Isabelle Glacier
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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    Distance: 8.0 miles (round trip)

    Walking time: 5 1/4 hours
    : 1,500 ft. gain/loss
       Long Lake Trailhead (start):10500 ft.
       Lake Isabelle: 10,868 ft.
       Isabelle Glacier: 12,000 ft.

    Trail: Easy and well marked as far as Isabelle Lake, but very steep and rocky for the last 0.5 mile.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from mid-November until mid-July.

    Vicinity: Near Boulder

    Isabelle GlacierIsabelle Glacier


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    I must admit I have a certain passion for glaciers, even small ones, but if I had to choose the one glacier in Colorado that stirs my soul the most, it would have to be Isabelle Glacier. Isabelle lies hidden in a high, isolated bowl-shaped basin at the top of the South St. Vrain drainage. Surrounded on three sides by the rugged Shoshoni, Apache, and Navajo Peaks, and pinched off on the fourth side by the Niwot Ridge, Isabelle Glacier could not be in a more spectacular setting. The glacier is also intriguing from a geological point of view. It is fed by two opposing snowfields on the slopes of Shoshoni and Apache Peaks, and in the bottom of the bowl where the ice flows meet there are several large cracks that appear to be stress lines. Under the cracks lies a frozen lake that partially melts during the summer months and flows out under the moraine on the southeast side of the bowl. The pale, milky "glacier blue" color of the partially melted ice provides a striking contrast to the deep blue Colorado sky in late summer, and the trail ends at a perfect vantage point on the glacierís southern side. The view is stunning.

    From the parking area the trail goes only 0.3 mile before immerging from the forest on the eastern shore of Long Lake. Long Lake, as the name suggests, is a slender elongated body of water that measures about 0.6 mile from end to end. The lake is quite pretty, but unfortunately the trail rarely comes closer than 200 feet from its shore and the water stays partially hidden behind a veil of trees.

    The real scenery starts after leaving the west end of Long Lake. As the trail starts to climb up out of the forest the Indian Peaks along the Continental Divide begin to come into view, and by the time you reach Isabelle Lake, which is just below timber line, Pawnee, Shoshoni, Apache, and Navajo peaks are all prominently displayed on the skyline. Navajo Peak is the most scenic of the summits, and camera lenses along the trail seem to turn to it as surely as a compass needle points north. Navajo Peak is a classic cone-shaped mountain, 13,409 feet high, with a sharply pointed summit and a permanent snowfield called Navajo Glacier flowing down its northwest side.

    The trail continues along the north side of Isabelle Lake to the junction with the Pawnee Pass Trail, and then bears left along the upper reaches of South St. Vrain Creek. More climbing is in order here; you still have another 1,100 feet of elevation gain to realize before arriving at the foot of Isabelle Glacier. Most other hikers will be left behind as you leave Isabelle Lake; only a small percentage of them make it all the way to the glacier.

    A mile after you leave the lake you will come to a small picturesque tarn in the valley below the glaciers. You cannot see Isabelle Glacier yet, but Navajo Glacier is starkly apparent across the treeless tundra a half-mile southwest of the tarn. Navajo Peak looks to be little more than a stoneís throw away, but actually it is 0.7 mile distant and 2,000 feet above the trail. The most common mountaineering route to the top of Navajo departs from the trail at this point, climbs to the top of Niwot Ridge, and approaches the peak from the side opposite Navajo Glacier.

    Isabelle Glacier lies in a smaller basin 580 feet above the northwest side of the tarn. The trail, where it exists, is extremely rocky and steep, and you wonít even see the glacier until you are right on top of it. But donít loose heart-it is there waiting for you. After about a half-hour of climbing you will see a 30-foot high moraine of broken granite that Isabelle has, over the centuries, pushed out of the basin, and on the other side of that moraine is the foot of the glacier.

    One final note. It is tempting to walk out onto the bottom of Isabelle Glacier, but it is not wise to go too far-especially in late summer after considerable melt has occurred. As stated earlier, there is an ice lake under the snow, and as the water drains from this lake snow bridges are formed above it. If someone were to fall through the top into the icy water below it would be very difficult to get him out quickly.

    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Isabelle Glacier area
    we recommend:
    Indian Peaks (Trails Illustrated, map #102)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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