Saturday, August 30, 2014

Arapaho Glacier Trail (Rainbow Lakes side)

Distance: 9 miles round trip
Elevation: 9,958 ft - 12,346 ft
Elevation Gain: 2,170 ft (cumulative)
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes
Dogs: On leash (Indian Peaks Wilderness)
Date Hiked: 10 August 2014

Looking into the City of Boulder Watershed from the Arapaho Glacier Trail
The Arapaho Glacier Trail in the Indian Peak Wilderness is a tundra superhighway that stretches from the 4th of July Trailhead in the south to the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead in the north.  Since the one way distance is 7.8 miles just from the 4th of July mine (two miles up), most people hike from one end or the other and double back.

Parking area and bathroom
Trails are well marked. I measured the trail split at 0.3 miles.
On this trip, we started from the Rainbow Lakes side, which is less crowded and affords eye-popping views of the City of Boulder Watershed, a private area of peaks and lakes that are postcard perfect. Don't be tempted to head that way, however. Set one foot across the well-marked boundary and a screaming horde of guard Marmots will gnaw your feet off at the ankles and turn you over to winter's inevitable embrace.

The first two miles are in the trees on a pleasant trail. Some parts are rockier than others.
Indian Paintbrush
The road to Rainbow Lakes starts from Highway 72 just north of Nederland. Seven miles northward is a sign for the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station on the right. Turn left here onto Forest Service Road 298. It is 5 miles down a road dirt road to the large parking area. I would recommend a high-clearance 2WD at a minimum and a 4x4 if you have one. The road is pitted, eroded, and very rocky in places. It takes much longer to reach the trailhead than you would think.

Treeline at 2.5 miles. Mt. Albion is just visible.
The first two and a half miles of the route are in the trees.  Ironically, I was pleased with the dryness of the area and the subtle scent of pine needles baking in the sun after slogging through wet and humid Heart Lake a few days prior. I say ironic because we got caught in one of the wettest storms I have been in in years. Hail, torrential rains, and enough water on the trail to totally saturate my "water proof" boots.  Normally, this segment is quite pleasant.

Tundra and watershed view
After two miles, the trail leaves the trees and heads steadily upwards across a bare tundra hillside. At the first switchback at 2.8 miles, the trail overlooks the City of Boulder Watershed. This area is clearly marked on the National Geographic Map as a no-go zone so it has always been terra incognita. At least looking down into it has removed some of the mystery.

The clouds should have been our first clue
Harebell was covering the tundra in great swaths
From this vantage, the trail winds around the hillside to the east before turning sharply west again. At 4.4 miles is a saddle. Our turn around point was a spot just off the trail where views of the southern Indian Peaks dominate. Unfortunately, on this trip we only stayed 10 minutes before a distant rumble had us packing up and heading down.

On the saddle
Ptarmigan showing off its superb camouflage. This mother had several chicks with it. I could hardly see any of them and just pointed my camera in the general direction of where I thought they were.
Half way to treeline, the sky began to spit hail from a storm that had built early in the day over the Watershed. Thunder began to vibrate the air and we quickened our step to get down as quickly as possible. Despite all the gear, we were quite wet by the time we reached the trees and then had the pleasure of walking two miles on a trail slick with pea-sized hail and streaming water. Ankle-deep puddles were forming on any flat segment and the dirt was eroding around rocks as the torrent rushed downwards. The temperature dropped to below 40 degrees and a heavy mist descended. Even though I had both a stocking cap and gloves with me, they did little to keep out the cold after becoming saturated from the rain and mist. Had anyone one of us had an accident that prevented us from generating heat through movement, we would have had a serious case of hypothermia on our hands. This is just one more example of how the wilderness can torment those who are unprepared. For the most part, we are fat and dumb primates oblivious to nature's killing power as we hide behind our heated walls and espresso machines.

Off the trail now at our lunch spot. We are looking south, deeper into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
I really would like to return to this trail on a nicer day. While the clouds and mist added to the photographic appeal of the area, it was a warning to stay in bed. 2014 has been such a short season that many of us have pushed the limits to enjoy the high country before winter grips it again.

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