At 13,294 feet James Peak is the 5th highest summit in the Indian Peaks. It is also the Gilpin County highpoint. Its giant southeast slopes route can be seen from I70 as you head towards Idaho Springs. According to Walter Borneman in his book Colorado's Other Mountains the peak was named after Edwin James, a highly respected botanist who was part of an 1820 expedition to the Rocky Mountains. James became a mountaineer and was the first person to do a recorded ascent of a Colorado Fourteener. Ironically it did not end up being named James but was called Pikes Peak instead. James is a peak of many options, with easy walks, a technical east face and an interesting ridge walk from neighboring Mount Bancroft. It is an extremely popular peak and is a common first ascent for those who are interested in ski mountaineering. James Peak and vicinity has just been made into a Wilderness Area. See the following for details
There are several ways to access James Peak. To reach the Southeast slopes/St. Mary's Glacier route drive on I-70 west out of Denver and just west of Idaho Springs, take the Fall River Road/St. Mary's Glacier turnoff. Drive north for approximately ten miles. The trailhead had two parking lots: a big "overflow" lot that will be on your left and one further up and to the right that is closer to the trailhead. In 2002 a problem developed with the parking situation however. The large lot, which is still visible on your left as you drive in, has been closed off. A landowner dispute has made parking at the other small lot very difficult. . There is a place past these where a few cars can park BUT when I was there it was so full there were cars double parked such that the car in the back would not be able to get out (see below for more on parking). Sadly I would recommend another access to James until this situation is resolved. If you care about this, write the forest service and ask them to put in a parking lot on public land so the public can access this once very popular hike! (This is still the case April 2003). From the trailhead follow a wide rocky road towards St. Mary's Glacier. When given a choice head left/up rather than down. In about a half mile you will come to St. Mary's Lake and see the "glacier" which is a tongue of snow terminating at the lake. The left side of the snowfield is steep and should be avoided when avalanche conditions are moderate to high. Ascend the snowfield on the less steep right side until you top out on a huge flat expanse of tundra. At this point you will see James directly in front of you.
Click here for the view of the flats. As you continue west towards the peak make note of a huge rock outcropping on your left. This is a good place to take a break and a good landmark if the visibility gets bad. This rock pile is your "gateway" back to the glacier. Continue to the base of the peak. The ski route is directly up the huge SE face. If you are climbing or if the avalanche danger is high, you might want to stay on the SE ridge to your right. The final 1200 feet may seem long but you will be on top soon. The final summit "pyramid" is probably around 35 degrees and can be dangerous in unstable snow conditions. In this case even skiers might want to forgo that section and hike the ridge to the summit. . Take a look down some of the couloirs on the steep east face. Enjoy the spectacular views from the big flat summit. Besides the few hundred feet of summit, the rest of the route down is quite moderate and a blast in good corn snow. On the way down be sure not to get led to your right into the drainage leading to Loch Lomand. Also important, if the weather looks like it could white out, be very religious about using your compass/GPS. The huge tundra plain can be extremely disorienting in a white out and there are many routes that will lead you to other drainages. Use the big rock pile as your guide! This route is 7 miles roundtrip and 2920 feet of gain.
Another access is from the west side and Rogers Pass. Go west on I-70 to mile marker 232 and take highway 40 over Berthoud Pass. Continue on to Winter Park. Look for a road, on the right just beyond the Winter Park entrance. The off the highway sign will say Corona Pass Moffat Road County Road 80/ FDR 149 Continue on 149 through several intersections. Along this road are many beautiful views of the Winter Park ski area. About 9 miles up the road you will see an old train trestle, stay on the road until you get to the top of the trestle, there is space for a few cars near the trestle. The trailhead to Rogers Pass and James Peak starts here. It' an old jeep trail with barricades in front (boulders and posts). From here the trail rises gently out of the tree line to about four switchbacks that take you to the top of a ridge and around a bend for you first look at James Peak. The trail continues to a split. The left trail takes you to Rogers Pass. Rogers took a load of wagons from the east over here in 1868, before Berthoud Pass. The second trip ended in disaster. The right trail takes you to James Peak on a somewhat easy hike to the base of the peak. Then it gets tough when you get into the boulders. But the view on top is well worth the few 100 yards of boulder hoping. This route is 3.5 miles one way. Note that for those coming from Boulder, Rogers Pass can be accessed via the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel (from Rollinsville) Roger's Pass can also be accessed from the East Porter of the Moffat Tunnel, west of Rollinsville. From the tunnel head towards Heart Lake and past the lake upwards to Rogers Pass. Its about a 4 mile hike to Roger's Pass and then another almost 2 miles ridge walk to the summit, but its a shorter drive.
