Indian Peaks Wilderness
Lower Lake, 10,171 Feet
Rainbow Lakes Road from the Sourdough Trailhead (9,200
December 15th, 2007
9.8 Miles Roundtrip
The Rainbow Lakes are a chain of nine natural lakes and beaver ponds that are located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Nederland, CO. These shallow lakes are stocked with Rainbow, Cutthroat, and Brook Trout. In the summer, they can be accessed easily from the Rainbow Lakes Campground at about 10,000 feet. In the winter the Rainbow Lakes Rd. (Boulder County Road 116) is gated about 4.5 miles below the campground. Quite a bit of snow accumulates on the road, and the gentle grade is ideal for snowshoers and cross country skiers. To get to the winter closure gate, I drove through Nederland on Hwy. 72 and continued north for about 6.5 miles. I turned left (west) on CR 116 at the sign for the CU Mountain Research Station. After driving west for about half a mile, I pulled into the Sourdough Trailhead parking lot. The winter closure gate was about 0.25 miles farther down the road, but there is no place to park by the gate.
The spacious Sourdough Trailhead parking lot was absolutely empty. I noticed that the door to the outhouse was not entirely closed, and some snow had blown in overnight. The parking lot was slick from the previous night’s snow. It was probably about 10º F while I was gearing up. The weather forecast called for a high of 19º, 20 m.p.h. winds, 40 m.p.h. gusts, and wind chill down to –21º. At least the skies would be clear. I shoed up and headed up the Rainbow Lakes Road about a quarter mile to the winter closure gate.
Rainbow Lakes Road winter closure gate
The road was straight and level beyond the gate. The previous day’s snow was deep and powdery, which made forward progress a tedious proposition. I would have preferred a thick crust on top of the snow to keep me from breaking through. It was brutally cold, and it didn’t take me long to remember that I hadn’t put any toewarmers in my socks. My toes went numb at the 1.3 mile mark, and I stopped to take off my boots and warm my feet.
The lower part of the Rainbow Lakes Road. Note the blowing snow in the distance.
The trees blocked most of the wind, but the road was wide enough to channel the wind and cause deep drifts in some areas. Because I was in a forest, the views were somewhat limited. However, occasional openings in the trees gave me a view of 12,310-foot Caribou Peak. This rugged, windswept mountain looked like it would be fun to climb. Unfortunately, the summit is in a restricted travel zone in the City of Boulder Watershed. The high winds were ripping huge amounts of snow off of the mountaintop, and the airborne clouds of snow were immense.
Caribou Peak and Mount Albion (to the right in the distance) enveloped in clouds of spindrift
At about the two-mile mark, I noticed some movement to one side of the road. A small animal came bounding across the road in front of me, so I reached for my camera. I pulled off the lens cap, hit the power switch, and nothing happened. A “Replace Batteries” message flashed on the screen. It would have been a nice shot. I knew that it was some sort of weasel, so I did a little bit of Internet research when I got home. If it had been a long-tailed weasel, it would have had its white winter coat. An American marten would have been dark brown like this animal, but it would have had more prominent ears. My best guess is that it was a mink; mink do not change color in winter, and although they are scarce, they have been reported in Boulder County. All that I got was a shot of its tracks where it had hopped across the road.
Mink tracks on the road
It was the best of snow, it was the worst of snow. Drifts of deep powder, shallow wind-blown areas, and bare dirt where the wind had scoured the surface. In some areas, snowshoes would not have been necessary. I didn’t want to take my snowshoes off to walk a hundred yards on dirt, and then have to put them back on again when I got back on snow. I kept the snowshoes on and found ways to stay on snow. It didn’t look like anybody had been on the road in the past few days. In some places, the snow had blown away to reveal the packed tracks of skiers and hikers underneath. I noticed some odd tracks in the snow, but I couldn’t tell what they were. The tracks were not distinct in the powdery snow. When the tracks led to a wind-blown area, I could make out the shape of the print in the ice. They appeared to have been moose tracks; moose have been spotted near the Mountain Research Station. The marshy wetlands on the south side of the road were an ideal habitat for moose, with plenty of willows and aquatic vegetation to munch on. A bull moose is probably the last animal that I would want to encounter on a trail.
