Exploring Caribou

Downtown Caribou. Most of the action is underground.

One of my main pleasures in life is filling in the blank sections of my mental map.  The vast region between the Hessie and Rainbow Lakes west of Nederland is one such area for me.  This runs from the Peak to Peak Highway up to the ghost town of Caribou (at a healthy 10,000′) and farther up the vast eastern flank of the prominent, 13,000′ Arapaho Peaks.  Terra Incognita all of it!  Time for some exploratory running.

Starting the ascent assisted by my spanky new ultralight Z-poles.

Caribou was once know for silver mining and there are still a couple of active, modern mines up there, so the road is in pretty good condition.  Michele and I parked there and, armed with GPS waypoints and some good maps, started up the maze of “roads” in the area.  After warming up on the scenic Caribou Hill, we managed to find our way down the impressively rough road #505 to a scenic gap between Klondike Mountain and Bald Mountain.  A reasonably well-defined trail started steeply upwards from there, so we climbed in earnest.  The day was fine, the weather great, and the flowers still pretty impressive for late August.

The lovely Valhalla from treeline. The trail vanishes shortly after this, but who needs a trail?

Shortly, we broke through tree line into a huge, lush valley known as Valhalla.  If you drive up the Fourth of July road to the trailhead of the same name, there is a steep valley wall on your right most of the way.  Valhalla is a hanging valley above that and it’s quite lovely.  Walking the south edge, we had continuous views down to Fourth of July 1500′ below and the beautiful Arapaho-Neva-Jasper valley.  We climbed and climbed, occupied by thoughts of how great this valley would be for skiing, and eventually intersected the Arapaho Glacier Trail near the top of the ridge.

Michele pounds snow on the Arapaho Glacier trail.

Having already gained 3000′ in five miles, we gratefully switched to running mode and proceeded west toward the Arapaho Glacier Overlook.  Michele had never been here before and spent a while goggling at the big glacial cirque so dramatically revealed and the looming face of South Arapaho.  We were feeling good and still had some time, so it would be criminal to come all this way and not go for the summit, a very steep half mile farther on.  The summit of S. Arapaho never disappoints.

7.5 miles and 4000' of climbing. Not bad a bad start for the day.

With South Arapaho behind us, we got a couple glorious miles of fast running at 12,500'.

Coming back down, we ran a couple glorious miles east on the 12,500′ Arapaho Glacier trail before having to make a decision.  According to my map, there was a faint trail leading SE from near the end of the ridge and thence down to some of the 4×4 roads near Caribou.  Alternatively, we could stay on the trail and descend to the Rainbow Lakes Campground and then run a few miles of dirt road to get to the same point.  Since exploration was the aim of the day, we summited the mighty Caribou Benchmark (our second Caribou summit of the day and the mountain with the largest cairn-to-prominence ratio of any mountain I know of) and dropped south-east down a steep tundra slope for about 2000′.

Running with the Trenti twins on our way down.

Michele cools his heels after a steep off-trail descent. It's the simple pleasures in life...

We never did find a trail, but enjoyed the hummocky tundra and wildflowers during our rapid descent.  Getting to tree line again, we searched for and eventually found a faint trail which lead us rapidly to better and better trail.  A mile of dirt road running (walking mostly since it was uphill and we were tired) brought us back to the car.

It was nice to fill in this big blank spot on my mental map of my local mountains.  The day came out at 14 miles and the better part of 4000′ of climbing in a leisurely six hours.  I can’t say this will ever become a popular running destination since there are easier ways to access much of the same terrain (4th of July and Rainbow Lakes).  The mines and good state of the road up to 10,000′ suggests that they may plow it in the winter so I’m anxious to come back here and see how skiable it may be when all the other 10,000′ trailheads in the area are closed down for the season.

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4 Responses to Exploring Caribou

  1. Nice! You can usually get to Caribou in the winter with a Subaru. I did a route eerily similar to this on snowshoes a couple winters ago, although I failed to summit S Arapahoe when the wind jumped from zero to 50 mph! I still need to get back up there…

    • cdan4th says:

      Thanks. I’ve done the Arapaho traverse in about a 30 mph wind with snow and it was exciting. I can’t imagine much stronger than that, though.

  2. Trex says:

    Funny! I went to Caribou on Monday, but have no idea how you got to S Arapaho from there? I was a Caribou Flats, though, I think there is another Caribou??

    And I just did S/N Arapaho today!

    Great shots!

    • cdan4th says:

      Thanks! Caribou Flat is the big flat area behind the townsite. To get up S. Arapaho, you just head west and pick the easiest way up the big hump of Caribou Mountain. Not the easiest way up Arapaho for sure, but still good fun for everyone.

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