Colorado, Colorado 13ers, Colorado Hikes, Colorado Summits

Colorado 13ers: South Arapaho Peak

Most people who visit Colorado in search of mountains go to Rocky Mountain National Park. Don’t get me wrong; Rocky is incredible and well worth the trip. But those of us who live here know that there are other equally stunning areas of the state. Exhibit A: the Indian Peaks Wilderness just south of Rocky. Over the last four years, I’ve done numerous hikes in the Indian Peaks. And there are still dozens more I’d like to do. At the end of July, I completed one of these with my friend Savannah.

Our day began at 4:00am when we reluctantly rolled out of bed (thank goodness she never minds when I crash at her place the night before a hike… otherwise I would have needed to wake up at 3:00am, which I absolutely refuse to do). It was still dark when we set off for Fourth of July Trailhead, though by the time we neared the sun was rising. The last 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of the journey is on a dirt road that – as of July 2022, at least – is passable with a little bit of clearance. I wouldn’t take a sedan up it, but we did just fine in a Subaru. We arrived to find plenty of parking at about 6:00am… but it was a Wednesday. Weekends at this trailhead are ridiculous. Don’t expect to find parking if you arrive after about 6:00-6:30am. Note also that allowable parking spots are very clearly marked, and they will ticket you if you park illegally.

Anyway. We were on the trail by about 6:15am, following signs toward Arapaho Pass and Arapaho Glacier. The trail begins in fairly typical Colorado fashion: dirt, roots, rocks, and a steady uphill climb through the forest. Occasionally, the trees would part and we would catch glimpses of the surrounding mountains. As we gained elevation, the trees were gradually replaced by wide open meadows and wildflowers. Thousands and thousands of wildflowers.

Arapaho Pass Trail
Looking back toward the trailhead
Mushrooms!

Also, there was so much water and mud. We navigated multiple creek crossings, two extremely muddy sections, and a couple spots where the creek and the trail appeared to be one in the same. I was glad to be wearing waterproof boots and ankle gaiters.

At one point, we ended up on a path that didn’t seem to be the actual trail. I went back to look, but couldn’t figure out where we’d gone wrong. There was no other visible path. How could we have missed it? Well…

This is how we missed it. This was the actual trail.

After approximately 2.5 miles (4 km) of dirt and rocks and water and mud, we reached a fork in the trail and followed signs to the right toward Arapaho Pass. We were mostly above tree line now; a few short, stubby pines and some willow bushes covered the landscape, but the scenery was wide open and we could see where we were headed. It was quite a ways up still.

South Arapaho Peak

What we couldn’t see, as it turned out, were the moose. There was a mama, baby, and male not far from the trail. I’m very grateful to the woman ahead of us who warned us of their presence… especially since we had Savannah’s dogs with us. They were leashed, but one was pretty new to hiking at the time and we didn’t know how he’d react. And, after some scary human-moose encounters in the past, moose make me very nervous. Fortunately, they were moving away from the trail, and the woman eventually motioned to us that we were okay to proceed.

Later, we looked down on the trail from above and saw all three moose far below. We’d also seen three moose along the road on the drive to the trailhead, bringing our total for the day to six. It appears that my uncanny ability to attract moose is not going away any time soon. (Seriously… this has become a thing. People have started making fun of me over the number of moose I see.)

One of the moose we saw while driving (photo by Savannah)

Once safely past the moose, we continued our ascent toward South Arapaho Peak. While the hike to this point had been somewhat gradual, this section was steeper. And overflowing with even more wildflowers.

Eventually, we reached the saddle between South Arapaho Peak (to the west) and a point called Old Baldy (to the east). We stopped here to eat a snack… and enjoy the view of Arapaho Glacier. Like all “glaciers” in Colorado, this one is really just a semi-permanent snowfield and is relatively small. But the turquoise tarn at the base is really pretty!

