Alpine magic on the continental divide

One newbie’s trip to Boulder’s alpine heights

By Tatyana Sharpton Jun 25 2020

Colorado’s famous alpines provide adventurous hearts with an array of nooks, from waterfalls to snow capped peaks to clusters of lakes all within an hour’s trek. You sink your root into the ground and forget completely where you are (bye ‘Rona, 2020).

Even in the summertime, you can see just as many skis and sleds carried up the mountain as you see inflatable kayaks. You just have to come prepared to add or subtract about ten degrees for every thousand feet of elevation.

An alpine adventure guide, ‘anything outside the mundane’

Trevor Lindler

Trevor Lindler, who has lived in Boulder for the last decade, loves to take his doorless Suzuki Samurai, affectionately dubbed Sammie, up mountain and find new trails, both on car and on foot.

Trevor, who never misses a chance to explore an offshoot on a trail, defines adventure as “anything outside of the mundane.” One of his favorite hiking gadgets includes a filtered straw for drinking straight from a natural water source.

Trevor moved west from Greenwood, South Carolina, when he applied to work for Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, where he worked for five months as a cook; he left in August and wound up in Boulder.

Last weekend, Trevor took me and my husband up to the magical Crater Lakes system in the James Peak Wilderness area via the Moffat Tunnel East Portal Trailhead off of Rollinsville’s historic Moffat Tunnel.

The cluster of five lakes, which forms a major tributary to South Boulder Creek, sits right on the Continental Divide, home to the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a 3,100-mile trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. Though not all of the trail is complete, it has designated markers from Rollins Pass south to James Peak, and breathtaking views overlook the lakes in James Peak Wilderness, just south of Indian Peaks Wilderness area.

Snow + lake magic

As we followed Canyon Drive up the mountain through Nederland to Rollinsville and veered right to unpaved road, the waters of Boulder Creek ran cheerfully along the right. Snowcaps lay ahead, mid-June, and little homes huddled together in clusters for what looked like warmth along East Portal Road.

After a consistent marathon of sun for weeks, it must have felt like 45 degrees that morning on the mountain, and though guys brought along inflatable watercrafts, it didn’t seem likely we’d use them. (We were wrong.)

Waterfalls tucked away. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Before we even started up Crater Lakes Trail, Trevor detoured us to an offshoot left of the main trail, a threshold laid out garnished by three large stones and a branch, both inviting and almost invisible, and ignored by a shocking number of passerby’s. Up the path rushed a staircase of waterfalls tucked into the trees.

Heading up the mountain, moss-like old man’s beard and limey spruce tips lined our canopied path, which opened up to grassy meadows cut by rocky creek beds to traverse, always to a rock-face backdrop, with raspberry bushes littering the periphery

“Come here in August,” said Trevor, “and you can go crazy picking.”

Trevor on the South Boulder Creek Trail, at the junction of Crater Lakes and Forest Lakes trails,  where the raspberries grow. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Coming from Greenville, South Carolina, where most things look like hills, tucked into the very base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, everything in the alpines looked majestic. You can probably guess my surprise when people coming down the mountain stopped to tell us of the snow up ahead at Roger’s Pass.

“We skied on those faces just above Hart Lake,” the skiers, two girls in shorts and vibrant eye-wear told us as they passed. “Going for that 12-month winter!”

Roger’s Pass, which cuts up from the Roger’s Pass-Crater Lakes Juncture, can have snow up to your waist even in the summer, and if you’re not careful you can lose yourself in it, Trevor told us. From Roger’s Pass, people can back-country ski down James Peak or into Heart Lake.

“Once I made the mistake of trying to go up Roger’s Pass too early in the season,” Trevor told us. “There was so much snow, I tried to follow footprints but couldn’t see the trail at all. I walked around in a concentric circle and the only tracks were mine.”

Jonathan and Trevor crossing the snow to the lake. That tiny blue space below Trevor’s arm? Lake! Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

Even without hiking through the pass, we encountered snow that reached the tips of small spruce trees and packed tightly into slopes we stomped (and sloshed) over before all the white opened to a mouth of blue and gave way to soft grass.

The boys and the kayak.

First we hit one lake, and then kept moving up until a second, more secluded one emerged. The guys inflated their water toys and set out on the glassy water; I perched on a warm rock to watch, letting my snow-soaked socks dry in the sun.

Alpine water glitters ahead and behind, a snowy backdrop sprawled with pines guards boulders at the edge of the terrain. If you’ve never seen it, the contrast is striking.

If you make your way along the snow, you can climb the boulders and look out to a vast sea of snow below. (We just don’t recommend doing it barefoot.) And since these easy trails and lakes do attract people with adventure dogs, if you forget where you are and see a wolf sitting at the edge of the world with you, don’t freak out.

Plan your own adventure

Jonathan enjoying glassy alpine peace on a paddle board. Image: Tatyana Sharpton.

If you find yourself looking to plan your own alpine adventure, explore the James Peak Wilderness’s boundless lake system. The initial South Boulder Creek Trail junction leads to Forest Lakes trail and Crater Lakes trail (as well as Roger’s Pass), and just the Crater Lakes alone consist of upper Crater Lakes and lower Crater lakes with trail going in between.

Some other lakes nearby include: Jenny Lake, Mirror Lake, Arapaho Lakes, and Forest Lakes, and Iceberg Lakes, as well as Yankee Doodle Lake by way of Winter Park. The area also offers camping along the Moffat Tunnel Trailheads.

Another personal favorite of Trevor’s remains Rainbow Lakes, a system of nine lakes and ponds linked between Peak to Peak Highway and the Continental Divide.

Header Image: From the middle of lower Crater Lakes, surrounding glories. Image: Jonathan Sharpton.