Indian Peaks Wilderness

Located in the Arapaho and the Roosevelt National Forests in Colorado, the Indian Peaks Wilderness was added to the National Wilderness Preservation System by Congress in 1978. The name was selected because many of the peaks within the wilderness are named for Native American tribes of the west. This wilderness area covers nearly 75,000 acres, following the Continental Divide south for nearly 16 miles, with the Rocky Mountain National Park as its northern border.

Indian Peaks contains vast areas of alpine tundra, numerous cirque basins with remnant glaciers, and nearly 50 lakes. Streams in the wilderness include Middle and South St. Vrain, Boulder, Buchanan, Cascade, and Arapaho Creeks. Elevations range from 8,400 to over 13,000 feet. The underlying rock of the Indian Peaks area is 80 to 90 percent Precambrian biotite gneiss formed approximately 1800 million years ago. The area has since been reshaped by at least six glacial sequences dating back 15,000 years.

Within Indian Peaks lie Ogallala Peak (13,333 feet), Paiute Peak (13,083 feet), Pawnee Peak (12,939 feet), Shoshoni Peak (12,962 feet), Apache Peak (13,438 feet), Navajo Peak (13,405 feet), Arikaree Peak (13,146 feet), Arapahoe Peak (13,392 feet), and Niwot Ridge. There are four trail passes—Devil's Thumb (11,747 feet), Arapahoe (11,906 feet), Pawnee (12,541 feet), and Buchanan (11,837 feet). These passes allow access to some of the most spectacular vistas in the United States. For more hikes in and near Indian Peaks, see "Hiking Brainard Lake." Brainard Lake is the hub for many trails into the Wilderness.

Wildlife include elk, mule deer, mountain lion, black bear, bobcat, ptarmigan, and snowshoe rabbit.Streams are inhabited by native cutthroat trout and introduced rainbow, brook, and brown trout.

Paleo Indians may have first appeared some 5,000 years after the last glacial pass; the area was an important transmountain travel route up to early historic times. Stone tools, pottery, and campsites have been carbon-dated to verify the presence of prehistoric humans. Before the arrival of the pioneers, the area was occupied during the summer months by the Arapahoe Indians. Game drive structures are still visible. These structures consist of low rock walls, cairn lines, and circular shelters used to drive and ambush animals.

In the 1870s pioneers arrived to open up great veins of gold and silver. A characteristic mine in the Indian Peaks was the Fourth of July Mine near Arapahoe Pass. In 1904, a road was started up Arapahoe Pass only to end at the Continental Divide. A horse-drawn whim, used for raising ore, lies along this road at the site of the Fourth of July shaft house. The high hopes for great wealth soon vanished along with the gold and silver, and the mine was abandoned.

Roger Toll, superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park from 1921 to 1929, tried to no avail to get the Indian Peaks annexed to the Park. In 1971 bills were introduced in Congress for the Indian Peaks to become a wilderness area. Finally in 1978 the area was designated the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area.

Climatic Zones and Wildlife
Indian Peaks' climatic zones vary—montane at 9,000 feet, subalpine from 9,000 to 11,500 feet, and alpine above 11,500 feet. Timberline is approximately 11,500 feet. Each climatic zone supports a distinct association of plants and animals.

In the montane zone are the willow carrs, quite often found in ponds created by beaver. These carrs are not only home for the beaver, but they create breeding sites for great numbers of birds. Some of the more common of these are the American robin, Wilson's warbler, the broad-tailed hummingbird, and the warbling vireo. Mule deer may also be seen browsing on the plant life. Hiding in the willows are cottontail and perhaps snowshoe rabbits. Lodgepole pine and aspen may form a border around the edges of the carrs. Indian paintbrush, Colorado columbine, and shooting stars are common wildflowers in this zone.

The subalpine zone has Engelmann spruce trees, and since this area receives the heaviest snowfall, snow remains until early summer. Bear may be seen eating the fruit of small bushes or digging in a rotting tree for grubs. Elk graze in the open meadows in early morning and late evening. Monkshood, glacier lilies, and daisies are the abundant wildflowers in this zone. The white-crowned sparrow sings in the spruce and the dark-eyed junco scurries through the underbrush.

The alpine zone is a very fragile ecosystem due to the severe cold, strong winds, and short growing season. Dwarf willow and spruce (krummholz) lie prostrate to the ground, struggling for survival. As the snow recedes, flowers quickly pop up with their short stems and bright colon, for their time is short. Fairy primrose, moss campion and white marsh marigold bloom here. An interesting little animal usually found on the rocky talus slopes is the pika. It looks something like a guinea pig. It cuts grass in the summer and forms it into little haystacks on the rocks for drying, and later stores it for winter. The pika has a high-pitched whistling call as it warms itself in the strong alpine sunlight. In the krummholz a white-tailed ptarmigan might be feeding. Its plumage is white in winter and brown in summer, the only bird to change with the seasons. On rare occasions a golden eagle may soar over the alpine tundra, possibly looking for a pika or mouse.

Some Do's and Don'ts
It took nature thousands of years to create the Indian Peaks. A careless person can destroy it in seconds. Enjoy it but take care!

Be prepared for changing weather. Mornings are usually warm and sunny. Thunderstorms with cold wind-driven rains are quite often the afternoon weather. Don't drink the water—it may look clear, but giardia, a parasitic protozoan, may be lurking there looking for an intestine, and the results are not pleasant. (Dogs are susceptible, too.) Stay on the trails. Shortcuts lead to erosion and long-term damage. Observe the wildlife and flowers, but leave them alone. A long camera lens is great, as long as one does not harass the animals while taking their photograph. Picked flowers quickly lose their beauty.

Campfires are strictly forbidden on the eastern slope. They leach minerals from the soil and leave the ground sterile, not to mention the wood loss to the forest. Don't use fire rings as places to leave behind cans, bottles, and various pieces of paper. Take out what you take in. If you plan to stay overnight, a permit from the U.S. Forest Service is required between June 1 and September 15. Camping regulations will be given to you when you apply.

Permits may be obtained from the USFS District Office at 2995 Baseline Road, Boulder, Colorado 80303 (111 6600), or at the Sulphur Ranger District, US Forest Service, 62429 US Highway 40, Granby, CO 80446. "Last Chance" permits are available at Coast to Coast Hardware in Nederland, Colorado.

Visitors are encouraged to seek out more remote areas in order to help protect the natural environment ofthe Indian Peaks. The wilderness is the most frequently visited in the Rocky Mountain states. For thisreason, the following groups are required to have a valid permit for the wilderness: anyone camping fromJune 1 through September 15; large groups (over 10 persons and/or pack animals) camping or day hikingyear round and all organized, institutional, and commercial groups camping or day hiking year round. Dogs in the wilderness must be leashed.

Other Internet Resources
Niwot Ridge LTER - The Niwot Ridge/Green Lakes Valley Long-Term Ecological Research site is located entirely within the Indian Peaks Wilderness area. The WWW server provides access to spectacular images of alpine plants and alpine scenery, as well as access to information/data on the scientific research being conducted there.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions