Hike of the Month: Arapaho Pass Trail to Caribou Lake

Sample a Colorado Front Range classic on this hike across the Continental Divide.
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Arapaho Pass

The view from Arapaho Pass

My favorite summer hike, the Arapaho Pass Trail, isn’t a secret spot or an obscure path where I can bask in solitude. In fact, it’s one of the most popular trails in Colorado’s Front Range: On weekends, the parking lot is packed by midmorning, and the first few miles of the trail are a train of dog-walkers and tourists. So why do I keep going back? Try it, and you’ll see for yourself.

After driving five miles up a rough dirt road to the trailhead, you’ll climb up a series of switchbacks through lodgepole pines until the trail opens up to views of a spectacular alpine valley. You’ll rock-hop through snowmelt-fed waterfalls and traverse fields of purple alpine fireweed and orange paintbrush as the trail gradually climbs higher and the crush of hikers starts to thin out, replaced by chubby marmots camouflaged against the scree. Finally, as you crest the Continental Divide at Arapaho Pass and look out west over a basin studded with deep blue tarns, you’ll get it: There are some things that even crowds can’t ruin.

Hike it

Lace up your running shoes and see the Arapaho Pass Trail in a day, or grab a backpacking permit ($5/group) and turn it into an overnight, 9.8-mile trip. From the Fourth of July Trailhead, take the trail west, climbing steeply through the forest and past a junction with the Diamond Lakes Trail. After about .8 mile, the trail begins to flatten and the scenery opens up to views of the steep-sided valley below and 12,814-foot Mt. Neva in the distance. Continue on, passing through a seasonal waterfall that runs over the trail before passing a junction with the Diamond Lake Trail. The path continues to climb, crossing a wide alpine meadow and passing the historic Fourth of July Mine, before cresting at 11,906-foot Arapaho Pass. Stop for a minute to savor the view from the top of the Divide, then drop down a series of narrow switchbacks, losing 750 feet over half a mile on the way to Caribou Lake. Bed down for the night at one of the designated campsites near the lake. Next day, double back, taking the half-mile detour from Arapaho Pass to visit Lake Dorothy along the way. Caution: The trail can hold snow well into June. Bring traction.