Crater Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Monarch Lake to Crater Lake Hike, Colorado

Monarch Lake to Crater Lake Hike, Colorado was originally published in March 2024

Lone Eagle Cirque, towering over Crater Lake is one of Colorado’s most iconic and famous views.

Located within the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Crater Lake is one of the most beautiful locations in all of Colorado being surrounded by an amphitheater of jagged peaks formed by Lone Eagle and the Maroon Bells.

As such, Crater Lake is no secret and is quite popular (I mean, it did land the cover packaging of some of Backpacker’s Pantry’s dehydrated meals). 

Due to its proximity to the Front Range urban corridor people come in flocks to take in the views of Crater Lake all summer long, therefore, leading to a permit process to camp here overnight (don’t worry, even though it’s popular, we didn’t find it to be super crowded, even on a Saturday in mid-July).

But if you’re determined and don’t mind a 15 mile day hike, you can do as my friend Tay and I did and hike out to Crater Lake from Monarch Lake for the day and return in the afternoon (yes, there were sore muscles and blisters but it was 100% worth it). 

In this guide, you’ll find all the information to plan your own visit to Crater Lake, how to get to Crater Lake from Monarch Lake Trailhead, how to attain camping permits, and more.

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Quick Tips & Info About Hiking From Monarch to Crater Lake

  • The hike to Crater Lake from the Monarch Trailhead is 7.95 miles one way (15.9 miles return).
  • Get to the trailhead early in order to secure a parking spot as the trek to Crater Lake is a popular hike and there are only 40 parking spots. There is a $5 daily parking fee (this is waived if you hold an America the Beautiful annual permit)
  • You need a permit to camp at Crater Lake (more on this below in the camping section). There are only 12 designated camping spaces and they book out months in advance. Permits go on sale in mid-March.
  • You do not need a permit if only visiting Crater Lake for the day.
  • Campfires are prohibited at Crater Lake.
  • Take care to avoid altitude sickness. Crater Lake is at an elevation of 10,357 feet. Acclimatize beforehand and make sure to drink plenty of water.
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife on the hike from Monarch Lake to Crater Lake, we saw a mom and baby moose on our trek out there.
  • Pets are allowed on the Monarch Lake and Cascade Trail but they must be on a leash.
  • Drones are prohibited in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Best Time to Visit Crater Lake

The best time of year to hike to Crater Lake is in the summer months of June to mid-September. 

Other Routes to Crater Lake

Another option to reach Crater Lake is from Brainard Lake Recreation Area but the hike from Monarch Lake to Crater Lake is much easier (this is why we opted for it over the alternative).

Hiking from Brainard Lake to Crater Lake requires a crossing over Pawnee Pass as it’s located on the western side of the Continental Divide (Crater Lake is located on the eastern side).

Monarch Lake to Crater Lake Hike

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Distance: 15.9 miles out-and-back
Time: 4-6 hours
Elevation gain/loss: +2224 feet | -2224 feet
Max elevation: 10,357 feet

Monarch Trailhead to the Eastern End of Monarch Lake

Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 257 feet

The hike to Crater Lake begins from the Monarch Lake Trailhead. Once you have parked and paid the $5 parking fee, continue west through a gate and to a hut and check-in station.

Those who have secured Crater Lake permits and are camping need to fill in their details on the check-in sheet. Those that aren’t camping can check in too- this helps in the event of an emergency that park rangers know to come looking for you if you do not return by the time you indicated.

Beyond the check-in station, the Cascade Trail begins. The Cascade Trail skirts the northeastern shore of Monarch Lake. The scenic views here of Monarch Lake are endless.

Keep an eye out for wildlife. Moose frequent this area so it’s not unusual to see them around Monarch Lake (we saw two on our hike to Crater Lake!).

Just a little beyond the edge of Monarch Lake the trail will go into the forest.

In the forest, you will reach a fork in the trail. The trail leading to the right (south) will take you to a lap around Monarch Lake.

You will want to take the trail that continues straight (west) to continue to Crater Lake.

Monarch Lake to Buchannan Pass Trail Junction

Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation gain: 257 feet

From the trail junction, the Cascade Trail will steadily incline along the edge of Buchanan Creek.

In less than a mile you will enter into the famous Hell Canyon and after roughly three miles from the fork, you’ll reach another junction with the Buchannan Pass Trail.

You will continue straight-ish to the southeast, still following the Cascade Trail to Crater Lake.

Buchannan Pass Trail Junction to the Third Waterfall

Cascade Trail Waterfall, Crater Lake, Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado

Distance: 1.7 miles
Elevation gain: 850 feet

Just beyond the junction, you will begin following Cascade Creek. 

