Four Classic High Mountain Trail Runs Outside of Boulder

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Summer is prime trail running season in the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The snow has mostly melted from the high peaks, the lakes are full, the air is crisp and cool, and the wildflowers are in full bloom. To some extent, there is no better place to run than in the Colorado Rocky Mountains during the months of June, July, August, and even into September when the colors change and the aspen are in peak colors. Boulder is blessed with direct access to several high mountain trailheads all within a short 30-60 minute drive.

On any given day during the summer months elite athletes and regular runners test their legs, lungs, and mental toughness by challenging themselves to one of these spectacular runs. Despite the thin air, the rocky trails, and the quick drive, nothing beats running through a sea of mountain wildflowers or dipping your feet into a cold mountain stream after a fun time on the trails.

Below are four of the more classic mountain trail runs located within a short 30 minute to one hour drive from Boulder. After you explore these four trails, there are plenty of other options to run – these will introduce you to just a few of the many high mountain trail options found just outside Boulder.

Lumpy Ridge Loop

The loop around Lumpy Ridge is a local favorite, especially in the spring and fall as it sits a bit lower in elevation and melts out faster than the surrounding peaks. Encompassing two solid climbs, a bunch of single track, and spectacular views of Longs Peak, as well as interesting rock formations and a secluded alpine lake, this loop run has it all.

  • Time: 1½ – 3 hours
  • Distance: 10.8 miles (round trip)
  • Start and End Elevation: 7,850 feet (Lumpy Ridge trailhead)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2,678 feet
  • Effort Level: Strenuous
  • Possible Workout Type: Tempo run, rolling hills
  • Best Time to Run: Summer and Fall; snow may be present in the Winter and Spring
  • Support or Water Points: None
  • Runability: 100%
  • Type of Run: Loop
  • Parking: Free
  • Nearest Landmark: Town of Estes Park
  • Rules and Regulations: Dogs are not allowed

More Information: Visit the Rocky Mountain National Park website.

The Lumpy Ridge trailhead is located just outside of downtown Estes Park, right on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. From downtown Estes Park, turn north onto MacGregor Avenue and follow it past the junction with U.S. Highway 34. Continue on MacGregor Avenue as it turns and becomes Devils Gulch Road. Shortly after, the turnoff to the trailhead will be on the left (north) side; the parking area is a few hundred yards up the road. There are signs directing you to the trailhead.

Trail Description
The Lumpy Ridge loop run is a local favorite, and for good reason. With ample single track travelling through large open grasslands as well as dense forests, this loop contains two big climbs, a beautiful alpine lake, and numerous rock formations to keep you interested. The loop can be run either clockwise or counter clockwise; the clockwise direction is described here. From the parking area, begin by running on the Lumpy Ridge trail as it heads north and west over a small rise before rolling through some large granite boulders. After 0.6 miles, the Lumpy Ridge trail meets up with the Needles trail. Turn left (west) onto the Needles trail and follow it as it passes by some National Park Service buildings before gently descending and entering an expansive meadow where it is not uncommon to see elk and other wildlife. The trail continues through this meadow on sandy single track as it curves around the southwestern edge of Lumpy Ridge. After another 1.5 miles, the trail leaves the meadow and enters the ponderosa forest as it begins the first major climb (Mile 2.1). Although the trail never seems to be too steep, and there are no switchbacks, the climb is a bit steeper and longer than one thinks because it is tucked into the forest and you don’t see how high you are climbing until reaching the junction with the Cow Creek trail (Mile 3.9). This is the high point of the run, although there is another climb still to come. From the junction of the Needles and Cow Creek trails, turn right (east) onto the Cow Creek trail and enjoy the superb single track as you descend down through the forest and into another large meadow on the backside of Lumpy Ridge. At mile 5.5 you will pass the Bridal Veil Falls trail junction on your left (north). Continue on the Cow Creek trail as it parallels Cow Creek before turning onto the Gem Lake trail at mile 6.3. The Gem Lake trail heads southeast as it crosses Cow Creek and begins the second major climb of the loop. After climbing for 1.3 miles, the Gem Lake trail meets up with the Balanced Rock trail (Mile 7.9); continue on the Gem Lake trail as it initially descends and then climbs again before passing by some large rock formations. Shortly after, the trail reaches the namesake Gem Lake (Mile 9.1), which is tucked into the granite rocks and offers a nice place to soak one’s feet and enjoy the location. From Gem Lake, continue on the Gem Lake trail as it rapidly descends back down through more rock formations towards the parking area. At mile 10.25, turn off of the Gem Lake trail and back onto the Lumpy Ridge trail, as it takes you the final bit back to the parking area.

Mount Audubon Climb

Running up Mount Audubon (13,221 feet) is a common right of passage for many local trail runners, as the peak provides a solid challenge as well as spectacular views of the surrounding mountains in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. Unlike other peaks in the Wilderness, Mount Audubon is characterized by broad slopes and ridges, providing large expanses of alpine tundra and wildflowers to enjoy and run through.

