Colorado’s Indian Peaks Wilderness is home to one of our favorite backpacking trips the Pawnee – Buchanan Loop. Because of this, we have been eager to return and explore more of the area. Diamond Lake is located in the heart of the wilderness area and is widely regarded as one of the best day hikes in the park. However, there are two lakes located above the popular Diamond Lake and I have found that the higher one goes the more beautiful the views become. The Upper Diamond Lake Trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness is no exception to this predilection. Located at the foot of the Continental Divide, the alpine lake is a gorgeous destination for a remote day hike but it isn’t without its challenges.
Hiking Upper Diamond Lake Trail
Stats forUpper Diamond Lake Trail
- Trailhead: Fourth of July (10,130′)
- Type: Out-n-Back
- Rating: Strenuous
- Distance: 8.8 miles (4.4 miles each way)
- Total Elevation Gain: 2,025’
- Highest Elevation: 11,728′
- Recommended Time: 5 hours
- Season: Early-June thru Late-October
Parking & Access
The journey on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness begins by finding your way to the patriotically named Fourth of July Trailhead parking lot. Google maps will lead you to the trailhead but there are a few things to know. The final 5-miles of the drive is along a rough dirt road. The Indian Peaks Wilderness states that two-wheel drive vehicles can typically make the journey but there are definitely sections where high clearance provides peace of mind. I personally would not take a low clearance vehicle on this road for fear of bottoming out.
The second thing to know is that parking is limited and this is a very popular trailhead. The parking area looks larger than it is on google maps. In reality, the Fourth of July parking lot is split into three tiers. All together approximately thirty vehicles can park in this area. Parking along the road is allowed in designated signed areas only. This doubles the capacity but can easily add another mile or two to the hike. If you intend to hike on a summer weekend plan to arrive before 6:00AM if you want a parking spot (This is not an exaggeration!).
The park typically blocks the road at the Nederland high school when the lots are full but they won’t be set up until 6:00 AM. This means if you pass the high school before 6:00 AM there is a good chance you will drive the entire road only to find that there is no parking. If you arrive when the road is blocked you will be held until a parking spot becomes available.
Hessie Trailhead Shuttle
There is a free shuttle service from the Nederland high school to the Hessie Trailhead. However, the Hessie Trailhead is located 4 miles short of the Fourth of July Trailhead.
Season & Weather
The Fourth of July Road is closed throughout the winter. Typically the road is cleared and opened for Memorial Day and closes with the first big snowfall. This is typically in early November but could be sooner. Regardless snow will linger on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail until early July and return to the area in late September. All the snow melt will also make the trail a muddy mess for the entire month of June. This is a trail that is best hiked from late June through late September.
The Upper Diamond Lake Trail
The trailhead is found at the top of the Fourth of July Parking Area. The terrain climbs quickly away from the parking lot gaining over 600′ in the first 1.25-miles. The majority of the first mile is traversed in thick evergreen forest. At just over 3/4 of a mile, the path begins a half-mile cliffside traverse. This is where you get your first stellar views of the mountainous area. The views up the valley are stunning and there is a massive cascading waterfall directly to the west across the valley. This waterfall is actually created by the outflow of the main Diamond Lake which helps orient yourself on where you are headed. I labeled it on our map as Diamond Creek Falls.
Arapahoe Pass Waterfall
Located about 1 mile in the path crosses over a large cascading waterfall pouring over the trail. The flow is easily crossed with well-placed boulders. This is an especially beautiful spot along the first section of the hike.
Arapahoe Pass and Diamond Lake Trail Junction
As the path nears 1.25-miles it finds the Arapahoe Pass and Diamond Lake Trail Junction (10,746′). From here it is a 150′ drop over the next half mile to the valley floor.
North Fork Middle Boulder Creek
The path will begin crossing over several tributary streams to the North Fork Middle Boulder Creek at about 1.65 miles while on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail. This is the first area suitable for backcountry camping and it stretches out over the next quarter of a mile. At 1.75 miles the trail crosses over the North Fork Middle Boulder Creek (10,594′) via a well-built log bridge complete with handrail. There is a gorgeous waterfall (labeled North Fork Middle Boulder Creek Falls on our map) just to the north that is easily accessed via a short spur trail.
Lower Diamond Basin Meadow
Over the next mile, the Diamond Lake Trail once again begins to climb through a heavily wooded area. You will gain over 350′ on your way up to the first Diamond Lake emerging from the woods into a wide meadow at about 2.7-miles. This meadow provides gorgeous views of the mountains surrounding the Lower Diamond Basin with the Diamond Creek Cascading down the mountainside from the Upper Diamond Basin.
On the far side of the Lower Diamond Basin Meadow, the trail arrives at the Diamond Lake and Devils Thumb Trail Junction. The main Diamond Lake (10,954′) is located immediately to the right. The lake is a fairly large body of water with mountains rising out of one side and surrounded by trees on the other three sides. As you make your way along the north side you will see the numbered campsites. You must acquire a permit to camp in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
Diamond Creek Crossing
As you approach the center of Diamond Lake the path will cross over Diamond Creek cascading into the lake from the Upper Diamond Basin. There is a social trail leading towards the lake but use the logs crossing the cascade for the most direct route up the Upper Diamond Lake Trail. The social trail to the left is a bog and a sure way to soak your shoes.
Upper Diamond Creek Trail Intersection
Beyond the cascade and about 3/4 of the way down the main Diamond Lake Shoreline, the path will come to an unmarked intersection. Both paths lead to the Upper Diamond Lake Basin. The easiest route is the one to the right but the prettier way is to go straight to the back of the lake where the trail will follow the flow of the creek cascading down from Middle Diamond Lake. This is a beautiful area covered in wildflowers during the summer. The trail narrows and becomes much steeper on the backside of the first Diamond Lake.