To reach the east side climbing routes use the Upper Mammoth Gulch trailhead. All of these routes are as described in Gerry Roach's excellent guide Colorado's Indian Peaks, I have not personally done them. The road is 4WD and can be blocked partway up by snow in June. From Denver, drive on Colorado 119 north to Rollinsville. You can also drive from Boulder to Nederland and then drive south on 119 to reach Rollinsville. Turn west onto a well maintained gravel road, heading towards the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel. Go 5 miles west to the little town of Tolland, then go just another 0.2 miles to a left turn at Mammoth Gulch Road. Drive 4 miles to another junction (old townsite) and turn west . Continue approximately 3 miles west to the end, which is a steep north facing slope. From here it is possible to access the south east slopes. This might be a good idea if the parking situation doesn't improve. From this trailhead head south up an old 4WD road to 12,000 feet. This is the shoulder west of Kingston Peak. Head west and descend to meet the southeast route on the huge tundra plain. To reach the other east side routes, head west on the Ute trail to a junction at 11,150 feet. At this junction still head west to James Peak Lake. At this point you can access all of the east face routes described in Roach's book-Northeast slopes (class 2 hiking), Starbright, Super Star, Shooting Star (see ROUTES section of this page), Sky Pilot and Starlight couloirs. If anyone has been up any of these, please feel free to post the routes! I do know that the Starlight couloir is often skied. The couloir starts out at about 40 degrees but soon widens and the angle gets less steep. If you take a look from the top and decide its too much for you, you can try the "Bailout" route just south of the couloir. These ski routes (as well as the standard southeast slopes route) are described in the must-have (if you want to ski in the Indian Peaks) book by Ron Haddad and Eileen Faughey Indian Peak Descents.
I recently heard about a north face ski route on James. I don't know much about it but will post it when I do it. You drive to the East Portal trailhead out of Rollinsville then follow the Heart Lake trail to Heart Lake. From there you can use the map to find the best route to the base of James's north face. It looks like you shoot for Rogers Pass lake, then go around the east side of Haystack Mountain. This looks like an awesome descent, but a very long day. I will update once I try this. The bonus is there are no parking issues.
According to Haliku in February 2004:
I have been to St. Mary's several times in the last six months to hike and break in equipment. The first lot on the left before the trailhead is blocked by rocks and posted. This is where everyone parked in the 90s. Go past the trailhead 200 feet to a narrow lot on the left side. Parking is limited due to the size and often how everyone parks. It can hold 20-25 vehicles. The road berm in the area is heavily and clearly posted and I can only guess patrolled and violators ticketed on the weekends when it is most busy. Arrive early if you want parking, especially on a weekend.
As described above for the St. Mary's Glacier route, as of winter 2002 there developed a parking problem on that route. See above.
NOTE: I hope to do this St. Mary's route this spring as a ski trip, Spring 2004. Will update on parking when I know something.
When To Climb
The standard southeast route on James Peak can be pretty much climbed year round, though be ready for extreme wind and cold in the winter. The couloirs are best done in spring and early summer, depending on the coulouir. Most of them have melted out by August. The best time to ski the southeast slopes is probably in late April to early June, assuming a typical Colorado snowpack. In the late spring and summer be prepared to bail out in case of lightening storms. Most of these routes are above treeline and there is no safe place to wait in case of lightening. The lightening in Colorado is a serious threat and one should have a healthy respect for the danger, every year people are killed by storms in Colorado.
Idlewild Campground along highway 40 near Winter Park
Winter Park Chamber of Commerce 1-800-903-7275
Additions and Corrections[ Post an Addition or Correction ]