  • Time: 1½ – 3 hours
  • Distance: 8 miles (round trip)
  • Start and End Elevation: 10,500 feet (Mitchell Lake trailhead)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 2,760 feet
  • Parking: $10 for a day pass

More Information: Visit the U.S. Forest Service website.

The Mitchell Lake trailhead is located within the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which in turn provides access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. From the town of Nederland, follow Colorado Highway 72 to the small town of Ward. Upon reaching the town of Ward, turn left (west) onto the Brainard Lake Road and follow it for 2.5 miles to the Recreation Area entrance. Continue past the entrance for another two miles until reaching Brainard Lake. Follow the road around Brainard Lake and turn right (north) onto the road leading to the Mitchell Lake trailhead. The Mount Audubon trail starts from the north end of the large parking area, and share the first few miles with the Beaver Creek trail. The Brainard Lake Recreation Area is extremely popular, plan on arriving very early to find parking.

Trail Description
The Indian Peaks Wilderness Area encompasses some of the most dramatic peaks along the Front Range, providing many challenging routes for hikers and mountaineers. However, Mount Audubon, which sits just east of the Continental Divide, is unique among the peaks in that it’s broad, gentle eastern slopes provide perfect access for runners wishing to test their climbing legs. Starting from the parking area, begin by running on the Mount Audubon/Beaver Creek trail as it weaves through cool, dense forest growth. After 0.8 miles the trail begins a steep climb up a couple switchbacks as you climb up onto the broad eastern slopes of Mount Aubudon. Continue as the trail leaves the forest and enters the high alpine tundra, passing through a few sections of alpine willows before reaching the expansive eastern slopes. At mile 1.7 the Beaver Creek trail branches off and continues north; turn west (left) and begin the long, gentle climb up Mount Audubon’s eastern slope. From here you can see the summit as the trail winds along through rocky talus terrain via a series of broad switchbacks up to a saddle between Mount Audubon to the west and a small peak known locally as Notabon (Mile 3.6). From this saddle, the final climb up to the summit of Mount Audubon is only a short 0.5 miles away over a good, but steep trail through large talus blocks. From the summit (Mile 4), enjoy the spectacular views in all directions, including to the north with excellent views of Longs Peak and beyond. Once you area ready, turn around the follow your route back down.

High Lonesome Loop

The High Lonesome loop is a classic Colorado mountain run, offering spectacular views along the Continental Divide, abundant wildflowers, and cool mountain streams and tarns to soak your feet in after the run. A popular classic run, expect to encounter other runners or hikers doing the loop on any given day during the summer.

  • Time: 2½ – 4 hours
  • Distance: 15.3 miles (round trip)
  • Start and End Elevation: 8,950 feet (Hessie trailhead)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 3,408 feet
  • Parking: Free
  • Nearest Landmark: Town of Nederland
  • Rules and Regulations: Dogs must be on leash at all times

More Information: Visit the U.S. Forest Service website.

The Hessie trailhead is located just outside of the old mining town of Eldora. From Nederland, head south on Colorado Highway 119 for 0.6 miles. Turn west onto County Road 130 at the sign for the Eldora Ski Area, and follow the road through the valley, past the turnoff to the ski area on the left (Mile 1.9), until reaching the town of Eldora. Continue on CR 130 through the town of Eldora until it turns to dirt, continue on the road for another 0.8 miles until reaching a small parking area and a split in the road. The official Hessie trailhead is locate down the left fork but most people park at the fork.

Trail Description
This is one of the classic Colorado mountain runs, located only 45 minutes from Boulder. Although popular with runners and hikers, it is possible to have the entire loop to oneself if running early or late in the day. The loop can be run either clockwise or counterclockwise; the clockwise direction is described here. From the parking area, take the trail that parallels the left fork of CR 130 as it winds into the woods and around some beaver ponds before dropping you back out onto CR 130 in a large meadow. This is the actual historic site of the old Hessie mining town. Continue on the road for a short bit until reaching a bridge crossing the North Fork of Middle Boulder Creek (Mile 0.46). This is the start of the actual loop, and those runners timing their run start and stop their watches from the bridge. After crossing the bridge, the run continues up the old mining road as it quickly climbs up onto a small shelf over some rocky terrain before entering a shaded forest grove. Shortly after, the trail passes the Devil’s Bypass junction on the right (Mile 1.23) before crossing the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek (Mile 1.3). Continue climbing as the trail rapidly ascends along the banks of the creek before leveling out and passing the Lost Lake trail junction (Mile 1.45). The run continues on the King Lake trail as it crosses over Lost creek before entering a large alpine meadow often filled with wildflowers. Cross over the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek once again and continue on the King Lake trail as it gently climbs over rocky terrain through dense forest growth. The trail continues to gently climb towards the Continental Divide and King Lake for the next 3 miles before reaching a series of switchbacks that steeply climb up to tree line. At mile 5.7 the loop passes by the edge of King Lake, a beautiful alpine tarn before making the final grunt of a climb to the top (Mile 6). At this point, you are on the Continental Divide, and the views west into the Fraser Valley and beyond are well worth the effort. From the top, turn right (north) and follow the High Lonesome trail as it winds along the Divide towards Devil’s Thumb Pass and the trail that will take you back down. At mile 8.3 the Devil’s Thumb trail splits from the High Lonesome trail, turning back east and dropping down steeply towards Devil’s Thumb Lake. This section of the trail often provides the most spectacular wildflowers around, as it passes through alpine willows and small meadows past Devil’s Thumb Lake and Jasper Lake. At Jasper Lake the trail crosses Jasper Creek (Mile 10.5) before once again turning onto an old mining road covered in small cobbles and boulders. Continue running down the trail through alternating sections of shaded forest and open meadows before reaching a very large meadow (Mile 13). Run through the meadow on beautiful single track before descending down a steep section and meeting up with the old mining road that you ran in on (Mile 14). Continue back down the rocky old road, across the bridge over the North Fork of Middle Boulder Creek to the start.

