Crater Lakes, East Portal Trailhead, Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, Colorado

Crater Lakes - 6.0 miles

East Portal Trailhead

On the approach to Upper Crater Lakes

On the approach to Upper Crater Lakes

Round-Trip Length: 6.0 miles (to lower Crater Lakes | add 2.2 miles RT to upper Crater Lakes)
Start-End Elevation: 9,211' - 10,600' (10,632' max elevation)
Elevation Change: +1,389' net elevation gain (+1,523' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Moderate
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Bikes Allowed: No
Horses Allowed: Yes
Related Trails:

Crater Lakes - 6.0 Miles Round-Trip

The Crater Lakes are a cluster of 5 lakes spread about a rugged valley that forms a major tributary to South Boulder Creek. They offer excellent fishing and diverse backcountry camping experiences apart from the crowds.

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

A maintained but potentially ill-defined trail breaks NW off the East Portal's main artery to lower Crater Lakes, a scenic pair separated only by a thin, elevated ridge.

A third lake is concealed by timber nearby, accessible by following either the lower lakes' outlets or established social trails. A strenuous route continues west up a steep wall to the talus-bound cirque of upper Crater Lakes. Carry a good map to maximize time in this feature-filled basin.

The following description details mileage to the first set of lakes, followed by general routing to the third lower lake and two upper lakes:

Follow signs right (north) of Moffat Tunnel to the South Boulder Creek Trail; stay on this trail and be mindful of adjacent private property.

It rises past the tunnel through intervals of aspen, spruce and meadow to the Arapaho Lakes - Forest Lakes Trail split (1.25 miles : 9,555'), and steepens up rugged terrain to the Crater Lakes Trail split (1.85 miles : 9,930').

The Crater Lakes Trail bends north and twists steeply up a cluttered forest. In 2.3 miles (10,095') it banks sharply right, then left on switchbacks marked by rather anonymous cairns; it continues through a slot between two large boulders and exits left to regain the trail.

Rugged terrain resumes to a footbridge (2.45 miles : 10,240'), past which travel moderates in stages in a thinning forest to a trail sign along the south lake's outlet stream (2.85 miles : 10,543').

The trail leads north over the outlet to a thin, elevated band of spruce separating the two main lower lakes (2.9 miles 10,630'). Spurs branch off through tightly-spaced trees to the respective lakes - 3.0 miles : 10,575' (south) and 3.05 miles : 10,600' (north).

The south lake is narrow and hemmed by steep walls and timber; in contrast the north lake is large and accessible. Social tracks circle the lake to wide views of the basin and good lakeside campsites.

The outlets of each lower lake can be traced east to a third Crater Lake hidden from the main trail. To reach it, backtrack on the main trail to the aforementioned trail sign and follow the stream a few hundred yards east. There are also several social trails in the area leading to this lake.

No maintained trail leads to upper Crater Lakes, however you can follow the northern-lower lake's inlet to them. The route is very steep and may be impassible when wet or iced over.

Scale the steep wall on the west end of the lower northern lake. The climb levels off at the foot of a large talus field, from which you'll see the upper lakes and a direct (albeit difficult) line to them. Allow extra time for route-finding and negotiating rugged talus around the lakes.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N39 54.181 W105 38.660 — 0.0 miles : East Portal Trailhead
  • N39 54.103 W105 38.879 — .25 miles : James Peak Wilderness backcountry board
  • N39 53.601 W105 39.628 — 1.25 miles : Arapaho Lakes - Forest Lakes Trail junction
  • N39 53.408 W105 40.127 — 1.95 miles : Crater Lakes Trail junction
  • N39 53.410 W105 40.302 — 2.3 miles : Switchbacks through boulder slot
  • N39 53.463 W105 40.360 — 2.45 miles : Cross right over foot bridge
  • N39 53.504 W105 40.427 — 2.6 miles : Trail momentarily levels
  • N39 53.681 W105 40.494 — 2.85 miles : Trail Sign at outlet stream crossing
  • N39 53.726 W105 40.526 — 2.95 miles : Thin glade between lower lakes
  • N39 53.706 W105 40.546 — 3.0 miles : Crater Lake (south)
  • N39 53.844 W105 40.421 — 3.05 miles : Crater Lake (north)

Worth Noting

  • A good map will help you explore this feature-filled valley.

Camping and Backpacking Information

  • Permits are not required for camping in the James Peak Wilderness. Contact the Boulder Ranger District (303.541.2500) in advance for the latest updates and conditions.

  • There are no designated campsites in this travel zone. Dispersed camping only. Use established sites whenever possible to minimize impact.

  • Campfires are not permitted in the James Peak Wilderness. Gas stoves only.

  • Camp at least 100' away from all streams, lakes and trails.

  • Pets must be leashed at all times.

  • Group size is limited to 12 people or people and stock combined.

Fishing Information

  • Fishing is permitted with a valid Colorado state fishing license. Contact the Boulder Ranger District for current regulations (303.541.2500).

Directions to Trailhead

The East Portal Trailhead is located at the end of Rollins Pass Road, an 8.2 mile dirt road west of Highway 119. Rollins Pass Road is located 4.9 miles south of Nederland, Colorado.

The dirt road is well-maintained but conditions deteriorate when wet.