Looking down at the trail
Arapaho Glacier and tarn

The steepest part of our hike, though, was yet to come; we still had to climb 650 feet (200 m) over a jumbled pile of rocks to reach the summit. At this point, I was wishing we didn’t have the dogs with us. They both did great; they’re very agile and Savannah knew they could make it, which is why we brought them. But in general, I wouldn’t recommend bringing dogs on this hike, not only because some might not be able to navigate the rocks, but also because climbing over rocks while holding a leash can be awkward (and it’s a wilderness area, so leashes are required). Sometimes the dogs would jump up something that we couldn’t make it over, and we had to drop the leashes so we could go around another way and catch up. Or they would just get excited and tug us off balance. Basically, it made this final section more difficult than it already was.

But we did it, and the dogs did it, and soon we were standing on the summit gazing out in all directions. It was stunning! I’ve heard people characterize this as their favorite hike in the Indian Peaks, and I can certainly see why.

South Arapaho Peak, elevation 13,397 feet (4083 m)
Looking down on Arapaho Glacier and a string of lakes
Looking west

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: Fourth of July Trailhead is located at the end of Fourth of July Road, west of Nederland and Eldora, Colorado. As of July 2022, some clearance is necessary but 4WD is not. However, check conditions before setting out because sometimes the road deteriorates. Also, arrive very early, especially on weekends, and be sure to park only in marked spots to avoid getting ticketed
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: round trip to the summit of South Arapaho Peak from Fourth of July trailhead is 9 miles (14.5 km) with 3330 feet (1015 m) of elevation gain. The final stretch to the summit is class 2 and is not suitable for many dogs or for people who are uncomfortable with scrambling
  • Where to stay: there are a few spots for dispersed camping near the trailhead only. Much of the land along the road is private so be sure to abide by posted signs to avoid trespassing. Backpacking is allowed, but you must reserve a permit in advance for the Neva backcountry zone (map). With an early start, this can also also be done as a day hike from Denver, Boulder, Nederland, and the surrounding area
  • Other: the final climb to the summit is slow going because of the rocks, and descending this section takes almost as long as the ascent. Keep a close eye on the weather, and be sure to leave yourself adequate time to descend below tree line before storms arrive

37 thoughts on “Colorado 13ers: South Arapaho Peak”

  1. You weren’t kidding about how busy the trails are in Colorado! Glad to hear that you had no issues finding parking at 6a.m on a weekday. What a beautiful display of wildflowers. I am so envious at how many moose you’ve been able to spot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, there are 570 13ers, or something like that, and some of them are really remote and difficult to access. I’m currently at 17. I’m not trying to summit them all, but they’re often very nice hikes and usually have way fewer people than the 14ers.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They are huge and gangly and really scary if you encounter one up close. I’m more scared of moose than any other animal in Colorado. From a safe distance, though, they are beautiful creatures! Hopefully you get to see one someday.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, what a scenic trail, Diana! For those who aren’t naturally morning people, waking up that early—even for a hike—probably doesn’t sound fun, but early morning hikes can be powerful and revitalizing in a number of ways. First, you beat the heat and have a trail all to yourself (this way let your mind drift away and be at one with nature) and second, you can watch a sunrise. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s always worth the early wake up call in the end. I never want to get out of bed at 4:00am but when I pass the crowds headed out when I’m on the way home, it always reminds me why we start early.

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  3. I very much enjoyed following this hike. The wildflowers and views from the pointed summit are spectacular. I did a 13K peak in RMNP several decades ago that I still remember (except the name). I don’t think there were any moose back then. I can’t believe how early people must arrive to get a parking space at these places now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love these lush meadows and the abundance of wildflowers. And I am very impressed that you know all their beautiful names. Glad you managed to keep away from the Moose family, that might have been a hairy encounter. I could not believe how muddy and boggy that trail was, unlike you I wouldn’t have been prepared for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Well worth getting up early for Diana. Stunning scenery and full of flowers. Who could ask for anything more. I hate places where the trail is indistinct. You never like to waste steps at altitude. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely wild just how early one needs to start to beat the crowds! I am an early riser, but hiking when it’s pitch-black is a whole other story! Glad you and your friend made it to the top (and saw some incredibly-colorful flora and wildlife along the way– that moose, though)!

    Liked by 1 person

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