The only tracks on the road were moose tracks
The road passed through the City of Boulder Watershed for a short distance, and warnings were posted to keep people out of the restricted zone. Boulder Watershed signs usually kick my kidneys into overdrive, but with a wind chill factor of minus 21, I couldn’t take the risk of contributing to Boulder’s water supply. I took a glove off for a minute, and it probably took 20 minutes to regain the use of my fingers. I crossed North Boulder Creek, and shortly thereafter I came to the junction with Forest Service Rd. 505. FS 505 goes down to the ghost town of Caribou, and then from Caribou to Eldora. The section from Caribou to Eldora is the worst road that I have ever driven in my entire life. It’s a great workout for your 4WD.
Junction with Forest Service Road 505
Higher up on the trail, I came to an incredibly windy opening in the trees. Clouds of snow were billowing off of Caribou Peak. A massive cirque was barely visible on the southeast face of the mountain. I stuck to the snow in the ditch on the right side to spare my snowshoes from the rocks in the road.
Windblown section of the road
At the 4.3 mile mark, I arrived at the Rainbow Lakes Campground. It looked like a mighty fine place to camp; it was in an evergreen forest, with nice mountain views. There are 16 campsites, available on a first-come-first-served basis. There were a couple of outhouses, both of which were unlocked. Bring your own toilet paper, because rangers don’t hike through 4.3 miles of snow to stock the paper products in the middle of winter.
Rainbow Lakes Campground sign
There are two significant trailheads at the Rainbow Lakes Campground: the Rainbow Lakes Trail and the Glacier Rim Trail. The Rainbow Lakes Trail, of course, goes to the Rainbow Lakes. The trail gains about 250 feet over 0.8 miles. The Glacier Rim Trail goes to the north, then to the west. It barely misses the summit of Caribou Peak in the Forbidden Zone (Boulder Watershed). This trail gives hikers a nice view of the Arapaho Glacier, which is the southernmost glacier in North America. I just added this trail to my to-do list; the views are supposed to be incredible. The Glacier Rim Trailhead was at the end of a cul-de-sac at the far west end of the campground.
The Glacier Rim Trailhead
The Rainbow Lakes Trailhead was about 100 feet west of the Glacier Rim Trailhead. No trail was visible because of the deep snow. I relied on my GPS, map, and compass to get my bearings. The trail was narrow, but not terribly hard to follow through the trees.
Just past the trailhead, I entered the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Up to this point, I had been in the Roosevelt National Forest.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness sign
The trail narrowed, and got much steeper. Breaking trail through this deep powder was incredibly hard; I’d just take about 10 steps and stop to pant for a while. I thought about Colin breaking trail on Mt. Elbert last March and how much more difficult that must have been. It was tough, but I knew that I didn’t have far to go. The untracked snow looked incredible.
Upper part of the Rainbow Lakes Trail
The lower pond of the Rainbow Lakes appeared on the left (south) after about 0.3 miles. I headed down a talus slope to get to the shoreline. The wind was absolutely screaming, so I turned my back to the wind while I stored a waypoint and got my camera out.
Caribou Peak rising beyond the lowest of the Rainbow Lakes. Although my zoom lens was frozen, the image is in perfect focus; the snow blowing off of the mountain made everything look hazy.
There were more lakes further down the trail, but I had reached my destination. My toewarmers were not keeping pace with the wind chill factor, and my feet felt like blocks of wood. I was a little bit concerned about being able to make it back with all of my appendages, so I hit the trail and hit it hard.
Following my tracks back down to the trailhead
At the North Boulder Creek Bridge, I had three miles to go. My toes were cold, but not quite frozen. The wind had picked up, and had blown away most of the powdery recent snow while I was higher up on the trail. This left the more consolidated older snow, which made for easier hiking. As my speed increased, my toes warmed up. The remainder of the hike was much more enjoyable.
Bridge over North Boulder Creek
As I got closer to the gate, I noticed some tracks in the snow. The upper layer of snow had blown away, revealing tracks that had been left in the lower layer; I couldn’t tell which ones were fresh and which ones were old. It appeared that some people had gone for short hikes, but hadn’t ventured far from the trailhead. I made it from trailhead to trailhead without seeing another human being. That kind of solitude makes for an exceptional hike, in my opinion. I was relieved when I got to the gate, because a 9.8 mile hike on snowshoes pushes the boundaries of my fitness level.
The Sourdough Trailhead
The road below the gate had been plowed, so I took off my snowshoes for the last quarter mile to the Sourdough Trailhead. There were only six or seven cars in the parking lot. I might have to come back this way for future hikes; it was not nearly as crowded as the trails at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. This was an exceptional snowshoe hike, in spite of the frigid weather.