From Highway 119, turn west on Rollins Pass Road and Keep Straight until it dead-ends at the Moffat Tunnel. Ignore turnoffs that climb toward the pass.

Contact Information

Boulder Ranger District
2140 Yarmouth Avenue
Boulder, CO 80301


"Good conditions all the way to the top near Upper Crater Lakes. A snow patch up past the twin Lower Crater Lakes can easily be bypassed on the right/east side. It is steep but passable to Columbines poppin’ by the upper lake. "
Evan  -  Denver, CO  -  Date Posted: July 16, 2019
"This is a beautiful hike that will take to you four lakes if you decide to carry on to the upper lakes. If you decide to push on to the upper lakes, look for an unmarked trail that begins on the west side of the northern lower lake. It's fairly steep and begins close to, but before the inlet that feeds the northern lake. It's an unimproved trail in a few spots, it eventually crosses the inlet, and it is reasonably easy to follow. Total length to the top lake is almost 0.5 miles, with an elevation gain of about 400 feet. Note - there are two lakes at the top so don't stop when you reach the first one, which is smaller and more like a pond. Snowshoeing--unlike summer, in which the trail is easy to follow ('cept a couple of spots), the trail will be covered in snow during the winter. That means the first switchback at about 1.5 miles is easy to miss (which happened to us during early April). Even if you manage to find the first switchback (it's unmarked), it will be difficult to stay on an unmarked trail in the trees during winter."
Charles  -  Denver  -  Date Posted: August 29, 2016
"Please keep an eye out for a lost Shiba Inu near Moffat Tunnel and a Crater lakes. Here's the owner's ad with more info:"
Megan  -  Golden  -  Date Posted: September 28, 2015
"Thanks so much for the catch. It has been corrected. Have a great summer!"
Dave  -   -  Date Posted: August 23, 2015
"Am I the only one who noticed that the directions to the trail head is wrong? Rollins Pass road is not off of 72. It is off of 119. If you're not from here, that could really lead you in the wrong direction. Protrials needs to correct his. Nice hike. Easy. There is a section of the trail up to Crater Lakes that is steep for about 3/4 of a mile. Quiet and easy to find solitude on the lake. "
Pamela  -  Denver  -  Date Posted: August 23, 2015
"My boyfriend and I hiked Crater Lakes during our stay in Colorado. We loved the hike! While the trail isn't well marked and the navigation almost led us astray a couple times, we managed to find the first of the Crater Lakes! The hike is absolutely gorgeous and we couldn't believe we hiked to a lake! As others have said, most the elevation gain is jammed into the last mile of the hike. Being from Minnesota, we needed to stop plenty of times to catch our breath and drink some water (and I'd recommend bringing plenty of water!) We didn't get to spend much time with the lake because the clouds looked like they were rolling in a storm, I can definitely say we will do this hike again in the future! Perhaps climb to the Upper Crater Lakes!"
Anika T  -  Minnesota  -  Date Posted: July 16, 2015
"Spent two nights at Crater Lakes, but didn't take the horses. I made it even though I'm not in great shape. There is a series of three large rocks I'm not sure how a horse would navigate.The trout were deep in the center and uninterested,so the family did yoga at daybreak and climbed to the upper lake on the second day.Just beautiful and we had a lot of fun. "
Eric  -  Trimont, MN  -  Date Posted: July 17, 2013
"great little hike. easy for the first 2.25 miles. last 3/4 mile is a bit tough. almost thought we would never find the lakes. then there they were. spectacular. outlet river cut a tunnel though a snow pack. still had a little snow on trail right before you see lakes. well worth the hike."
jasonjeffers  -  northglenn  -  Date Posted: July 15, 2013
"At the last minute decided not to take the horses and found a little rock climb that may have been impassable. Spent two nights,had fun going to the upper lake and enjoyed great scenery. We had a lot of trouble catching fish,also very small."
 -   -  Date Posted: November 22, 2012
"This hike is often steep - with almost half of the total vertical is crammed into about 3/4 mile after the Crater Lake trail junction - but never particularly difficult. The lakes themselves are pretty, not spectacular. There are some great back-country camping sites surrounding the lake(s), along with a ton of places to relax, take in a snack and enjoy the view. I hear the fishing is good but can't vouch for it personally - I'd imagine the fish are every bit as fickle as anywhere else..."
 -   -  Date Posted: August 21, 2012
"My dog porter & I hiked clear up To crater lake today! I never thought we'd see a lake, but it was amazing once we got there! I highly recommend it, but I thought I was in pretty good shape & it kinda took my breath away!!! Porter loved all the water to drink-"
Angela Edmundson  -  Coal creek canyon  -  Date Posted: August 2, 2012
"Hiked to Crater Lake, great hike! FYI- parts of the upper trail is blocked with large old growth trees, but can go around them. The 2011/2012 storms knock down many large trees. There is still some snow on trails by Crater lake, but still doable. Enjoy!"
Maurice Lluch  -  Rollinsville, CO  -  Date Posted: May 28, 2012
"A group of us went, and this place is incredible. Also, the lake trout were starved for attention. I couldn't keep them off my fly. We are excited to go back, now that winter is subsiding. "
Adrian  -  Denver, CO  -  Date Posted: April 18, 2012


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