James Peak Wilderness, CO
Distance: 8.3 miles
Traveled: St. Mary’s Glacier Trailhead to James Peak Summit (13,294′)
“The foreground was now aflame with autumn colors, brown and purple and gold, ripe in the mellow sunshine; contrasting brightly with the deep, cobalt blue of the sky, and the black and gray, and pure, spiritual white of the rocks and glaciers.”
John Muir, Wilderness Essays
After a month of being away in California to hike the John Muir Trail, I was eager to return home to my husband, animals, and our home in Colorado. When I had left in the end of August to drive west, the air was just beginning to be touched with the crispness of fall in the high country, and in driving through the Rockies towards Utah I realized that when I returned a month later it was likely that the season would have changed. And I was correct. All of the bright green stands of aspen that I had passed at the end of August were now illuminated in yellows and oranges. Amber glowing forests flooding the high peaks and valleys. Fall in the Rockies was here.
I had only been home less than a week, but I was itching to get back on a trail and get some elevation. With my body still somewhat acclimated to the high elevation from my time in the southern Sierras, I wanted to test myself back on my home turf and see how my body felt now compared to before I left. With the first big winter snow threatening to hit the high country any day, I knew I needed to get a summit in and take advantage of the last remaining snow-free days of the year.
I had my eye on James Peak (13,294’) since in the beginning of summer and figured it was a good time to squeeze it in.
Though monsoon season was well over by now, and an early start wasn’t necessary, I still managed to get to the trailhead near sunrise. I parked at the St Mary’s Glacier Trailhead, and was happy to find that I was the only car there (which would change dramatically later).
The first .5 mile is horribly annoying hiking along a seemingly never maintained old dirt road with some of the worst rocky footing I have ever experienced. It was an ugly ankle-roller of a ‘trail’ for sure. Another case of my trekking poles being a lifesaver. There are a zillion random social trails branching off from the main road as well, which made for a confusing start of wrong-way turns.
The annoyance paid off though when the trail opened up to St. Mary’s Lake.
St. Mary’s Lake is a beautiful glassy alpine lake sitting right at the treeline, and at the base of St Mary’s Glacier.
The fall colors of the surrounding tundra were beautiful reflected in the lake.
I continued northeast up the trail toward the snowfield to the remains of the glacier.
From what I have read, St. Mary’s Glacier is actually no longer moving and has been downgraded to a permanent snowfield. This late in the year, there wasn’t much left of the ‘glacier’, but there was still plenty for the skiers and snowboarders to play on. The trail around the glacier was super difficult to keep track of, with again, social trails going in all directions and with loose footing and soil.
I stopped above the glacier to take some photos and a skier appeared hiking up the glacier for a few runs. Seemed like an awesome way to spend an early fall morning.
Other than the one lone skier I had the entire place to myself.
Above the glacier is nothing but wide-open tundra and beautiful views. The sky felt enormous.
The trail quickly disappeared. James Peak was obvious straight ahead, and I was able to easily navigate and find my way to the Continental Divide Trail.
After this point the trail grew much steeper and rocky heading up to the summit. The views to Mt Bancroft and Ice Lake and the Loch Lomond drainage were incredible.
The trudge up to the summit from this point wasn’t too bad – I could definitely feel the elevation, but overall I felt great. My body truly did feel much stronger compared to how I felt before I left for the JMT. I was definitely better acclimated.
The view from the 13,294′ summit was stunning.
James Peak sits on the Continental Divide, and the view along the Divide in both directions is incredible.
When I arrived on the summit a guy was up there taking photos, which left me a bit surprised, as I had seen no one else ahead of me on my hike. I talked to him for a bit, and it turned out he approached the summit from Winter Park, which is a much longer route.
I sat down for a snack and watched a cute little Pika scurrying between some nearby rocks.
The way down was easy and seemingly effortless (isn’t it always?).
The landscape viewed from this direction was one of my the most beautiful wide-open vistas I’ve ever experienced.
I passed a few people heading up the mountain, but overall, I still felt like I had the place to myself. ..that was until I reached the top of the glacier. There were suddenly people EVERYWHERE. Seriously everywhere. It was infested. There were about 20 skiers and snowboarders on the glacier, and too many hikers to count. I did my best to weave through them, walking as fast as could to just get out of the insanity.
The further down I went, the worse the crowd became. It was ridiculous. This isn’t nature. This isn’t “getting away from it all”. In fact, this is everything I’m trying to get away from when I come to places like this! I was extremely irritated by the time I made it to the old 4WD road. I was no longer hiking, instead just navigating through a crowd. I must have seen at least 200 people by the time I made it back to my car…and the parking lot? It was ridiculous. I had 5 cars full of people waiting to fight over my spot as I pulled out.
I couldn’t have gotten out of there any faster. I hate crowds in general, and I hate crowds even more when I’m in wild places. A crowd is pret
Overall, the James Peak Wilderness was stunning. I’m looking forward to coming back and doing the traverse to Mt Bancroft and getting a better view of Ice Lake next time…and getting to the trailhead even earlier to avoid getting stuck in the zoo on the way down.