James Peak is a solid hike. It has a lot logistically going for it. Its close to Denver, and it has a paved road all the way to its St. Marys trailhead. It even has paid parking and a crapper at the trailhead.
But its also a great scenic hike as well. It is not particularly difficult and certainly nothing technical, at least on its normal route. But the views afforded from James Peak’s broad summit are outstanding stretching North to Longs Peak and South along the Skyline Traverse (Parry, Eva, Flora, and Co Mines Peaks) and beyond to Grays/Torreys and Evans. Quite a lot to take in actually on a clear day as we had.
Joining the great ranks of the unemployed recently, I took it upon myself, when not involved in the activities of finding a new job, to take a least a little free time for some hiking. I was originally going to do this hike during the week. But James had been discussed as the perfect reunion hike for my Spring Wilderness Trekking School (WTS) class so I thought I would try it on a weekend and see who I could rope in with me. So, with short notice I sent the invite out to the class. Unfortunately, on such short notice only one of my ex-pupils, Elizabeth, was able to make the hike.
I have only been to St. Marys in the early
Spring when the glacier (to be geographically correct I should note here that St. Marys is not really a glacier but rather a permanent snow field) is in full form with a hefty load of snow. Actually, several times I have been to the glacier, usually for WTS Snow Day, the snow load was actually being added to by a winter storm with winds howling.
Elizabeth (E) and I met at 5:30am and arrived at the paid parking around 6:30am. Right on our schedule. We got our gear together and departed towards the trail head.
We trudged up the road following the trail that looked unfamiliar to me as it had no snow. As we arrived at the St. Marys Lake we were greeted by a site that I have never seen (and hope never to see again) in the mountains.
There was a large group of about 20 guys, say around college age or so. They all looked normal…except for two guys who were apparently naked, signing, and doing a little dance.
Now mind you I don't often pine to look at naked guys (never actually) but this was like a train wreck. I was psychologically compelled to look. Then I noticed that the two guys were not really naked. They were mostly naked but they had on skin colored underwear.
So onward E and I hiked past this unusual spectacle as the two almost naked guys kept up their singing and dancing.
A Much Reduced St. Marys Glacier Accentuated by Fall Color
We climbed to the base of the glacier and decided to climb up the rocks on the glacier’s right. The “snow” at this time of day was solid ice and didn't offer a very good purchase.
The Remnants of St. Marys in Late SummerThere was a faint but followable trail on the right side of the snow so E and I made out way up on rock instead of ice. The trail was descent if not hard to follow at times but did get you up the steepest portion of this climb quickly.
The Upper Portion of the Glacier Narrows Considerably Before DisappearingThe glacier continues up its steep slope becoming progressively narrower until it finally peters out all together. From here E and I simply climbed out of the snowless gully and popped out onto the relatively vast and level “Jamaica Plain.”
James Peak Finally Visible (on right) From the Broad and Flat Jamaica Plane
So far E and I had only seen the people at St. Marys Lake and one other hiker who was heading up the glacier. Solitude indeed. The wind had become calm. The morning light was great. And the temps cool. It looked to be a great day.
E and I crossed the plain at a
good clip. The only tricky part of this hike is crossing a road that bisects Jamaica Plain. I am not sure why this was unclear to me but the trail was not abundantly obvious after crossing the road. We could see the trail in the distance and some signage. So I just headed for the sign and picked up the trail easily and headed of towards the peak in the distance.
After crossing the plain the trail cuts to the Southwest to a steep overlook of Loch Lomond, Ice, Ohman, Stewart, and Reynolds Lakes. All magnificent hanging lakes tucked into a glacial gorge. The view into the gorge and these lakes is rugged and magnificent.
Ice Lake Just Visible Nestled Against the Base of Mt. BancroftWe continued through 12,600 feet up the sloping side of James Peak following the great trail towards the summit now well within view. The weather was still perfect. It was a little breezy and chilly. While comfortable for hiking we both had to wear gloves.
The Weather Still Perfect. Cairns Mark the Great Trail to James Peak Summit in the Near Distance
The last bit of the climb, while steeper just below the summit is really not that difficult. This 8 mile round trip hike really doles out the 2,900 feet of elevation gain gently.
E and I motored efficiently up this last section and hiked right on up to the broad sloping summit. It was just before 10am as we walked onto the summit. We found a rather large stone shelter, put our gear down, and meandered about the summit taking in the views and snapping images.
Elizabeth has a Rare Outburst of Emotion as She Celebrates Her First 13er
And the Summit Shot With Both of Us, 13,294 FeetWe both relaxed, ate, and took in the incredible views and the fine weather. It was till only a bit after 10:00am and we had the summit to ourselves, for the time being.
The View to the South. Bancroft in the Foreground and Grays and Torreys Way Out in the Background
After about 30 minutes a couple came up to the summit with two dogs. They made a bee line for another shelter on the summit and settled in. Another person showed up shortly after that with yet another dog. As E and I did not have a dog we felt uncomfortable and decided it was time to head back to the glacier.
The trip down was great. Relatively easy hiking, great weather, and good company. We had the same trouble finding the trail as it crossed the jeep road, which at this time of day had jeeps on it. We corrected our navigational errors and were soon back on the trail heading back to the glacier.
We descended towards St. Marys Lake. This time we stayed on the actual glacier as the snow/ice had softened in the sun and provided a bit easier walking than the loose talus and scree.
As we descended towards the lake we were surprised to see a bunch of people. All sorts. No mostly naked frat boys. But a rather broad cross section of outdoor enthusiasts from families to groups heading up the glacier for a few moments of summer skiing. It was actually quite crowded.
St. Marys Over the Toe of the Glacier in Late Morning
Fall Colors Accent an Already Incredible View
We walked on out to the truck and headed into Idaho Springs for a beer and lunch at Tommyknockers. A great finish.