Last Updated on November 25, 2020
4th of July Trail Hike to Arapaho Pass and Lake Dorothy
Distance: 7.2 miles | 11.6 km
Elevation Gain: 1,942 feet | 592 meters
Time to Complete: 4-7 hours
Difficulty: Challenging to Difficult
Park Fee: Free
Hiker Traffic: Light to Moderate
Cell Service: None
Noel’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The 4th of July Trail is just a short drive from my hometown, yet I’d never experienced its staggering beauty until my recent hike exploring its wide-open spaces. Hiking the trail’s breathtaking Arapaho Pass to the pristine Lake Dorothy blew my mind at every single turn. It was worth the 32-year-long wait.
Nestled in the heart of Indian Peaks Wilderness outside of Nederland, Colorado, this 7.2-mile out-and-back trail winds through the Roosevelt National Forest and reads like a backcountry explorer’s dream.
Sparkling fields of bright wildflowers dot the landscape. Chirping marmots scurry about the alpine forest. Birds of prey soar through the bright blue skies above. Remnants of an abandoned 19th-century gold mine collect rust at 11,000 feet. Towering mountain peaks nudge their way into the clouds. Rugged hiking trails move towards potential backcountry adventures on the horizon.
Want to learn more about the 4th of July Trail? Keep reading. I’ll tell you everything you need to know to plan an idyllic Rocky Mountain adventure of your own.
4TH OF JULY TRAIL:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Preparing for Your Hike
A. When to Hike
B. What to Bring
C. Trail Maps
2. Getting to the Trailhead
3. Hiking the 4th of July Trail
A. Glacial Drinking Water
B. 4th of July Mine
D. Arapaho Pass & Caribou Pass
E. Lake Dorothy
4. Backcountry Camping
5. Rules & Regulations
A. Leave No Trace
6. Final Thoughts
7. Day Hiking Gear I Recommend
8. Other Day Hikes Near Denver
9. Hiking & Backpacking Resources
Logistically, the best months to hike are July, August, and September, although the ideal hiking season fluctuates from year to year. You can expect hard-to-traverse snowpack on the trail from October until June.
To view current trail conditions, visit the Fourth of July Trail’s AllTrails page for reviews and trail condition updates from fellow hikers.
Use my complete day hiking essentials checklist to pack for your hike and ensure that you don’t leave any important gear behind.
Pack plenty of snacks (think 1500+ calories) and bring a minimum of two liters of water for a day hike – or pack a water filter to purify water as you go.
Trail maps for the entire 4th of July, Arapaho Pass, and Caribou Pass Trails are all available to download on the free smartphone app, Maps.me. I’ve used Maps.me’s offline maps for every hiking, trekking, and backpacking adventure I’ve written about on this website. (Just download it already.)
Park your car at either of the Diamond Lake or the 4th of July Trailheads
The 4th of July Trailhead is located just past Nederland, Colorado, outside the small ski town of Eldora, and it’s is easy to find on Google Maps. The final four miles until the trailhead, on the aptly named 4th of July Road, are along a bumpy and high-clearance dirt path. There are two parking lots at the end of the road, and multiple strips of roadside parking along the way. Arrive early in the morning to avoid a long walk to the trailhead.
I highly recommend using a 4-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle with a reasonable amount of ground clearance to access this road.
The 7.2-mile-long trail gains 1,942 feet of elevation at a 10% grade, which rates it as a challenging to difficult hike. Almost all of the trek is above 10,000 feet in elevation, so it’s vital that you acclimatize yourself to high altitudes before you start. If you start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, take a break and analyze your options going forward.
From start to finish, the 4th of July Trail is an absolute joy. It’s winding backcountry splendor frequently stopped me dead in my tracks and offered hard-to-beat beauty at nearly every turn. Hiking the Arapaho Pass Trail to Caribou Lake might be the best day hike I’ve ever completed in Colorado, and I’ve been hiking here my whole life.
There are numerous streams along the trail running with freshly melted glacial runoff if you want to purify drinking water along the way. The flow from Arapaho Glacier and Lake Dorothy is an ice-cold treat to drink (if properly treated, of course).
Filtering drinking water along the way will trim water weight from your daypack, and 10,000+ feet of elevation, every ounce counts.
I used the Sawyer Squeeze water filter on my hike, which weighs only 2.8 oz and is incredibly easy to use.
A couple of miles up the Arapaho Pass Trail, you’ll run into the remnants of the abandoned 4th of July Mine. On Independence Day of 1872, gold miners staked the original claim on the mine and named it after the fateful day.
Miner’s efforts laboring the heavy lead machinery towards Arapaho Pass were never rewarded with considerable spoils, however, and the mine was abandoned entirely in 1937. The trail’s sun-baked artifacts represent the struggles and harsh realities of mining in the Gold Rush era.
