Red Deer Lake (Indian Peaks Wilderness) – Backpacking permit required from Ranger’s Office
- Attempted 6/30/13
- 13.6 miles round trip
- Apprx 5 hr hike (to Red Deer Lake from Camp Dick Campground)
- Easy backpacking trip – can make a 1-2 night adventure out of it
- +717′ net elevation gain to peak (10,381′)
- sunblock and a hat
- Tech shell
- Soft shell
- Backpacking tent with rain fly
- Sleeping bag (my summer bag is rated at 20F, but is pretty old and synthetic, so more like a 30F bag)
- Sleeping pad (you sleep warm when you are insulated from the ground)
- Backpacking stove
- Water filter (those iodine tablets are going to taste bad)
- Bug Spray (they will find you, I promise you that)
- Utility knife
- Snacks and light food (freeze dried is great, but expensive, so just buy a dehydrator and make your own favorite meals dehydrated!)
- First Aid Kit
- Map of area and compass
- Anything else your backpacking experience tells you to bring
While you can offroad the Middle St. Vrain Trail, it ranks as a class 4-5 offroad trail: this requires a lifted vehicle with a short wheelbase. I once saw a large truck try it and bottom out. The beginning of the offroad trail is the beginning of the hike, so you’ll walk right beside the offroad trail. The most difficult section is at the start of the trail, I believe. So if you can make it over those first large rocks, all the power to you. My stock 2001 Nissan Pathfinder (8.3″ clearance) and 2003 Toyota 4Runner (9.1″ clearance) do not stand a chance. If you offroad the trail, it’ll meet back up with the hiking trail probably 3.5 miles into the hike. This would allow for more time being spent in the actual Indian Peaks Wilderness rather than hiking to it. I would suggest offroading the trail if you can manage it, but do not force your car to do something it cannot handle – or something that you cannot handle.
My friend and I parked at the Camp Dick parking lot just before the offroad trail, your car will be safe here, the campgrounds have enough people around. If you work during the week, try to sneak out early Friday (badass) and be at TH by 2-3p as you really want to get the good camp spots at Red Deer Lake. There are a ton of sites where you can set up a tent, and I have used some of the upper tent sites before, but the lowest one closest to the lake is the absolute best!
I prefer to go on a Tuesday or something, starting right in the morning to start the day off right. This is a great hike just to get away for a day and not have to worry too much about weight since it is such a short trip with surprisingly little elevation gain. A great backpack spot close to Denver (still in Boulder County) and will serve great for beginners (or experienced backpackers who just love the continental divide!).
Not far into the hike there is a beautiful waterfall that you cannot miss. It is a great spot to take a first long break with the pack off with some nice rocks to balance your pack on at the proper height. On the note of packs, be sure to know how to tighten it properly. If you go to any REI store (please take me with you) they will be more than happy to educate you. The general idea is that you want to tighten your hip strap first, then your chest strap, and finally your shoulder straps. Make sure your compression straps are nice and tight on the back and be sure to balance your weight close to your back (you don’t want heavy weight bouncing on the bottom or exterior of the pack).
Further along the hike you’ll reach a small clearing and see some of the mountain peaks you’ll be camping under.
Eventually you’ll reach where the offroad trail meets up with the hiking trail, keep a hiker’s right here (or follow the signs, they are obvious if I recall). This is where the continental divide will begin and the permit will be required to camp beyond this point. Here is another nice spot, perhaps for lunch. It’ll only be about a mile and a half or so past this point where you’ll be doing a pretty steep ascent over a ridge to the lake. After the continental divide is by far the most beautiful part of the hike.
Shortly after the continental divide there will be a sign to continue to Red Deer Lake or take a trip up to Gibraltar Lake. I can vouch that Red Deer Lake is the easier and prettier of the two lakes, but you will likely have other hikers joining you; however, when I camped at Gibraltar Lake, I was all by myself (with my hiking friend, of course). I combined the two lakes on two sequential nights and that added about 6 miles RT onto the hike. If you can manage just under 20 miles or so over the course of 3 days, I would say opt for this, as it added a change of scene into the hike! However, Gibraltar was a much greater elevation gain to get to the lake. Both lakes have additional summits that can be conquered from camping at the lakes. *I don’t actually have any pictures of Gibraltar lake, I tackled this guy in 2011 probably and have since lost the pictures. However, I do remember that the lake was shallow, small, and infested with a small spider all over the rocks surrounding the lake. But do not worry about the spiders, they seemed harmless and never once bothered us in our tent, which was probably a quarter of a mile shy of the lake (just because it is such a hilly lake, only one viable place exists to camp at).
I do not have a picture of the campsite at RDL, but I can describe it. As you get to the lake, there will be a trail going right and left around the lake (they won’t meet up, as the back of the lake is a steep rock slide often covered with snow). Go hiker’s left, pass through the large opening and go around some cemented part of the lake (maybe what was once a damn). Eventually you’ll get to a smaller opening with easy access right to the lake. Continue to go left into the trees (which is across a small creek) and there will be an obviously large spot for a tent. Camping here is not only close to the lake, but there is a nearby clearing in the trees where you can go stargaze from your sleeping bag before you go to bed – that was the best part by far!
Don’t be shy to camp around the lake, one year I summitted the mountain that overlooks the lake. It gains some altitude, probably just approaching 12,000′ but is worth it if you have a spare day up at the lake or extra energy. Remember back to when you approached the lake and saw the left and right trails around the lake? Well, this time you’ll want to go right to summit the mountain. There is also a large rock that goes into the deep part of the lake if you care to jump off it into the deep end of the lake.
Moreover, the sunsets at the lake are pretty tough to beat!
Overall this was my first backpacking trip and one I have gone back to whenever I want a quick escape into paradise. I would highly suggest this for anyone looking at getting into backpacking but be sure to be prepared before spending a night in the wilderness! For example, you will want to bring a small pack of sorts you can store food in and string up a tree branch at night using some rope/paracord (paracord is super light weight but reliable rope). Black bears have been around here before, even when I was hiking, but I had no fear since all my “smellables” were up in the tree (this includes food, snacks, flavored water, and toiletries – sunblock, plain ol’ H2O, and bug spray are probably okay in the tent).
If you have any questions about backpacking or this hike, drop me a note, as I am quite familiar with the trail and I have been backpacking for several years now!