This is a challenging hike that's jam-packed with everything; peaks, lakes, long off-trail sections, and great photo opportunities throughout. Complete it as a full day-hike or take some time and enjoy camping along the way.
This hike has two trailheads two miles apart, so it's best done with two cars. Considering the long drive to the trailhead, you might want to drive up Friday afternoon and hike in 0.8 miles to a beautiful campsite, large enough for a dozen people, just above Monarch Lake (waypoint 065).
Head east from the Monarch Lake Trailhead on the Cascade Trail
. At 1.3 miles, reach the junction with the Arapaho Pass Trail
. Cross Hell Canyon at 2.1 miles. Reach Shelter Rock campsite and the junction with Buchanan Pass Trail
at 3.0 miles.
Go up Buchanan Creek on Buchanan Pass Trail
and at 5.3 miles reach the Gourd Lake Trail
junction. There are several good campsites here. Climb 1,270 feet in 2.5 miles to Gourd Lake. There are good campsites on the east side of the lake. Continue on the trail around to the north side of the lake and at 8.2 miles the trail leaves the lake and climbs 325 feet in 0.3 miles to a tarn. The trail ends at 8.5 miles.
Continue past several more tarns on Cooper Pass Traverse Route
to reach Island Lake at 9.1 miles. Continue around the west side of Island Lake. A small cliff with krummholz (stunted wind-blown trees) is a little tricky.
At the Island Lake inlet, there's an optional route up to the top of Cooper Peak (not mapped). This will add about a mile round trip, with 800 feet of non-technical climbing. Don't try to go directly from the summit of Cooper Peak north to Cooper Pass as there is a cliff.
From Island Lake, continue through a boulder field to Cooper Pass. This section is about 0.5 miles with 450 feet of climbing. In July, you can easily cross on snowfields to avoid the boulders, especially if you bring microspikes. The east side of Cooper Pass is a bit loose in places but nothing difficult.
The west side of Cooper Pass has large areas of steep, loose scree. Go straight down the lowest line of the gully to avoid the loose scree, for about a quarter-mile. Then you'll reach the meadow and descend another quarter-mile to Upper Lake at 10.5 miles.
Continue down another quarter-mile to Stone Lake to pick up Roaring Fork Trail # 3
. The best campsites are around the outlet of the lake. From Stone Lake, descend slightly and then hike up to the Irving Hale Pass at 13.1 miles. Descend to the Watanga Lakes trail junction at 14.5 miles. Pass a small campsite at 14.9 miles and another small campsite at 16.1 miles. Continue down Roaring Fork Creek to the Roaring Fork trailhead at 17.5 miles.
If you didn't bring two cars you'll have to hike or hitchhike two miles back to the Monarch Lake trailhead.