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Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness: Arapaho Glacier via the Rainbow Lakes TH

The hike starts in the forest
The hike starts in the forest
Deb Stanley

Colorado tourists have been visiting Arapahoe Glacier for more than 100 years and you should, too! Back in the 1920s, it became a full-fledged tourist attraction with visitors coming via a tourist road, trains and horses to slip and slide on the glacier, according to the Boulder Daily Camera.

Arapaho Glacier
Deb Stanley

Now, there's no road, no train and no horses to help you get there, but the trek is more than worth it -- featuring incredible vistas, wildflowers, lake views and even an glacier!

There are two ways to get to Arapaho Glacier. (Note, while Arapahoe County has an 'e" on the end, the glacier and the mountain are spelled without the "e.") You can hike from the Fourth of July trailhead near Eldora or the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead between Nederland and Ward. Both hikes involve a trek of about 2,700 feet elevation gain. However, the trails have different distances -- from the Fourth of July trailhead, the hike is four miles each way, but from the Rainbow Lakes trailhead, the hike is six miles each way. Why start at Rainbow Lakes? The elevation gain is much easier, because it's spread out over six miles.

The Rainbow Lakes trailhead is just outside the Rainbow Lakes Campground between Nederland and Ward (directions below). There are bathrooms and signs here and a trailhead for Rainbow Lakes Trail No. 918 and Arapaho Glacier Trail No. 905.

Follow the dirt path as it winds through the trees about 0.3 miles to a split. Hikers going to Rainbow Lakes turn left here, but for Arapaho Glacier, turn right. A sign here tells visitors they are entering the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

This first section of trail is very peaceful as it winds through a dense forest. Come during July and you'll likely see some wildflowers in the areas where the sun shines between the trees. As you walk the path, you may notice wires on the trees to your right forming a "fence" of sorts. Every so often here, you'll likely spot a sign that says this is part of Boulder's watershed.

In 1906, the city of Boulder bought nearby Silver Lake, which you'll see on this hike. Later, the city bought 2,300 acres around the lake to close off the area and protect the purity of the water, according to the Boulder Area Sustainability Information Network. Now Arapaho Glacier and the lakes below it supply 40 percent of Boulder's water.

The first 2.5 miles of the hike is in the forest. Suddenly, at about 11,000 feet, you'll hit treeline. When the trees end, the scenic views begin. As you stand here, look around. To your left is the valley that holds Rainbow Lake. To your right is the valley that holds the lakes of the Boulder watershed. You should be able to see some of the lakes down there already.

From here, it's just a quarter mile and about 175 feet of elevation gain to the official overlook. The overlook is at a bend in the trail with a couple signs that point out the names of the lakes below.

To your right, at the bottom of the valley is the first lake Boulder bought -- Silver Lake. Next to it is Island Lake. If you look closely, you might spot one or two of the four islands.

To your left, "upstream," are several lakes. The first one, with the dam, is Goose Lake. The next series of lakes is Triple Lakes.

If you look farther to your left (west), you'll just see the tops of North and South Arapaho Peaks and the snowy glacier field between them. That's Arapaho Glacier. However, because you're not allowed to hike north of this spot, this is the best view you'll get off the lakes and the glacier. You can turn around here for a nice hike of 5.5 miles with about 1,200 feet of elevation gain.

However, to see more of the glacier, you'll need to hike on.

From here, the trail switchbacks up the ridge between the Rainbow Lakes drainage and the Silver Lake drainages. The trail goes back and forth gaining elevation and revealing better and better views. At about 3.25 miles from the trailhead, you might spot a small, wooden post next to the trail. That's the three mile mark from the entrance to the wilderness area. You may see a faint 3 on it. At this spot, turn around and look at the Rainbow Lakes drainage. From here, you should have a good view of two lakes in a meadow/clearing and about ten more lakes and ponds in the trees.

This is the halfway spot to the glacier. You've got about three more miles and another 1,000 feet in elevation gain to go. As you continue hiking, just enjoy the surrounding views. As you get to mile four, you should be seeing yet another lake in the Silver Lake drainage. There's a lake above the Triple Lakes with an impressive waterfall that goes down to the Triple Lakes.

As you get closer to mile marker five, the trail finishes most of its elevation gain and comes out on a plateau of sorts. You'll have some small ups and downs here, but soon you'll see seeing the other side of the mountain. To the southwest, you may spot the ski runs of Eldora Mountain Resort. To the west, you may spot a lake straight ahead and slightly left, that's Diamond Lake in the Fourth of July valley. As you hike west, you'll see more and more of the Fourth of July valley and you should also being seeing more and more wildflowers in this area. You may even cross a snow field or two, depending on the snowpack.

After hike about 6.3 miles from the parking lot, you'll come around a corner and in between two peaks, look down into the valley -- there it is! Arapaho Glacier. While it no longer fills the basin here, there's still quiet a snowfield left. Technically, some say Arapaho Glacier is no longer glacier, it's a snowfield. The Boulder Area Sustainability Information Network says Arapaho Glacier's status was downgraded in 1998. One website says Arapaho Glacier was Colorado largest, at least in 1900. Read more here.

At the glacier, imagine coming here in the 1920s. You might have driven part way, taken a train, then riden a horse -- all to play on the snowfield. See pictures over the years here. According to Bob D'Antonio's book, Hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the Denver & Interurban Railroad offered a $1,000 prize to any aviator willing to land on the glacier. A young stunt flyer who went by the name "Slim" offered to do it but got turned down when officials saw his feeble plane. "Slim's" real name? Charles Lindbergh.

Enjoy the views and when you're ready, return the way you came.

Details: The hike to Arapaho Glacier via the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead is typically listed at 6 miles each way, my GPS registered 6.3 miles. Expect about 2,700 feet of elevation gain.

In the area, don't miss Diamond Lake, Forest Lakes and Heart Lake. Find more great hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and across Colorado in this list of 200+ hikes across the state. Don't miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page and follow me on Facebook.

Directions from the Forest Service: From Nederland, head west on Colorado Highway 72 for approximately seven miles. Look for the University of Colorado Mountain Research Station sign and turn west onto National Forest System Road 298. This route is gated during the winter. This road is a five-mile, native-surfaced road. A high clearance vehicle is recommended.