6/29/18 - James Peak and St. Mary's Glacier
"Redford - (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)" by Sufjan Stevens
The hike to the top of James Peak's 13,294' summit is one to remember. There are several ways to reach the summit, which borders the edges of the Clear Creek Ranger District, Sulphur Ranger District, and the James Peak Wilderness Area. I followed the ProTrails guide for my trek to the top.
The following write up is in no way an exhaustive guide, nor a professional's advice on venturing into the backcountry. Know your limits, tell someone where and when you will be hiking, and only take on challenges which you can safely handle.
Before diving into the route, the following is some basic introductory information you'll need to know before setting out.
- Round-Trip Length: 8.3 miles (may vary slightly by individual route)
- Start-End Elevation: 10,428' - 13,294' (13,294' max elevation)
- Elevation Change: +2,866' net elevation gain (+3,064' total roundtrip elevation gain)
- Skill Level: Moderate-Strenuous
- Dogs Allowed: Yes
- Bikes Allowed: No
- Horses Allowed: No
- Related Trails: Grays Peak and Torreys Peak, Mt Bierstadt, Mt Evans
- The majority of the trail passes through open tundra; carry layers, anticipate changing weather, strong sun, and chilling winds.
- Check with local ranger district offices before setting out into the backcountry. (Clear Creek Ranger District - 303.567.3000)
The following description has been adapted from an initial write up by the team at ProTrails which you can read here. Check out their site for high-quality trail and route information including detailed GPS coordinates and important rules and regulations related to the area you're exploring.
This trail begins at the St Mary's Glacier Trailhead and continues to follow an unofficial, but well-defined route to the Continental Divide Trail, which continues on to the final summit. The trailhead begins in the photo above, on the left side of Fall River Road, SR 275. The trailhead is located at N39 49.622 W105 38.606.
You will need to arrive early, especially on weekends, to secure a parking spot at one of the two parking lots. Both are on the left side of SR 275, with one before the trailhead, and the other following the trailhead. Both require a $5.00 parking hang tag, payable by cash-only, and both have portable toilets.
After parking you will begin your hike up a wide, rocky forest road with a multitude of criss crossing "desire paths" from the high volume of weekend visitors that hike the short distance to St Mary's Glacier. Keep left of all outshoots along this road and within clearly drawn and signed private property lines on each side of the trail.
Depending on whether you were able to follow the main path to St Mary's Lake, or were swayed by one of the "desire paths," will determine where you come out of the forest from, to get your first look at St Mary's Lake. Eventually, you'll want to be on the northeastern shore where a man-made bridge will mark your heading towards the base of the glacier. The lake is 0.45 miles into the hike, and at an elevation of 10,738'.
At the base of the glacier (0.75 miles: 10,848') you will begin hiking along the north, or right, side of the glacier. The south side of the glacier is much too steep to begin climbing on. As you make your way up you will either see a faintly defined path on the rock and soil, or have to walk directly on the glacier, depending on the time of year.
You can choose to make a small detour across to the opposite, south (left), side of the glacier to get an amazing view from up above St Mary's Lake. This should only add about a 0.50 miles to your total trip, and is surely worth it.
The detour across the glacier and up above the lake will bring you some spectacular views for the short distance it takes to get there. Some may even chose to end their hikes here, as the short distance from trailhead to glacier provides varied scenery, flora, and a decent challange for those still getting used to high altitude hiking.
After a few minutes admiring the horizon, head back the way you came and continue along the south, left, side of the glacier. And again, depending on the desire paths and the snow pack you may find it easier to walk on the left side, right side, or directly on the glacier; all are sound options at this point.
Either way you end up on, you will want to follow the glacier up the gulch as it narrows towards the top. At this point, 1.10 miles in and at 11,236' in elevation, you will get your first glimpses of James Peak.
Travel continues along an open flat on a westerly heading towards James Peak. You will continue this direction until you cross a Jeep-ATV road at 2.0 miles in and 11,641'. Here the trail disappears briefly, but you can see numerous trail markers roughly 75 yards ahead. Find a safe route to these markers and continue west along on a well-cut path. Once on this path it moves quickly to the base of James Peak where it soon bends south and steepens up its' east face. (2.5 miles : 11,818')
The trail then merges at a cairn. This otherwise unmarked point is a junction with the Continental Divide Trail (2.8 miles : 12,020'). This is a crucial marker to remember for the return trek, especially in inclement weather and low visibility.
The trail becomes much rockier and continually climbs steeper as it winds back and forth towards the summit. Beware of the two initial false summits on the final approach. There are some amazing views down the chasm between Mount Bancroft (13,250') and James Peak. Here, overlooking the chasm, marks the 3.0 mile marker and 12,195' in elevation.
After the final push past the two previously mentioned false summits you will have made it to the large, flat, and easy to explore, summit of James Peak! Having trekked roughly 4.15 miles and climbed to 13,295' you'll now have views down Loch Lomond, Manmoth Gulch, and out over the vast tundra flat that took you to the peak.
There are several rock-wind shelters on the peak and plenty of marmots waiting to take your well-deserved lunch away. Be sure to monitor for afternoon thunderstorms and take into account the high elevation as well as the 4.15 mile hike back to the parking lot.
For additional GPS coordinates, a full trail map, trip reports, and community comments, see the full write up on Protrails, of which this was crafted from. They have a multitude of hiking guides and they are neatly organized by geographical area, which is super convienent!
Additional photos from my personal hike to James Peak can be seen below. Click through the image to see their full size and resolution. Also, feel free to comment below what you thought about the write up, as this is something I would like to continue doing in the future! West Spanish Peak near La Veta, CO may very well be next!
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