Arapaho Pass, Colorado: Perfect for Day Trips and Multi-day Snowshoe Treks

Arapaho Pass - Cameron L. Martindell/

The trail up – Cameron L. Martindell/

Down in the lowlands, it may seem silly to consider snowshoeing when there are traces, if any, snow on the ground. But it’s worth being savvy to what’s going on in the mountains and getting out in the early season. Destinations like Arapaho Pass are great in the summer when the dirt road is clear and there’s a nice campground to drive right up to where the trailhead is. In the deep of winter, that dirt road is not plowed and will just sit under the snow until it all melts making an easy day trip a multi-day expedition. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and that may be what you’re up for.

But you will be snowshoeing along a few miles of easy grade, wide trail double track before you even reach the trail head and start your climb. You may well need to camp there and make a push for the pass in the morning.

Arapaho Pass - Cameron L. Martindell/

Frozen Swamps – Cameron L. Martindell/

If you go in the early season however, you will probably be able to drive most, if not all the way through the few inches of snow on the road. Three of us did this here in Colorado and looking out my window now in Boulder at the 14 inches of snow that have accumulated in the past few days we timed it well.

We made it about a mile and a half from the trail head and had to park our 4-wheel drive vehicle in a small pull out and started to hoof-it. Snowshoes were not necessary for the road, but we were glad we had them when we hit the trail.

In the cover of the trees, we got glimpses of the snowcapped peaks around us through the canopy as we worked our way up the side of the valley. The sky was beautifully clear and as the trees started to thin out the pass sat peacefully before us. As we cleared tree line the wind started to pick up so we found one of the last stands of trees to use as a windbreak to grab some eats before pushing on. As great as it is to have your lunch at the top in the summer, the conditions are not very conducive for sitting still and trying to unwrap a sandwich or snacks.

Arapaho Pass - Cameron L. Martindell/

Last push to the pass – Cameron L. Martindell/

Going again, we trudged along a frozen marsh. This is an eerie prospect as the grasses and tufts coming up from what was once liquid crunch under our snowshoes and we can only hope it’s frozen all the way through so as not to end up soaking our feet. Then, on the open ice, frozen plants look up at us through the clear ice and the snowshoe crampons squeak and frames clank on the hard and fast ice.

Beyond that, we passed a beautiful side canyon that leads to the Arapaho Glacier, another luring adventure with steep canyon walls up a craggy ravine. At this point, we’ve lost the trail (clearly as we’re crossing over the top of the marsh) but we have our sights set on the trail ahead on the hillside leading to the pass, the final push.

Once on the hillside, we find ourselves in the lee of the wind and we can unzip some to regulate our temperature. The last thing we want to do is over heat and start to sweat which will instantly freeze when we get back in the wind on the pass.

Arapaho Pass - Cameron L. Martindell/

Arapaho Pass – Cameron L. Martindell/

We also find, the trail is mostly wind scoured and we ditch our snowshoes as not to beat them up on the rough rocks still exposed. Sure, there are a few drifts we need to punch through, but nothing that a good pair of gaiters can protect you from… I wish I had mine. The others had theirs.

Cresting the pass, the continental divide, the view was slowly reveled to us and the cold wind stung our smiling faces. Moments were taken to grab some photos and then the sun dipped behind the peak to the southwest and it suddenly became obvious there wasn’t much daylight left and we might be hiking out in the dark.

End of trail dusk - Cameron L. Martindell/

End of trail dusk – Cameron L. Martindell/

The sun had set behind us, behind the continental divide by the time we reached the trailhead leaving the sky purple above us and dark before us down valley. We got back to the truck on the far side of twilight and found two guys who had gotten their car stuck in the drainage ditch along the side of the unmaintained road. A solid half hour of effort cleared them and we were on our way back home from a day trek that will take at least two days for anyone else attempting it this season.

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About the author

Cameron L. Martindell

Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure and expedition writer and photographer who is always “Off Yonder: Seeing the world for what it is.” In addition to writing his own popular blog [], he is a Senior Editor for Elevation Outdoors Magazine [] and contributes to National Geographic Adventure, Wired Magazine and Backpacker among others.

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