Backpack to Caribou Lake

8.2 miles  - Out-and-Back Trail

Added by Alison Peck

This 8.2 mile backpacking trip offers panoramic vistas, wildlife, and great fishing. You have the option to to park a shuttle car at the Meadow Creek Reservoir.

This is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever done in Colorado. It is a great trip for photographers, fisherman or anyone who enjoys mountain views, forests filled with wildlife and peaceful meadows.


Arapaho Pass: 3.2 miles, Caribou Lake: 4.2 miles, Caribou Pass: 6.4 miles, Meadow Creek Reservoir: 10.7 miles

Caribou Lake can be accessed from the Fourth of July Trailhead which is located west of Nederland in Boulder County. The trailhead is accessed by five miles of moderate dirt road. While the road is narrow and steep in places, a carefully driven passenger car should have no trouble making it all the way to the parking area. But beware, legend has it that the area acquired its name because the road is impassible due to mud before July 4th. In reality, it's named for the Fourth of July Mine located on a scenic bench about two miles up the trail. This doesn't mean that the legend is without merit!

Getting there:

Starting from Nederland, head south on CO 119 (the Peak to Peak highway) for about a quarter mile. Immediately before a sharp, left-hand turn, bear right and follow the signs for Eldora Ski Resort. After a mile or two, the road forks again with one branch heading left toward the ski area. Continue straight until you arrive in the small village of Eldora. Continue northwest as the road turns to dirt. After one mile, pass a large sign and a turn-off on the left for the popular Hessie Trailhead. (This trailhead is only accessible by high-clearance vehicles and particularly daring vehicles, so there are usually a large number of cars parked along the side of the road.) Keep right and continue another four miles to the end of the road. The parking areas will accommodate perhaps two dozen cars. This is a popular area in the summer and fall. Get there early to ensure yourself a parking spot. In the winter, the road is closed at the western side of Eldora (the town) and getting to Fourth of July becomes a major expedition.

The Hike:

Beginning at the Fourth of July Trailhead, the Arapaho Pass Trail starts at 10,160 feet in elevation and climbs through a conifer forest, then opens up to a meadow (full of wildflowers in July). After passing a few creeks and then a large drainage from the Middle Boulder Creek, you will see a signpost at 1.2 miles for Diamond Lake or Arapaho Pass Trail. Take a right and stay on the Arapaho Pass Trail.

After a steady climb, the trail flattens and joins the Arapaho Glacier Trail at 2.0 miles, stay on the Arapaho Pass Trail to your left and pass the historic Fourth of July Mine. Continue north on the Arapaho Pass Trail. This is a steady ascent across a rocky slope above treeline. At 3.2 miles, you will reach the top of Arapaho Pass which sits at 11,906 feet.

Enjoy views of Mount Neva to your left and Caribou Lake below. To get to Caribou Lake, head north (right) on the Arapaho Pass Trail. The trail drops 750 feet down a series of switchbacks and at 4.2 miles reaches the lake. The basin has many creeks, small lakes and great fishing at Caribou Lake as well as camping spots. A camping permit is required from June 1st through September 15th (for more info, contact the Sulphur Ranger District at 970-887-4100).

Find a nice spot to set up camp and relax! String up a hammock, sit around a campfire, or fish and watch sunset at the lake. Keep your eyes out for moose, as they trek daily between the lake and the forest. In July, wildflowers in the basin are in full bloom.

After you've had your fill at the lake, you can hike back out the way you came, or if you plan ahead, you can continue on out to either Monarch Lake (another 9 miles down the Arapaho Pass Trail) or Meadow Creek Reservoir. These options require a car parked at the ending trailhead, or having a nice friend to pick you up. If you choose to return to the Fourth of July Trailhead or continue on to Meadow Creek Reservior, be prepared for the rigorous 1 mile trek up the switchbacks 750 feet to the top of Arapaho Pass.

On my adventure, I continued on to Meadow Creek Reservoir. After making the ascent to the top of Arapaho Pass, instead of turning east (left) to continue on Arapaho Pass Trail, you will continue straight ahead onto Caribou Pass Trail. This trail winds along a rocky ridge next to Lake Dorothy (the highest named lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and worth a stop at) to Caribou Pass. The views along this trail are stunning. Bur the trail is narrow and the drop-offs are extreme, so take care when hiking across this stretch. Once you continue on the trail over the Continental Divide, you will start a fairly steep decent. At 2.6 miles from the top of the pass, you will reach a junction with Columbine Lake Trail. The last 1.7 miles to the end of this hike at the Junco Lake Trailhead is a flat, easy walk that parallels Meadow creek. You will pass through meadows (filled with wildflowers in the summer) and dense forest. If you look off to the left of the trail about a mile from the Junco Lake Trailhead, you will see the remains of some old cabins. Enjoy a lunch or snack at Meadow Creek Reservoir before hopping in the car to return home.

Directions to the end point at Junco Lake Trailhead:

From Granby, travel southeast on Highway 40 approximately 14 miles to County Road 84. Travel northeast for 6 miles to Forest Road 129, then east 6 miles to the Junco Lake Trailhead.

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no fires

You definitely can't have fires at Caribou Lake. Check the regulations next time.

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