Heart Lake and James Peak

The run up to the alpine tarn of Heart Lake and beyond to James Peak takes one deep into the James Peak Wilderness Area, offering spectacular wildflowers, expansive views, and a 13,294 foot summit. When other areas feel crowded, this run always seems a bit more secluded, especially when one reaches Heart Lake and makes the climb up to the Continental Divide.

  • Time: 3 – 5 hours
  • Distance: 13.8 miles (round trip)
  • Start and End Elevation: 9,200 feet (East Portal trailhead)
  • Total Elevation Gain: 4,426 feet
  • Parking: Free
  • Nearest Landmark: Town of Rollinsville
  • Rules and Regulations: Dogs must be on leash at all times

More Information: Visit the U.S. Forest Service website.

The East Portal trailhead is located at the entrance to the Moffat Tunnel, used by trains to pass underneath the Continental Divide. From Nederland, travel south for 4.5 miles on Colorado Highway 119 to the small town of Rollinsville. Turn right (west) onto the gravel Gilpin County Road 16 and follow it for eight miles through the old mining town of Tolland to the Moffat Tunnel. A large parking area is available just outside of the tunnel property. The trailhead is located on the northwest side of the parking area.

Trail Description
This out-and-back takes runners deep into the James Peak Wilderness, passing along rushing alpine streams, cool tarns, and fields of wildflowers. Beginning and ending at the Moffat Tunnel, the run starts of easily but quickly gains in grade and altitude before reaching the Continental Divide and the top of James Peak (13,294 feet). From the large parking area just outside of the Moffat Tunnel, the run starts by going up and around the tunnel complex on the northwest side before dropping back down and running along the rushing South Boulder Creek (Mile 0.4). After a brief mile of shaded forest, the trail enters a small meadow, passing the trail junction with the Crater Lakes trail on the right (Mile 1.1). From here the trail once again enters the forest, passing through dense growths laden with Spanish moss. The trail continues to climb, sometimes over smooth ground while other times over small cobbles along the edge of South Boulder Creek before making a final steep climb at tree line (Mile 3.7). From here, there is a brief respite as the trail mellows out and hugs the edge of the Rogers Peak Lake. On the far side of the lake, the trail climbs up a small, steep rise to a shoulder, offering expansive views to the east and down to Heart Lake (Mile 4.8). From the top of the shoulder, the trail turns left (west) and climbs via a series of very steep switchbacks up and onto the Continental Divide at Rogers Pass (11,900 feet). From here, you can choose to either turn around, or continue to the south on the trail that hugs the ridgeline and climbs up the broad north face of James Peak (13,294 feet). The trail from Rogers Pass to the top of James Peak takes runners along the Continental Divide, passing by several rocky towers and providing excellent views down into the Jim Creek valley and across to the Winter Park and Mary Jane ski area. After running south just below the crest of the Continental Divide on a good, but rocky trail, the trail crosses back over the Divide and onto the broad north face of James Peak (Mile 6.3). From here, the trail begins to at first slowly, and then every more quickly, climb up the north face of James Peak, first on the west side and then eventually on the east side. Near the end of the big climb up the face, the trail goes right by the edge of James Peak’s dramatic east face (Mile 6.9), providing a jaw dropping view down into the valley and beyond. Continue up the final bit to the summit of James Peak, enjoying the well-earned views in all directions before turning around the following the same route back down to the start.

The Best Front Range Trail Runs by Peter N. Jones

These runs and trail descriptions were adapted from the book The Best Front Range Trail Runs (CMC Press 2014), by Peter Jones, which contains 50 trail runs along the Front Range of Colorado. The book can be purchased at Trident Book Sellers or on the Colorado Mountain Club website.

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