During my hike, wildlife spottings were abundant. I witnessed marmots scurry about, deer forage for food, and hawks soar the wide-open Colorado skies overhead.
Keep your eyes peeled and your camera at the ready, because Indian Peaks Wilderness is teeming with mountain wildlife in its most natural habitat. Be on the lookout for elk, which are known to graze the area surrounding the trail.
At the trailhead, there’s a sign warning of bear presence in the area. If you’re wary of bears, bring bear spray, wear a bear bell, odor-proof your food, or hike in groups. Backpacker Magazine has an informative article on bear safety, which I recommend reading.
The Fourth of July Trail will eventually split into two paths — Arapaho Pass Trail and Caribou Pass Trail — both of which offer stunning routes that explore further into Roosevelt National Forest.
Arapaho Pass, which tops out at 11,906 feet, and Caribou Pass which reaches 11,850 feet both offer stunning 360-degree views of jagged sawtooth-like mountains, sprawling meadows, and wide-stretching alpine forests.
Both trails lead to incredible backcountry camping within Indian Peaks Wilderness, which I’ll talk more about later in this post.
Lake Dorothy is the most popular destination among day hikers, and for good reason. Perched at 12,061 feet in elevation, the high-elevation lake is fed by runoff from the nearby Arapaho Glacier. It’s a splendid place to rest your feet and enjoy a well-deserved lunch.
It’s possible to fish for Colorado mountain trout in Lake Dorothy, but the window to do so isn’t very wide. I hiked to Lake Dorothy in mid-July, and it was completely frozen over, making it nearly impossible to fish. Visiting during August or September is your best bet for decent fishing, just don’t forget to secure a Colorado fishing license first.
Opportunities for dispersed backcountry camping are ample along the Arapaho Pass and Caribou Pass Trails and just about anywhere in Indian Peaks Wilderness. Keep in mind that campers must purchase a $5 permit at a ranger station or mail in an application beforehand. More info on getting a permit can be found here.
If you decide to backcountry camp along the Arapaho Pass Trail or beyond, prepare yourself properly ahead of time. Scout out potential camping destinations on a map, research your route, look at a forecast, get an early start, pack enough food, and bring a backpack full of quality gear. Weather can get harsh in a hurry at high elevations, so don’t underestimate it.
There are some important rules and regulations to keep in mind when hiking the 4th of July Trail and camping in Indian Peaks Wilderness. Right-click one of the trailhead signs to view a full-sized image in a new window, or just read my abridged summary of the rules below.
- Pets must be leashed at all times
- Groups of 12 or more must obtain a Special Use Permit
- Bikes, strollers, and motorized equipment are prohibited on the trail
- Camping permits are required from June 1st to September 15th
- Campfires are prohibited on the east side of the Continental Divide, and along the following locations on the west side of the Continental Divide: Caribou Lake, Columbine Lake, Pawnee Lake, Gourd Lake, and Crater Lake
- Campfires are prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, or trails
- Camping is allowed only in designated campsites at Jasper Lake, Diamond Lake, Caribou Lake, and Crater Lakes Backcountry Zones
- Camping is prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, and developed trails
- Camping is prohibited in the Four Lakes Backcountry Zone from May 1st to November 30th
For my entire hike, I enjoyed an entirely trash-free trail as I soaked in the scenery around me. The hikers along the trail have taken care of the land, and it was refreshing to see.
Pack out everything you bring with you, follow the trail guidelines, and do your part to leave the trail untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy.
For more information on leaving no trace, visit LNT.org.
In all my years spent hiking and backpacking in Colorado, I’ve rarely been blown away like I was along the 4th of July Trail. Tucked away beyond the eccentric mountain town of Nederland, the hiking and backpacking opportunities along this trail are incredible and seemingly endless.
As I look back on my adventure, I’m having an impossible time choosing the top highlight of my 7.2-mile journey into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Was it the staggering views of rugged mountains jutting into the bright blue Colorado sky? Was it the abundance of alpine wildlife in its most natural setting? Was it an abandoned 19th-century mine, the picturesque Lake Dorothy, or the breathtaking Arapaho Pass? Or was it the temptation of incredible backcountry camping along a wild hiking trail that fades into the horizon?
The answer may never come to me, but I’ll keep searching. I have the rest of my life to investigate the wonders along the 4th of July Trail, and I don’t plan on letting another 32 years go by before I explore it again.
When will your adventure begin?
Click here to view the complete essential day hiking gear checklist.
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Have you ever hiked the 4th of July Trail? What hikes near your hometown do you love? What’s your favorite day hike in Colorado? Give me some feedback with a comment below!