Scaling a Small Cliff
The two paths rejoin at about 3.3 miles and continue a steep climb towards Middle Diamond Lake. As the Upper Diamond Lake Trail approached 3.5 miles it will arrive at an abrupt 5-foot cliff. The rise looks intimidating but it is easy to scramble up. This is the only hand and foot section on the entire Upper Diamond Lake Trail.
Middle Diamond Lake
Located less than a quarter of a mile past the cliff climb is the shore of Middle Diamond Lake (11,370′). It is a small lake that stretches out like a moat along the mountain cliff wall rising out of its south side. This lake feeds into the lower Diamond Lake but the unseen Upper Diamond Lake bypasses this lake instead feeding into an unnamed lake that in turn feeds into the lower Diamond Lake as well.
After taking a moment to take in Middle Diamond Lake push on up the Upper Diamond Lake Trail to the more beautiful lake hidden in the alpine bowl above. The trail continues to climb to the west gaining nearly 200′ in a quarter of a mile. The trees are very stunted in this area and the trail passes through the tree line at about 11,575 feet.
Where is the Trail?
4-miles into the hike on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail and the path enters into a large alpine basin. Here the path ahead completely disappears. Luckily the alpine basin is fairly intuitive. Head across the relatively flat basin in a westerly direction hiking towards the cliffs at the back of the basin. As you cross the basin you will see a 100′ high boulder wall with the Diamond Creek flowing down on the right side. Make your way to the base of the boulder wall and then rock hop across the creek. On the other side, you will make the final 30′ climb up the rocky terrain within earshot of the creek.
The Upper Diamond Lake
Upper Diamond Lake is a gorgeous alpine body of water. Pikas and marmots will trumpet your arrival. When the sunlight hits its surface the water lights up a rich blue. The shoreline consists of large boulders and mountain peaks rise quickly out of the water on three sides. The peak of the west wall is the Continental Divide. Pick out a boulder and sit in the quiet of this remote site. Even on the busiest summer day, there is a good chance you will have the lake all to yourself.
Backpacking the Upper Diamond Lake Trail
The Upper Diamond Lake Trail also makes for a great overnight trip into the backcountry. Permits are required in the Indian Peaks Wilderness from June 1st – September 15th. The entire season typically becomes available for reservation on recreation.gov in early February. They do hold some permits which they issue 3-days prior to the start of a backpacking trip.
Indian Peaks Wilderness Zones
The Indian Peaks Wilderness is broken into backcountry zones. You must camp in the zone issued to you in your permit. The Upper Diamond Lake Trail crosses two backcountry zones, the Diamond Lake Backcountry Zone and the Neva Backcountry Zone. Neither of these zones allows campfires. The Indian Peaks Wilderness also requires proper food storage while in the backcountry. This can be either a bear canister or a proper food hang. Be aware that the trees above Diamond Lake do not grow tall enough for a proper food hang so unless you intend to camp below Diamond Lake you will need a bear canister. Check out our post on how to choose the best backpacking food storage for more details.
Diamond Lake Backcountry Zone
The Diamond Lake Backcountry Zone has specific numbered campsites located around the lake. While the campsites are not specifically assigned in your permit, you are only allowed to camp in a designated numbered site.
Neva Backcountry Zone
The Neva Backcountry Zone on the other hand has no designated campsites or locations. You can camp anywhere so long as you adhere to Leave No Trace Principles including camping 200′ from water sources like streams and lakes as well as the trail. The best locations to look for campsites while backpacking the Upper Diamond Lake Trail in the Neva Backcountry Zone would be near the North Fork Middle Boulder Creek Falls or Middle Diamond Lake. The Upper Diamond Lake itself provides no shelter from inclement weather and has no flat areas for setting up a campsite.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness does have black bears so carry bear spray but the real danger on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail is altitude and severe weather. If you are not acclimated to the elevation make sure you drink plenty of water to stave off altitude sickness. You will also want to make sure that you are back at the tree line in the early afternoon. Violent thunderstorms are common during the Colorado summers. They come in quickly with little warning and you do not want to be caught in the treeless Upper Diamond Lake basin during a lightning storm.
Logistics forHiking Upper Diamond Lake Trail
Water is abundant on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail. The path continuously crosses over fast-flowing creeks and streams throughout the entire hike. Bring a water filter and you can hike with the confidence that you will not run out of the precious resource that helps to stave off the effects of the altitude.
With the exception of the last half mile that is traversed above the tree line, the Upper Diamond Lake Trail is well shaded. however, this is a high-altitude trail so even if only for that last half mile you should wear long sleeves and a wide brim hat or sunscreen to prevent a sunburn.
The Fourth of July trailhead is equipped with two pit toilets. These are the only toilets found on the entire journey on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail.
AfterHiking Upper Diamond Lake Trail
The small town of Nederland, Colorado is your best choice for accommodation and food options near the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Nederland’s Kathmandu Restaurant is not only our favorite eatery in the quaint mountain town, it is one of the best in the state. This is the best place to get Nepalese cuisine outside of the country of Nepal. Any time we are near the area we find an excuse to gorge ourselves at the Kathmandu Restaurant.
Upper Diamond Lake Trail in the Indian Peak Wilderness
Beautiful alpine lakes, rushing waterfalls, and rugged mountains await you on the Upper Diamond Lake Trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Regardless of whether you take on the 8.8-mile hike as a day trip or a more relaxing multi-day backpacking adventure, the trail is an amazing journey into the remote Colorado wilderness.