling, tethering or picketing of packstock is prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams or trails.

  • Only pelletized or steam-rolled feed grains, or certified weed-free hay, straw, or mulch are allowed.

Food Storage Tips

  • All food and scented items must be secured 24 hours a day. Bear canisters are the best way to protect your supplies and wildlife. Food must otherwise be hung.

  • Food must be hung at least 10' above the ground and 4' from a tree trunk. It takes at least 50' of rope to properly hang food.

  • Keep all scented items out of your tent, including personal items. Store them with your food.

  • Bears are not the only animals with great noses: deer, raccoons, jays, bighorn sheep and mountain goat may also be interested in your food, or salts from urine and sweat around your campsite. Keep a clean camp to avoid unwanted visitors.

Field Tips

  • You must treat, filter or boil any drinking water obtained from streams, lakes or snow in the backcountry. Though water may appear pristine, it's generally not safe to drink due to giardia and other harmful bacteria.

  • Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Rocky Mountains, especially July-August. Be mindful of changing weather and aim for treeline well before storms develop.

  • Insect repellent is advisable.

  • Where there are no maintained trails in the tundra, do not walk in single file - spread out to avoid wearing out concentrated areas. Minimize damage by walking over rocks as much as possible.

Planning Tips

  • Speak with a Ranger before heading into the backcountry. Ask specific questions about trail conditions, weather and terrain.

  • Use a good topo map to plan your itinerary. Distance, elevation gain, elevation at your destination and water availability are primary considerations when planning backcountry travel.

  • If you live at sea level, it will take several days to acclimate to higher elevations. Most trails begin above 9,000' and climb steeply.

  • Anticipate a wide range of weather conditions on your trip. Never assume that weather conditions early in the day or at lower elevations will be the same at your final destination.

  • Always leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home.


Boulder Ranger District - USDA Forest Service
2140 Yarmouth Ave.
Boulder, CO 80301
Summer Hours:
Mon - Fri 8a - 4:30p
Sat 8a - 3:30p (Saturday hours dependent on staffing)

Sulphur Ranger District
USDA Forest Service
9 Ten Mile Drive
Granby, CO 80446
Mon - Fri 8a - 6p
Sat 9a - 5p

Indian Peaks Ace Hardware
74 Hwy. 119 South (West side of 119)
Nederland, CO 80466
8a - 7p Mon-Sat
9a - 5p Sundays

Monarch and Junco Lake Wilderness Stations
Monarch: 8 a - 5p, 7 days a week (tentative) during summer Junco: 8a - 4p, 7 days a week (tentative) during summer

Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests & Pawnee National Grassland
2150 Centre Avenue, Building E
Fort Collins, CO 80526-8119


CAMPGROUNDS (visit http://1.usa.gov/105IHR4 for a complete list and reservation information)

Brainard Lake Recreation Area - Pawnee Campground : 877.444.6777 : Recreation.gov

  • The Pawnee Campground is open late June - late October. It's located in a mature spruce-fir forest at 10,500'.

  • There are 39 campsites that accommodate tents, campers, trailers or RVs. There are also 8 walk-in campsites available for tent camping.

  • Sites are $19 per night. Oversize units are $22 per night. Reservations for sites 15 - 39 will be accepted up to four days prior to arrival and cost an additional $10 per reservation by phone, or $9 for reservations online. Entrance fees to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area also apply ($10).

  • Picnic tables, fire grates, water, vault toilets, and trash services are provided. There are no electrical hook-ups, dump stations, or showers.

  • A maximum of eight people are allowed per site except for units 12 and 32, which will accommodate 12 people each.

Camp Dick : 877.444.6777 : Recreation.gov

  • Camp Dick is located just off the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway north of Nederland.

  • The campground has 41 sites in a mixed pine-aspen forest along Middle St Vrain Creek. Campsites accommodate tents and RVs.

  • $19 - $22 fee per site per night.

  • Sites include picnic tables and campfire ring with grill. Water spigots, vault toilets, and trash services are provided at the campground. Firewood may be purchased in peak season.

  • There are no electrical hook-ups, dump stations, or showers. Tents must remain on tent pads.

  • Reservations are recommended, but a limited number of sites may be available on a first-come, first served basis.

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Fishing

The Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness offer some of the best fishing in the state of Colorado.

A Colorado State Fishing License is required in all public areas and fishing is prohibited on private land without the expressed consent of said landowner. Information on obtaining a valid fishing license can be found on the Division of Wildlife Website:


Because fishing regulations are different from area to area, it is recommended to call ahead to the corresponding management agency for the latest fishing, bait and 'manner of take' rules.

Boulder Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Boulder County and portions of Gilpin and Jefferson counties

2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: 303.541.2500

Canyon Lakes Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Larimer County

2150 Centre Ave., Building E
Fort Collins, CO 80526
Phone: 970.295.6700

Clear Creek Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Clear Creek County and portions of Gilpin, Jefferson and Park counties

101 Chicago Creek Road
P.O. Box 3307
Idaho Springs, CO 80452
Phone: 303.567.3000

Pawnee National Grassland:
National grasslands in Weld County

660 "O" Street
Greeley, CO 80631
Phone: 970.346.5000
TDD: 970.346.5015

Sulphur Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Grand County

9 Ten Mile Drive
P.O. Box 10
Granby, Colorado 80446
Phone: 970.887.4100

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area - Contact


For further information or help planning your visit—email, mail, call or stop by one of the offices:

Boulder Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Boulder County and portions of Gilpin and Jefferson counties

2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301
Phone: 303.541.2500

Canyon Lakes Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Larimer County

2150 Centre Ave., Building E
Fort Collins, CO 80526
Phone: 970.295.6700

Clear Creek Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Clear Creek County and portions of Gilpin, Jefferson and Park counties

101 Chicago Creek Road
P.O. Box 3307
Idaho Springs, CO 80452
Phone: 303.567.3000

Pawnee National Grassland:
National grasslands in Weld County

660 “O” Street
Greeley, CO 80631
Phone: 970.346.5000
TDD: 970.346.5015

Sulphur Ranger District:
National Forest Lands in Grand County

9 Ten Mile Drive
P.O. Box 10
Granby, Colorado 80446
Phone: 970.887.4100

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