Looking for a quick trip into the wild on a winter day? Just an hour drive from downtown Boulder, the trailhead for this six-mile jaunt up into the James Peak Wilderness is open year-round. It’s popular, but you can avoid crowds on weekdays. The snowshoe trip (or hike or ski tour depending on conditions) to the two Crater Lakes, perched at 10,600 feet, gains approximately 1,400 feet over three miles. Unless you’re breaking trail in fresh powder, it’s fairly mellow, and you can opt for microspikes over snowshoes if it’s been a while since it last snowed.
To reach the trailhead from Nederland, drive 4.5 miles south on Colorado Highway 119 to the tiny town of Rollinsville. Turn west onto the well-maintained gravel of Rollins Pass Road (CR 16), and continue eight miles, ending at the Moffat Tunnel.
1. East Portal Trailhead
The howling, car-rattling winds typically encountered at this large parking area can intimidate even the heartiest adventurer, but don’t be scared off. Follow signs right of the tunnel to the well-marked South Boulder Creek Trail for forest that shelters you from the wind.
2. Arapaho Lakes/Forest Lakes Trail Junction
Follow the mellow trail through dense evergreens and aspens interspersed with open meadows. After 1.25 miles, you’ll encounter a signed split in the trail. The right fork heads off to Forest Lakes (three miles from the trailhead) and Arapahoe Lakes (3.5 miles). Stay left on the South Boulder Creek Trail to Crater Lakes.
3. Crater Lakes Trail Junction
After climbing a bit more aggressively over the next half-mile or so, the route reaches another junction (it’s easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention or new snow obscures the way). Follow the trail to Crater Lakes as it bends north for a moment and then winds steeply west and switchbacks upward through thick forest. (Staying on the South Boulder Creek Trail will bring you all the way up to another worthy, but better-for-summer destination: Heart Lake, which sits above 11,000 feet.)
4. Head North
Steepening again, the trail takes a sharp turn north. As you walk or ski skyward, the trees thin, eventually opening to views of the high ridges of the James Peak Wilderness.
5. Signed Stream Crossing
Nearing the lakes, you reach a trail sign at an outlet stream. Follow the trail north over the outlet and northwest along the thin glade of spruce trees that separates the two main lower lakes.
6. Crater Lake South
Take the left spur to reach the southern lake, which is narrower and surrounded by steep walls and dense forest. From here, make a loop out of your visit to the northern lake by following a spur trail that heads north and then east.
7. Crater Lake North
The north lake is larger and more open, making it easier to access. Enjoy expansive views of the basin and lakeside campsites. Or, climb just a bit above it to take in views of both lakes shimmering with winter ice. Close the circle around this lake to hook back up with the same trail you took to get here. Head back down the same way you came up.
Options: The Crater Lakes are a series of five lakes in total. To reach the third one—hidden, but nearby—backtrack on the main trail to the trail sign mentioned in Point 5 and follow the stream a few hundred yards east. To reach the upper two Crater Lakes, you’ll need navigation skills and a good map to travel 2.2 additional miles. Prepare for tough terrain, check avalanche conditions, and carry and be trained in how to use safety gear.
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