Backpacking Indian Peaks Wilderness was an unexpected highlight of my summer and I’m so excited to share about it. I had never heard of Indian Peaks Wilderness before Joey and I started researching for a last minute trip to Colorado. While I was tempted to opt for the more popular hiking destinations like Maroon Bells or Rocky Mountain National Park, I’m happy we decided on backpacking Indian Peaks Wilderness – it was beautiful and peaceful and just what we needed.
Looking for more Colorado Content? Make sure to check out my guide to Denver & Rocky Mountain National Park here or check out Colorado Springs!
Indian Peaks Wilderness has everything you could want for an outdoor adventure – towering peaks over gorgeous lakes, waterfalls, wildlife, valleys, wildflowers – it’s a hidden gem just a few hours drive from Denver. Just south of Rocky Mountain National Park, Indian Peaks encompasses part of the continental divide so you get all of those Rocky Mountain views without the crowds.
The front country campgrounds have amenities like bathrooms and showers and, if you’re at Monarch lake Campground (where we started our trip) you can go kayaking or stand up paddle boarding. The backcountry campsites are primitive and private, perfect for hammocking and relaxing or pushing yourself to cover more ground and maybe summit a peak or two.
The best part? Indian Peaks Wilderness has 3-day advance permits that allow for last minute travelers to snag a permit. I’ll cover the permitting later in this post.
We did Crater Lake backcountry camping by starting at the Monarch Lake trailhead. Crater Lake (and adjacent Mirror Lake) is one of the more popular spots in Indian Peaks Wilderness and after visiting, I can see why. Lone Eagle Peak is well known in Colorado for its towering pointed peak and the natural surroundings – it’s a beautiful peak and reflects off of Mirror Lake perfectly.
You can technically access Lone Eagle Peak and Mirror Lake a few different ways depending on how long you want to hike for. The easiest (and probably most popular) access point is Monarch Lake trailhead. For a longer, more difficult trek you can start at Brainard Lake/Pawnee Campground to Pawnee Pass and continue on to Crater Lake. I highlighted more details on this option below.
It’s about a 3 hour drive from Denver International Airport to Monarch Lake Trailhead and about 1 hour 40 minutes to the Brainard Lake trailhead. Deciding between the two trailheads should depend on what kind of hike and elevation gain you want and if you can get a permitted parking spot at Brainard. Check out recreation.gov for permitting or check out park information and contact the park office here.
Have time and want to explore more of Colorado? Stop at Winter Park for downhill mountain biking or check out nearby mountain town of Boulder (all the details on things to do in Boulder can be found here).
Permits are required June 1st through September 15th. One of the main reasons we decided on Indian Peaks Wilderness is because it had the option for 3-day in advance booking for backcountry camping permits. This means that 25% of the slots will open up 3 days prior to the reservation date. We were able to snag a Crater Lake permit the Wednesday before our Saturday backpacking trip. Booking consecutive nights will give you more flexibility on camping spots so keep that in mind if you plan to do a multi-night trip.
Crater Lake has 12 designated campsites which makes it a more difficult permit to get. The campsites are all pretty great but number 12 was the best in my opinion; it was the most secluded and had an unobstructed view of the Lone Eagle Peak. #12 was already occupied by the time we arrive at Crater Lake so we took campsite #11 which was also great – private, protected from wind, and had an excellent hammock spot, too.
If you’re unable to snag Crater Lake permits, the greater Cascade Creek zone has more options and can offer some more privacy as well. Check out a map of the permit zones here.
Need to Know: Monarch Lake is a popular trailhead so make sure to arrive early for parking!
After parking, make sure to stop at the trailhead to self-register. There are also vault bathrooms if needed. Once on the trail, you’ll hike past Monarch Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife here – we saw a moose in the marsh and crossing over into the grass!
It’s about 7-8 miles before reaching Crater Lake so if you get an early start you’ll have the whole day to take your time and stop at the many waterfalls along the trail. There are also some creek crossings (all with foot bridges) and nice shaded spots to pull off for lunch.
Once you arrive at Crater Lake, setup camp at one of the campsites and take some time for exploring around the lake (if you have the energy). We ventured to the other side of the lake for a different view and noticed two more moose on the far side. One was a bull moose and one looked pretty young. It’s always fun to see wildlife (from a safe distance of course).
Wildlife Safety Tip: keep at least 25 yards distance from a moose. They can scare easily and will charge.
Indian Peaks Wilderness is expansive covering over 75,000 acres so you can imagine how many different route options there are for exploring. Check out the alternative routes outlined below if you’d like a longer route suggestion than the Monarch Lake to Crater Lake route I already covered.
This is a more difficult, longer loop hike that would require some pre-planning since the starting point is at Brainard Lake which requires a timed entry ticket (unless you’re willing to park further away and make the hike longer). Starting at Brainard Lake, you can follow the trail to Pawnee Pass (about 6 miles). Enjoy the high elevation at 12,541 feet before heading back down and camping in Cascade Creek. The next day, continue on to Buchanan Pass where you can camp in Buchanan or Coney Creek depending on how much ground you want to cover. Final day finish off Buchanan Pass and head back to the car.
Planning a trip to backpack in Indian Peaks Wilderness? Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll try my best to answer them!