As we are relatively new residents to Colorado, we have been trying to take advantage of the easy access to the mountains. Last weekend we decided to hike up James Peak which is just over an hour away from Denver metro. James Peak sits over 13,000 feet above sea level, hence the name a 13er. This was our second highest peak we have ascended in Colorado. We previously did Bierstadt which is over 14,000 feet above sea level.
The easiest access to James Peak is by driving to the St. Mary’s Glacier parking lot. St. Mary’s is an extremely popular spot as it provides quick access to some superb scenery without too much effort. Many tourists stop here to view the beautiful lake and the nearby snow glacier. Despite it’s popularity not many people hike above the glacier which is how you get to James Peak. If you start the James Peak hike from the St. Mary’s area you will need to bring $5 in cash or check as it is a private lot. Do not park along the road as you will get a ticket and block emergency vehicles.
We arrived around 7:30 AM to the St. Mary’s parking lot and there were maybe ten cars in the lot. The hike from the lot to the top of James Peak and back is between eight to ten miles. Unfortunately, our trusty Alltrails app did not accurately track the route but based on our how tired our legs were and other people’s reviews on Alltrails, we can safely say it is over eight miles and nearly 3,000 vertical feet. This was a tough but doable hike. Our dog, Spruce, absolutely loved it and was ready for even more. This was Spruce’s longest hike ever and he was a champ.
St. Mary’s Lake
Less than a mile up from the parking lot is St. Mary’s Lake. Most people stop here and admire the views. This is a great place to bring friends or family who want to experience the mountains but without a lot of effort. Don’t be alarmed by the number of tourists here as nearly all of them will not continue on.
St. Mary’s Glacier
From the lake we headed up the glacier which is extremely deceiving. The snowfield is significantly longer than you expect but it is a fun experience to hike up a ton of snow in September. Our dog, Spruce, absolutely loves the snow so he was really excited to hike the glacier.
After heading up the glacier, the trail flattens out for a mile or two. The flatness was welcomed after going up all the snow. While this part of the trail is not difficult there are some great views of the surrounding peaks, many of which are 13ers and 14ers.
There is one tricky part to the trail if you don’t want to add any unnecessary steps. Once the trail hits the vehicle road you need to continue going straight rather than following the road. It requires about five minutes of walking off trail to get pack on the trail to James Peak. If you follow the road you will end up going the wrong direction. We ended up going the wrong way for about ten minutes until we checked Alltrails and realized our mistake. To correct it we noticed a trail post off in the distance and tramped through the off trail section until we saw a clear path.
The Ascent Up James Peak
Once we got back on the real trail the flatness started to dissipate as we got closer to James Peak. The trail progressively gets steeper and steeper as you continue. The day we did this it was extremely windy on this part of the trail. While the trail is steep it wasn’t anymore difficult than what we typically do but the wind literally took our breath away.
The views were stunning as we headed up and we took plenty of breaks to take in the scenery. About halfway up the main ascent there is a great overlook of Loch Lomond and some smaller lakes. Loch Lomond is another great option to explore in this area.
The Top of James Peak
After about three and half hours of hiking with stops we made it to the top! The views were spectacular in all directions. To the north you could see Lake Granby, Longs Peak, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Off to the west was another 13er, Parry Peak, which is right in front of you along with Winter Park. To the south is Mt. Evans, Bierstadt, Grays, and Torreys which are all 14ers. And of course to the east you can see the fringes of the front range and many of the hiking options near Nederland.
Like our ascent, the top was very windy as well but we managed to escape from it behind a rock wall that was built at the peak. We enjoyed our time at the top, grabbing a snack, plenty of photos, and congratulated Spruce on conquering his first big peak!
The way down was a lot easier on our breathing as the wind died down and we weren’t going up anymore. It took us less than three hours to get back to the parking lot and we were exhausted. Somehow Spruce had plenty of energy despite this being his longest and most difficult hike. He was chasing grasshoppers on the way down and once he got to the glacier he wanted to play. We let him play with some other pups as we headed down the snow but made sure he didn’t get in the way of any of the skiers and snowboarders trying to get their September turns in.
Spruce really enjoyed hiking James Peak and got some great model photos!
With that being said, it was a great hike! James Peak is one of the easier 13ers or 14ers to do, but it is still difficult to do and well worth hiking. The views beat Bierstadt’s and there is significantly less people. On a picture perfect clear day in September we saw about thirty people after getting past St. Mary’s Glacier. Beth, Spruce and I all highly recommend it!