After almost a mile from the junction with the Buchannan Pass Trail, you will cross a small bridge to the other side of Cascade Creek. 

Just beyond, you’ll reach the first of three cascading (hence the name) waterfalls. This is a great stopping point to break for a few minutes.

Continuing past the first falls, the trail rises steeply for a section before flattening out again alongside Cascade Creek. 

This is how the remainder of the route will be to Crater Lake with short steep sections broken up by meadowside and forested flatter sections. 

After the second steep section you will reach the second waterfall along the Cascade Trail and just a few minutes walking beyond will bring you to the third waterfall.

The third waterfall makes for another great resting point with lovely views abound.

Third Waterfall to Crater Lake Trail

Distance: 1.3 miles
Elevation gain: 522 feet

Beyond Waterfall #3, the trail flattens for a stint before climbing up again, though this time on some switchbacks.

After you’ve climbed up the switchbacks you’ll reach a meadow where the mountains that surround Crater Lake come into view.

Continuing past the meadow, the trail enters the forest for a section before eventually reaching the junction of Cascade Trail with the trail over Pawnee Pass that leads to Brainard Lake on the western side of the Continental Divide.

Beyond this junction, the trail becomes the Crater Lake Trail.

Crater Lake Trail to Crater Lake

Distance: 1.1 miles
Elevation gain: 322 feet

This is the final section of the hike to Crater Lake and shortly after the junction, you’ll reach a sign indicating that you’ve entered the Crater Lake Backcountry Zone. Beyond this point, no camping is allowed outside of designated areas and only with a permit.

After you’ve entered the zone, you’ll continue over a rocky section and toward the basin with epic views of Apache Peak, Fair Glacier, Lone Eagle Cirque, and Hopi Peak.

Beyond the basin, you’ll make your last elevation gain to reach Mirror Lake.

From Mirror Lake it’s a 0.1 mile walk to the west to reach the shore of Crater Lake with the unmistakable Lone Eagle Peak looming in the distance.

Once to Crater Lake the trails spiderweb in every which way, but for the best views of Crater Lake, I suggest heading to the eastern shore, following the signs toward campsites #8-12.

Crater Lake Back to the Monarch Lake Trailhead

Distance: 15.9 miles
Elevation loss: 2,224 feet

Going back to the Monarch Lake Trailhead is 100% straightforward as you will take the exact route you took to reach Crater Lake just in the reverse direction.

How to Get to the Monarch Lake Trailhead

The easiest way to reach the Monarch Lake Trailhead is to take the I-70 west from Denver and just past the town of Lawson, veer off onto the US-40 west (exit 232).

The US-40 west will take you up and over Berthoud Pass and to pass the towns of Winter Park, Fraser, and eventually Granby.

From Granby, turn right onto the US-34 east for almost 5.5 miles and then take a right onto CO Road 6 and continue west.

Note that CO Road 6 does eventually turn into a dirt road but it is totally navigable in a small car (we did it). 

Continue on CO Road 6 for about 10 minutes until dead ends, this is the parking lot for the Monarch Lakes Trailhead.

Places to Stay & Campgrounds in Indian Peaks Wilderness

Where to Stay if not Camping

While it is possible to get to the Monarch Trailhead from Denver, note that it’s a three-hour drive each way which will make for an extremely long day if hiking to Crater Lake as a day trip.

Therefore, it would be best to opt to spend the night in Grand Lake, Granby, or Winter Park. 

We stayed at my friend’s in-laws’ house in Winter Park the night before the Monarch-Crater Lake Hike to shave off some drive time ourselves.

Here are some recommended accommodations in the above-mentioned towns:

Campgrounds Near and At Crater Lake

  • Arapaho Bay Campground: The best campground option as it’s located only five minutes from the Monarch Lake Trailhead. Make reservations in advance, camping slots start at $17.25 per night.
  • Stillwater Campground: Another great option being located about 30 minutes from Monarch Lakes Trailhead. Campsites start at $19.50 per night.
  • Green Mountain: Located at Shadow Mountain Reservoir and convenient at 30 minutes from Monarch Lake Trailhead. Campground slots start at $17.25 per night.
  • Crater Lake Backcountry Sites: If you want to spend the night at Crater Lake between June 1 and September 15, you will need a permit and a camping reservation to get access to one of the 12 camping sites. Reservations open up in mid-March and fill up extremely quickly for the season so do plan far in advance. The camping permit costs $11 per night.

Have any questions about hiking from Monarch to Crater Lake?

Ask in the comments section below.

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