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Hiking to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

High Point

High Point:
12,074 feet

Total Ascent

Total Ascent:
1,942 feet

Difficulty

Difficulty:
Moderate

Distance

Distance:
7.5 miles

Waypoints

Waypoints:
39.9950, -105.63472

Route Type

Route Type:
Out & back

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The Arapaho Pass to Lake Dorothy trail in Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness offers a scenic 7.5-mile hike featuring lush forests, wildflower meadows, alpine views, and the serene Lake Dorothy, making it a rewarding adventure for hikers.



Overview

The Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness of Colorado is a stunning hike that offers a blend of alpine beauty, diverse ecosystems, and breathtaking views. Located about an hour and a half northwest of Denver, this trail is accessible from the Fourth of July Trailhead, situated at the end of a rugged forest road near the town of Nederland.

The trail begins at an elevation of approximately 10,100 feet and gradually ascends through lush forests of spruce and fir. Early on, hikers are treated to the sights and sounds of mountain streams and the opportunity to spot wildlife such as mule deer and various bird species. As you climb, the trees begin to thin, giving way to expansive meadows filled with wildflowers during the summer months, providing vibrant splashes of color against the green landscape.

At about 2.5 miles in, hikers reach the scenic Arapaho Pass at an elevation of around 11,906 feet. From this vantage point, the views are truly spectacular, offering panoramic vistas of the Rocky Mountains, including the nearby Indian Peaks. The pass serves as a natural gateway to the alpine tundra, characterized by its hardy vegetation and the frequent presence of marmots and pikas.

Continuing from Arapaho Pass, it’s a short descent to Lake Dorothy, the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness at 12,061 feet. Nestled among rugged peaks, the lake’s crystal-clear waters reflect the surrounding mountains, creating a serene and picturesque setting perfect for relaxation and photography.

The entire round trip from the Fourth of July Trailhead to Lake Dorothy and back is approximately 7.5 miles, making it a moderately strenuous hike suitable for those with some hiking experience and a good level of fitness. The trail’s combination of rich forested areas, vibrant meadows, and high alpine environments ensures a diverse and rewarding outdoor adventure.

Hiker on the Arapaho Pass Trail, Boulder County, Colorado.


Table of Contents

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Scales and Criteria

This article uses two metrics to calculate difficulty: overall distance and elevation gain. For winter ascents, a snow rating may be used as well, but the access road is not plowed, and that adds a substantial mileage portion to the overall trip. This review covers the basic ascent and descent to Columbine Lake during snow-free summers and autumn months, so snow shouldn’t be more of a factor than a few isolated patches up high.

Difficulty Ratings:

  • Easy: less than 5 miles, less than 500 ft. of elevation gain
  • Moderate: 5-10 miles, 500-2000 ft. of elevation gain
  • Difficult: 5-15 miles, more than 2000 ft. of elevation gain
  • Very Difficult: 10+ miles, more than 3,500 ft. of elevation gain

Directions to Trailhead

Reaching the Fourth of July Trailhead, the starting point for the Arapaho Pass to Lake Dorothy trail, involves a scenic drive through Colorado’s beautiful landscapes. Here’s how to get there:

  1. From Denver:
    • Take US-36 West towards Boulder.
    • Exit onto CO-119 South towards Nederland.
    • Continue on CO-119 South through Boulder Canyon.
    • In the town of Nederland, turn right onto CO-72 West.
  2. From Boulder:
    • Take CO-119 West (Canyon Boulevard) towards Nederland.
    • In Nederland, turn right onto CO-72 West.
  3. From Nederland:
    • After turning onto CO-72 West, drive for about 0.5 miles.
    • Turn left onto County Road 130, also known as Eldora Road.
    • Follow Eldora Road for about 3.5 miles to the small town of Eldora.
    • Continue straight through Eldora, and the road will turn into Fourth of July Road (also known as National Forest System Road 105).
  4. Fourth of July Road:
    • The road becomes a rough, narrow dirt road suitable for high-clearance vehicles.
    • Drive approximately 5 miles on this rugged road. The trailhead parking area is at the end of this road.
Important Notes:
  • Vehicle Recommendation: A high-clearance, 4WD vehicle is strongly recommended due to the rough and rocky nature of the last section of Fourth of July Road.
  • Parking: The trailhead parking lot can fill up quickly, especially on weekends and holidays, so arriving early is advisable.
  • Road Conditions: Check local conditions before heading out, as the road can be impassable during or after heavy rain or snow.

By following these directions, you’ll arrive at the Fourth of July Trailhead ready to embark on the beautiful hike to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy.

Field Notes

Weather resources are important for any trip to the IPW; luckily, resources have been getting steadily better and more numerous. For starters, check the Brainard Recreation Area 7- day forecast. There are also specific mountain forecasts on Opensummit for Paiute Peak, Mount Toll, Pawnee Peak and Mt. Audubon. The full site access costs $30 a year, but it’s worth it for the wealth of mountain weather information. If you want to keep everything free, use mountain-forecast to check forecasts for Mt. Toll and Mt. Audubon. Pay special attention to temperature fluctuations, precipitation and the wind predictions; it can get pretty gusty up on the ridgelines. In the summer months, watch the skies for afternoon thunderstorms, they can be severe, and once you breach treeline, you’ll be exposed for multiple miles along the crest of the traverse.

This is also not a hike; it is a scramble. Paiute Peak requires a Class 3 scramble, the traverse around Toll is loose Class 2 with sections of 3, and Little Pawnee is solidly Class 3 with tougher options available. Make sure you’re comfortable with sustained scrambling on exposed ridges before committing to this adventure.

Journal

The Arapaho Pass to Lake Dorothy trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado, is a remarkable hike that showcases the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. Spanning approximately 7.5 miles round trip, the trail begins at the Fourth of July Trailhead and climbs steadily through diverse landscapes, offering hikers an unforgettable experience filled with natural highlights and stunning views.

Starting at an elevation of about 10,100 feet, the trail initially winds through dense forests of spruce and fir. As you ascend, you’ll pass by the peaceful North Fork Middle Boulder Creek, whose melodic flow provides a tranquil backdrop. In the early summer, this section of the trail is particularly vibrant, with wildflowers such as columbines and Indian paintbrush adding splashes of color to the lush greenery.

About 1.2 miles into the hike, you’ll reach the intersection with the Diamond Lake Trail. Continue straight to stay on the Arapaho Pass Trail. As you climb higher, the forest begins to thin, revealing expansive meadows filled with even more wildflowers, including alpine sunflowers and bluebells. The views start to open up, offering glimpses of the surrounding peaks.

At approximately 2.5 miles, you’ll arrive at Arapaho Pass, which sits at an elevation of 11,906 feet. The pass provides a stunning panorama of the Indian Peaks, with views extending across the Continental Divide and down into the lush valleys below. This is a perfect spot for a rest and some photos.

From Arapaho Pass, it’s a short 0.5-mile descent to Lake Dorothy. The trail here is less traveled and can be rocky, but the effort is well worth it. Lake Dorothy, the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness at 12,061 feet, is a pristine alpine gem. Its clear waters reflect the towering peaks that surround it, creating a serene and picturesque setting. The lake is often rimmed with snow well into the summer, adding to its ethereal beauty.

Highlights of the hike include the lush forest and meadows, the panoramic views from Arapaho Pass, and the tranquil beauty of Lake Dorothy. The trail’s diverse ecosystems and stunning scenery make it a must-do for hikers looking to experience the best of Colorado’s high country.

Arapahoe Pass Trail.


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