The Best 48 Hours Ever
At the last minute, we decided to drive to Colorado to spend our Labor Day in the mountains.
We couldn’t be happier about our decision.
Despite all of our time spent in mountain national parks like Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Yosemite, we missed out on most of the high-elevation hiking because of snow-covered trails. That’s the thing about visiting every national park back-to-back; we couldn’t visit them all at an optimal time.
So whenever the opportunity came up over Labor Day weekend to get into the mountains, we seized it.
Denver is about a 12-hour drive from St. Louis and offers so many amazing hikes and easy-access mountains. Cole was lusting after a hike outside of Denver that he read about in Backpacker, so spending our holiday weekend in Denver was a no-brainer.
We convinced my sister to go with us, and on Friday after work, we were off.
Day 1: Road Trip
After stopping over briefly with friends in Kansas City, it was just another 8 hours into Denver. The drive was easy, and zero turns later, we arrived. We had lunch with one of my friends (everyone is in Denver now?!) and headed straight towards the small town of Nederland, which would serve as our base camp.
Our plan was to find dispersed camping in Roosevelt National Forest, and we got extremely lucky to stumble upon an RV who was about to leave their spot in the free Gordon Gulch Dispersed Campground in Roosevelt National Forest, just outside of Nederland.
On our first evening, we headed to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area inside the Indian Peaks Wilderness. It was already evening, so we walked 1 mile to Mitchell Lake and enjoyed the sunset. Judging these first views, we knew it was about to be an epic weekend.
Day 2: Lake Isabelle & Pawnee Pass
Cole had read about this hike in Backpacker, so this was the main event of our weekend. We woke up early and arrived at the trailhead (also located in Brainard Lake Recreation Area) around 5:30 a.m. with the hopes of watching the sunrise from Lake Isabelle, two miles into the hike.
Even though it was a holiday-weekend Sunday, we were the only ones on the trail as we walked with headlamps to Lake Isabelle. This stretch of the hike was easy with only about 400 feet of elevation gain. We enjoyed the solitude at the lake, which was conveniently positioned to receive incredible morning light.
We continued up the trail to Pawnee Pass (about 10 miles roundtrip with 2,100 feet of elevation gain) and the views got better and better. It was the perfect reintroduction to the mountains, with a steady, exposed, high-elevation climb to the pass. And ending at about 12,500 feet, coming from St. Louis, we were thankful that we weren’t climbing 14ers on our first day in altitude.
After our long hike, we relaxed back at our campsite, which had an amazing view and plenty of space to explore. Cole even launched the drone for some sunset views.
Day 3: Arapaho Pass & Dorothy Lake
Our second hiking day was also a big one: the highly-recommended Arapaho Pass and Dorothy Lake trail. We packed up our camp early and arrived at the trailhead (called Fourth of July Trailhead near Eldora) around 7 a.m. We were among the first hikers to begin the steady trail up to Arapaho Pass.
Again, we were floored by the instant and continuous views of the area, which made our climb much more tolerable. The trail is one steadily-climbing straight, without many switchbacks, so the views were constantly changing and improving as we ascended.
We’ve seen a lot in our years of exploring, but few views have compared to those from the top of Arapaho Pass. We made the extra short jaunt up to Dorothy Lake (and Cole even climbed beyond that up to another ridge) and we soaked it all in.
After descending and pulling off our dusty boots, we started the overnight drive back to Missouri. And that was that.
The feeling of being back in the mountains was a profound one. We breathed in crisp air, we stood in awe, we found much-needed reconnection and disconnection.
It was a fast two days, but it was enough.