South Boulder Creek Trail (2 miles) to Crater Lakes Trail (1 mile). East Portal Trailhead / Moffat Tunnel. James Peak Wilderness (1.5 hours / 52 miles from Denver)
Total elevation gain: ~1500′, but half of that is on the Crater Lakes Trail.
Note that there’s also a different Crater Lake nearby in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
This is a very well marked trail. Just follow the trail to the second signed fork (labeled “Crater Lakes Trail”) or do what we do and follow the trail on Hiking Project’s phone app. After that, it’s about a mile to the two larger eastern lakes. It’s possible to hike and scramble your way up to the upper two lakes.
We didn’t see many camping spots near the more southern lake as the west and south sides are steep, and the north and east sides are very close to the trail. There’s more options around the northern lake. South keeps you fairly close to the trail. There were a few decent sites to the east and lots to the west and north sides. We settled at a spot on the west side and spent some time fishing. There’s supposed to be fairly large trout in these lakes.
A thunder and hail storm moved in while we were making dinner. We set up a small 6′ x 8′ tarp earlier just in case and that kept us mostly dry and safe from the hail. Somehow our tent stayed dry throughout the storm but we learned another new thing. Our site was resting at a very slight angle, which was enough to cause the water to splash back under the fly and onto (and a bit into) the tent’s mesh inner layer. A couple camped nearby wasn’t so lucky since they set up on a low patch and ended up with a flooded tent.
When you’re in the Colorado Rockies, you just can’t and shouldn’t trust the forecast.
What we learned:
- Site selection is pretty important in the backcountry. Our site was mostly flat but the slight hill next to it caused a lot of splash back. Some of our neighbors ended up with flooded tents.
- That $7, 1.2 lb tarp along with some paracord kept us dry in a half hour thunderstorm. We’re going to look into alternatives to bring that weight down but this was an invaluable piece of gear this trip. You can see in the photo below that we only tied to the four corners and didn’t rig up a ridge line. Next time we definitely will because the rain and hail was pooling on top of the tarp.
A few notes on the area:
- Rules for the wilderness area can be found here and here.
- There’s no fees at the trail head or permits for backcountry camping.
- This area doesn’t seem to get much backpacking traffic. On Saturday night (of Labor Day weekend) we only counted 6 other tents in the area and we couldn’t see anyone else from our site.