One of the best long-distance day hikes in Colorado’s Front Range can be found in the beautiful Indian Peaks Wilderness, just west of the town of Nederland. This 16-mile loop has it all—rivers, alpine lakes, forests, summer snowfields, open tundra, and wildflowers.
Beginning at the Hessie Trailhead, the hike starts at an elevation of just over 9,000 feet, and rises to an elevation of over 12,000 feet along the Continental Divide. Due to its altitude, this trail is typically in its best condition from July through mid October, although this varies from year to year.
During the winter, avalanche danger is extremely high around the Continental Divide, so attempting this loop is not recommended until the snow melts, although skiing and snowshoeing day trips can be made on some of these trails. Be very aware of avalanche potential depending on where you travel in the winter, though, by checking the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecast.
If hiking this trail during the summer, you’ll be treated to some of the most spectacular wildflower meadows in Colorado. Of course, long hikes in Colorado during July and August come with a price, due to the threat of thunderstorms. Occasionally, dry air can cut off the moisture sources during monsoon season for a couple of days at a time, and these can be great times to hike this loop.
Otherwise, consider taking this hike during September or early October, when the weather is more likely to be stable and the fall colors spectacular. For current weather conditions in the area, click on the links below.
- NWS – Eldora, CO (10,089 ft)
- NWS – 3 Miles N Rollins Pass, CO (11,995 ft)
- Chance of Weather – Indian Peaks Wilderness
The Hessie Trailhead is small and can get very crowded on weekends, so make sure you arrive early. You can easily reach this trailhead by driving just south of Nederland and taking Route 140 toward Eldora Ski Area. Parking is typically on the side of the dirt road, wherever you can find a space.
You’ll start your hike by dropping down into a basin, next to a four-wheel drive road that is typically covered in water. The first 1.5 miles take you through a mixed spruce and aspen forest, and is quite excellent for viewing fall colors in late September.
After 1.5 miles, you arrive at a junction for the Lost Lake Trail. If you have the time and motivation, Lost Lake is only a half-mile away, but the trail is fairly steep. Otherwise, continue 0.2 miles to another trail junction. You’ll open up into a meadow at this point with excellent views of the Continental Divide ahead.
At this junction, stay left on the King Lake Trail, which you’ll follow for another 3.6 miles as you parallel the south fork of Boulder Creek. The upper reaches of this trail explode with wildflowers in the summer, including columbine, Indian paintbrush, golden aster, and Parry’s bellflower.
As you near treeline, you’ll reach an intersection with a side trail that goes to Bob and Betty Lakes. These beautiful alpine lakes are definitely worth the 0.7-mile side trip (1.4 miles total).
Upon returning to the main trail, continue another 0.6 miles up to the Continental Divide, passing spectacular King Lake along the way. It is not uncommon to see summer ski tracks on the surrounding snowfields in the cirque.
Once you reach the Continental Divide, you’ll have wonderful 360-degree views of the surrounding mountain ranges. Upon cresting the divide, you’ll take a right (heading north) on the Continental Divide Trail, which you will follow for 2.1 miles across the open tundra, passing through alpine meadows. Nearly all of this stretch of trail is above 12,000 feet in elevation, so keep a close eye on the clouds for thunderstorm development, and expect breezy conditions.
After your beautiful trek across the tundra, you will run into the Devil’s Thumb Trail, which is where you begin your descent. Heading east, you’ll drop steeply through more wildflower-filled meadows. After one mile, you’ll pass Devil’s Thumb Lake, which sits just below treeline. Take a look at the interesting “Devil’s Thumb” rock spire on the Continental Divide, which is a popular spot for alpine rock climbers.
Continue your descent along the Devil’s Thumb Trail, before reaching spectacular Jasper Lake after an additional 1.5 miles of hiking. This is a great spot to take a break before the final five miles of your hike.
You’ll hike for another 1.6 miles on the Devil’s Thumb Trail, paralleling Jasper Creek, before you reach an intersection with the Devil’s Thumb Bypass Trail. Hang a left onto this trail, which cuts off a little bit of distance and offers a scenic alternative to the main trail.
After hiking along this bypass trail for 1.3 miles, you’ll run into the trail that takes you back to the Hessie Trailhead, where your car will be waiting.