Mileage: 9 miles roundtrip to the peak
Altitude: 11,081 at trailhead, 13,304 at summit
Elevation gain: 2,223 feet
To get there: If climbing James from the Winter Park side, take Highway 40 to CR 80/FSR 149 (between mile markers 231 and 232, north of Winter Park Ski Resort), also known as Rollins Pass. Follow the road for about 10 miles to the old railroad trestle. Park at the Rogers Pass Trail sign on the right-hand side of the road.
If climbing James from the Denver side take I-70 to the Fall River Road/St. Mary’s Glacier exit and head north for about ten miles. Park at the trail head.
The chill of fall is in the air as we set out around 8 a.m. We are hiking in the shade of a spruce forest, looking at the approaching timberline. I am wringing my hands, keeping my fingers in motion as I eye the rising light of the sun to the east. We are out of the shaded trees quickly, only to spend the remainder of the hike on the wind-whipped tundra.
“Getting out of the trees that fast makes me feel like we’ve gone further than we have,” I comment. In my experience, walking up the tundra usually means the summit is close. But not today.
As much as I love a grove of Aspens in the fall, the squatting grasses and groundcovers on the tundra reward an autumn hiker up close. The deep red of Alpine Aven (which pikas use as a natural preservative for their winter food stores) and the russet grasses change the mountainside subtly, letting only the hiker who walks alongside them notice this signal of coming winter.
As we continue, we come to a fork in the trail and follow the Ute Trail. We walk along a narrow, rocky path that ascends toward the Continental Divide. We have views of Parry, Bancroft, and James, which was named after botanist Edwin James, who was the first person to do a recorded ascent of a Colorado 14er (during the same expedition that Stephen Long discovered and named Long’s Peak) Instead of said 14er being named after him it was named Pikes Peak and Mr. James left his namesake on this 13er instead. On top of the Continental Divide ridgeline the trail begins to level off and we follow another right fork for the final climb up James’ slanting shoulder. At the top we come to a ‘T’ in the trail and turn right to find small rock shelters. Out of the wind here, we can finally bask in the high sun.
We discover gaggles of hikers coming up the other side of James Peak from a trailhead at St. Mary’s Glacier that can be easily reached
from Denver. It is a flawless, blue-skied day so we laze around on the summit for a while. On the way down we stop multiple times on the Continental Divide ridgeline to take pictures and identify the spattering of lakes below us. We know that winter is on its way and that there won’t be many more days like this; we lollygag back to the car, making any excuse not to go home and go back inside.
Hiking details from ‘Hiking Grand County, Colorado: A Backcountry Guide to Winter Park, James Peak Area, Fraser Valley, Indian Peaks, Never Summer Range, Troublesome Valley, Williams Fork Mountains, Vasquez Mountains, and Beyond’ by Deborah Carr and Lou Ladrigan, from http://www.summitpost.org/james-peak-st-mary-s-glacier/150240, and from http://www.americanjourneys.org/aj-144a/summary/index.asp.