Lower Crater Lakes

Distance7.02 mi
Elevation Gain1460 ft
My Time3 hr 59 min
DifficultyModerate to Hard
Closest TownRollinsville
Food Nearby Last Stand Tavern

Lower Crater Lakes

The Lower Crater Lakes hike leads to the two lower of the four crater lakes located in the James Peak Wilderness. This is a very popular hiking area with several different trails originating in the same place.

Getting Started

The trail to the Lower Crater Lakes starts, like a few other hikes, on the South Boulder Creek trail. This trail is in the popular Moffat tunnel/East Portal trailhead complex near Rollinsville. The South Boulder Creek trail is really a fun little trail. It takes you through the woods and weaves its way over some log bridges over the creek. This was my first time being here in the snow and it really was spectacular.

A photo of me walking across a snow covered log bridge on the Lower Crater Lakes trail.  The snow was anywhere from 3 to 5 inches deep in spots.
The Snow made the trail to the Lower Crater Lakes look like a winter wonderland

One and a third miles into the South Boulder Creek trail you will come upon the first trail junction. The Forest Lakes trail will intersect at this point but to make it to the Crater Lakes you will want to continue towards Rogers Pass and stay on South Boulder Creek. Up to the junction the trail is pretty flat and easy to handle. Only a few sections make it over 10% elevation grade.

That changes after the junction and the trail will begin to get a little steeper. Just over a half mile away is the junction with the Crater Lakes trail and there are several sections of that stretch that will be over 10% grade.

Crater Lakes Trail

The Crater Lakes trail is when this hike really got fun for me. This section of the hike starts completely in the woods and on the day I hiked it at the end of October was completely snow covered. There was so much snow I almost missed the trail. The junction was a big step up onto a rock and I couldn’t see the foot prints in the snow to start.

A narrow trail cutting through the snow and surrounded by tall trees as it climbs up a hill on the way to Lower Crater Lakes.
The trail gets steeper and more narrow the closer to the Lower Crater Lakes that you get

Once I found the trail it began to go uphill right away. The first mile of this section of the trail has a 600 foot elevation gain! The trail gets a little narrow and bit rocky as well. In the fresh snow it was a little hard to follow and I found myself wandering about a bit. When I was on the trail I really enjoyed it. There were some nice switchbacks and the woods were great but I suggest bringing a digital map if you go in the winter after a snow!

The Clearing

Just over 3 miles from the start of the hike the trail flattens out and you will find yourself in a more open setting. This is very noticeable since most of the trail up until this point was covered with trees.

A snow covered mountain is visible in the background and footprints lead through the snow in the foreground on the way to the Lower Crater Lakes
Footsteps in the snow leading through the clearing on the way to Lower Crater Lakes

You are now only about a half mile from the lakes! The trail will lead you back into the woods for a bit and the southern lake will be on your left hand side. In the fresh snow there was not a real direct access route down to the southern lake so I continued to the northern lake first.

The Northern Lake

The northern lake is a little further down the trail but has some really nice water access.

The Northern lower crater lake is about 70% frozen with snow over the frozen spots. on either edge the water is flowing.
The mostly frozen northern lower Crater Lake

The northern lake was about three quarters frozen with some open flowing water around the edges. Be careful near the edges as I got a little too close and stepped on what I thought was the bank but was really ice that I quickly stepped through and got a wet foot for my troubles.

Near the bank of the northern lake is a clearing in the trees that lead to a bit of better access to the southern lake.

The Southern Lake

The southern lake doesn’t have as much open space around the banks but it was thawed out and flowing freely.

The emerald water of the southern lower crater lakes is flowing freely and not frozen. The sun is reflecting off the water.
The free flowing water of the Southern Lower Crater Lakes reflects the sun

The southern lake runs right up against the mountains and really is a beautiful spot if you can find some space around the edge. The snow was also a lot deeper around the lakes. While most of the trail was ankle deep snow, by the lakes was about knee deep.

The deeper snow by the lakes also covered any semblance of the trails to the Upper Crater Lakes. Later in the season, or in the summer you should be able to find the trails to lead to those if you are interested in continuing. I called it a day after spending a good amount of time between the two lakes.

A lovely hike in one of my favorite hiking areas.

Video of the Lower Crater Lakes Trail

I have put together a couple of videos of the hike. This first one is more of a narrative version of the hike:

Next up is a raw, time-lapse version of the hike that I like to call the hikers edit. The hikers edit is to give you a feel of what the trail itself looks like. If you enjoy either of these videos I would love it if you subscribe to my YouTube channel. It is free to subscribe and you will get notified when I upload new content.

Distance and Elevation

If you don’t have the AllTrails app you might want to check it out, I really love mine. It records your progress and is a great way to search for hikes that are nearby and gives you difficulty measurements. According to AllTrails today’s hike was around 7.02 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 1460 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 10,608 feet. I was also moving for a total of 3 hours and 59 minutes.

Effort

The hike to the Lower Crater Lake area is a consistent incline which gets gradually steeper as you get closer to the lake. The effort level wasn’t overwhelming but it was consistent. What made it a little more challenging this day was the fresh snow that made the trail hard to follow and find at times.

Terrain

My hike was covered in a pretty good blanket of early season snow but I from previous hikes in the area I can say that the trail is a mix of big rocks and dirt. There are a couple of spots where you will need to walk across the tops of boulders as well. Early on in the trail there are some narrow log bridges to cross.

Access

The trail to the Lower Crater Lakes starts at the East Portal access point to the James Peak Wilderness. The trail is down a long dirt road that is in pretty good shape and most cars will be able to handle it as long as you take your time. There are a couple of pit toilets available at the trailhead. I would say there is room for about 40 cars at the parking area but it fills up quick as several trails start from this portal.

Wrapping up Lower Crater Lakes

The hike to the Lower Crater Lakes was a really enjoyable hike and I can’t wait to do it again someday. I was surprised with the amount of snow that was on the ground but it made for a really fun day on the trail. The lakes themselves are great with plenty of room around the northern lake to spread out and spend a nice day or have some lunch.

The East Portal trailheads where the hike originates is very popular and there are usually a lot of people around. The South Boulder Creek trail at the beginning of the hike is also are really nice trail that spends a lot of time next to the creek. Overall a really enjoyable hike!

I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map page that you can find here. If you have a suggestion or comment you can email me at fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com or follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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