The Indian Peaks Wilderness is always a welcome sight to us, walking through its alpine landscape is as a visit with a dear friend. On this outing we chose to begin our adventure at the Hessie Trailhead near the small and historic town of Eldora not far from Nederland. Our destination, Diamond Lake. Though we had been there once before, on a day hike taken from the 4th of July Trailhead, we had never taken the less traveled Hessie High Route that begins in an adjacent valley and traverses over the shoulder of Daboxer Mountain.
Anyone who has ever hiked from the Hessie Trailhead knows it can be quite busy, especially on weekends. We recommend, as with any trail, a very early start. It is just something we prefer. Arriving early has its benefits, it is quiet, we love to see sunrises, there are opportunities for wildlife viewing and, a bonus at the Hessie Trailhead, to secure parking. Alternatively, if you just can’t make it there by 0’dark 30, park at the Nederland Park and Ride and catch the free shuttle service to the trailhead. Word to the wise, there are parking rules in place at the trailhead that are strictly enforced.
The trail itself begins on an old dirt road, passing the original site of the historic town of Hessie. Nothing much remains now but an abandoned old truck body that you probably won’t see unless you’re looking for it, a few cabins that are in ruin and, perhaps, a few ghosts from times gone by. The official trailhead begins when you arrive at the footbridge over the creek, thereafter you’ll begin a short climb up a rather rough old mining road. Watch your footing here, many get overconfident and tend to trip or, worse, fall. At the top of the climb, a grand view back down through the valley. Not long after, a dramatic waterfall to the left of the trail that is worth the small side trip. Just around the bend from here, another footbridge, a trail junction and many possibilities for adventure. This outing, before the bridge, we took the trail to the right for the Devil’s Thumb Bypass where we head off to higher ground.
Following the Devil’s Thumb Bypass trail, you find yourself hiking up through a dense grove that eventually opens up in a dramatic glacial valley. It is here that you are welcomed by the official “Welcome to the Indian Peaks Wilderness” boundary sign. Bring a camera, it is quite the site. From here it is a gentle stroll through the valley, on the far side you will again enter into dense woods and begin to climb more. The trail is intersected a few times, continue to follow signs for Jasper Lake, a beautiful destination in itself, though you will not make it there as another junction will have you heading off to the final leg, up and over Daboxer Mountain’s shoulder and back down in the adjacent valley to Diamond Lake.
After heading off on the Diamond Lake trail spur, you’ll find yourself on a much less traveled trail. Wooded at first, but you can already see the trees thinning and the views becoming more and more pronounced as you quickly gain altitude. Noticeably a more aggressive climb at which you soon find yourself emerging through the trees and above the timberline pushing hard to the ridge. Stay the course, you will be rewarded with commanding views in all directions! Take time here to soak in the high alpine as you follow across the shoulder of Daboxer Mountain before dropping back down in the adjacent valley. The scenery is stunning as you are witness views not often encountered.
Worth noting, from the trail split to the high point on the ridge is roughly a mile, you will gain almost 1,000′ (10,675′ – 11,510′) giving you great opportunities for photos when you stop to catch your breath! Route finding skills are useful on the somewhat ill-defined trail as you traverse the ridge and decent into the adjacent valley, follow cairns and stay alert for the trail. Be sure to stop at the saddle before the decent for views of both valleys, Skyscraper Peak, North and South Arapaho Peak and possible Elk feeding on the high tundra. If you are in need of water, there are two possible spots on either side of the ridge from seasonal snow melt flows. Both were flowing nicely for us in late July.
Once back down below tree line the tree coverage will ease the sun exposure. From here Diamond Lake is not far as you navigate the base of Deboxer Mountain to the Diamond Lake outflow and the Diamond Lake Backcountry Zone. If camping overnight, permits are required and can be obtained online. Take time at the stream to relax after the traverse and get your bearings. This is quite a picturesque basin with several points of exploration. Camping is best on the other side of the stream along the north shore of Diamond Lake.
Our campsite was perfect, on the one side a view into the Boulder Creek drainage where, rising up from the valley floor, North and South Arapaho Peak dominate the landscape. On the other side, Diamond Lake in the shadows of Deboxer Mountain and Mt Jasper. The basin itself is quite level making for easy travel while exploring. Diamond Lake and Upper Diamond Lake are beautiful. The open meadow along the trail that eventually drops into the Boulder Creek Drainage and 4th Of July trail is a great place to view wildlife or sit and relax. Not as well known, following the outflow stream from the lake will lead to an impressive waterfall. There is a small social trail along the stream and, as you near the waterfall, use extreme caution as the drop-off is very steep and sudden.
Diamond Lake itself can be quite busy during the day, and certainly in peak season as it is a much shorter day hike destination from the 4th of July Trailhead. Enjoy early mornings and evenings when the crowds thin and only backcountry campers are found. While we did not see any wildlife around the lake, most likely because of human activity, we did see signs of bear and moose on our trek back out as we neared the climb back over Daboxer Mountain. As much, and quite exciting, we saw a herd of elk on the ridge as we neared our drop in point to the adjacent valley that had many young calves in their midst. In the YouTube video you can hear them “squeaking” and, at one point, a young calf finally is able to get a full bugle out!
All in all, this was another trip we had been wanting to take for quite some time. As stated earlier, we had been to Diamond Lake before, a day hike from the 4th of July trailhead. The route from Hessie is breathtaking in many ways, physically for sure, but the views are incredible. If you have plenty of time and can plan it, stopping at Jasper Lake or even Devil’s Thumb Lake might make for an even more incredible backcountry experience alongside Diamond Lake. This is an area of the Indian Peaks Wilderness we had not been to and are very likely to return to in the near future.