NOTE: Kiowa and the summit of Arikaree are located in the closed Boulder watershed area. The summits and final approach valley are off-limits without special permission. Trespassers face the possibility of a hefty fine. However, the first 3.5 miles of the route, to the top of Niwot Ridge, are public access.
From the Long Lake trailhead at around 10,500 feet in the Brainard Lake Recreation area, follow the flat, standard trail toward Long Lake. Just 0.20 miles in the trail splits – go left onto the Jean Lunning trail (Photo #1). Cross a footbridge and head south.
Another trail intersection occurs at 0.30 miles. Turn right to stay on Jean Lunning. Photo #2. Take flat trail and walkways to a smaller trail turnoff on the left side at 0.40 miles (Photo #3). This is the Niwot Ridge trail. Take it.
The Niwot Ridge trail gradually ascends through beautiful forest and is much less used than other trails in the region. Begin to break out of the forest at 11,100 feet and 1.35 miles (Photo #4) and take in fabulous views of the Indian Peaks wilderness.
At 1.75 miles and 11,250 feet, reach treeline and take in a view of the summits of Kiowa and Arikaree (Photo #5). Continue on the Niwot Ridge trail until it turns abruptly left at a cairn at around 1.9 miles and 11,300 feet. The Niwot Ridge trail loops around to the west and then gradually turns back eastward, but adds a couple of miles to the route. Instead, proceed southwest off-trail on a more direct route toward Kiowa (Photo #6), stepping lightly on the fragile alpine meadows. Make a note of the location and surroundings of this cairn before you leave – it will be important for finding the descent trail on the way back and it is not obvious as you return. Also, as you head southwest, stay south (upslope) of the forested areas, as they are dense and difficult to navigate.
The Niwot Bioreserve Tundra Lab is on the other side of the saddle directly south, but this approach heads southwest up Niwot Ridge (Photo #7). The Tundra Lab has placed various poles and precipitation measurement buckets throughout this area, but it is still a public access zone. Ascend to Niwot Ridge proper slightly to the right (north) of the bump to the southwest.
Reach the top and find a stone wind shelter at 2.75 miles and 11,900 feet (Photo #8). Again, take careful note of this wind shelter and the one at the top of the bump (slightly south). You’ll need to spot these on the way back to descend into the correct drainage. It’s easy to descend too early (too far west) and get stuck in dense forest and steep terrain far from the Niwot Ridge trail.
Continue along untracked alpine meadows on Niwot Ridge, heading to a point just to the right of Kiowa’s summit in the distance. This will have you ascend gradually to around 12,100 feet. You will cross the Niwot Ridge trail, noted with a series of snow poles, and continue across the alpine meadows toward Kiowa and Arikaree.
The watershed basin comes into view at around 3.6 miles (Photo #9). Right around the time the watershed basin comes into view there are a number of signs posted to make it clear that you are entering a restricted area.
If you plan to continue, be sure to be far enough west to be beyond the big cliff band inside the watershed drainage. The right spot is only slightly east of Kiowa’s summit. Descend 400 feet down the slope toward the lake visible in Photo 9. Cross to the left (east side) of the lake where the drainage is a small creek before it plunges off the cliff. The creek crossing is at 3.9 miles and 11,700 feet. The creek can be stepped over easily in the right season.
Head just to the right of Kiowa’s summit after crossing the creek. At around 4.0 miles and 11,750 feet you might see one of Tundra Lab’s unmanned research instrument stations (Photo #10). There are power and data lines buried or laid in conduit across this area and deeper into the valley.
After the instrument station, follow the southern lake shore to the base of Kiowa’s northern slope, and then follow the base of the slope west up the valley (Photo #11). There is a footpath here to follow through marshy ground and rocks. Stay close to Kiowa to find the driest and rockiest ground, but don’t ascend the slopes yet. There are probably Class 4 routes directly up Kiowa from here, but the valley will remain Class 2.
At around 4.4 miles find a broad flat rock with cracks running up it (Photo #12). Turn left here ascend 100 feet. At the top, you are facing a small ridge of Class 3 rock. Turn right to go around it and head toward another lake. A faint footpath is visible here with some small and occasional marker posts (Photo #13).
Follow the southern shore of the lake to about 4.9 miles and just under 12,000 feet. (Photo #14). The saddle between Kiowa and Arikaree rises just south of the west end of the lake. Begin to ascend the saddle. The going gets tougher as the terrain changes to scree and loose boulders. (Photo #15). The rock here is very loose because the area sees so little traffic. There is no sustained trail here, but there is a slightly easier path up the pitch found by heading just to the left of the low point of the saddle. (Photo #16). Watch for rockslides.
Reach the saddle at 5.3 miles and 12,625 feet. The immediately visible high point on Kiowa is of course a false summit. Head just to the right of it over Class 3 rock by any route. (Photo #17). The rock for the rest of the route is Class 3 and only moderately stable.
The next view gives you a distinct rock face to use as a landmark and another false summit (Photo #18). Ascend and pass to the left of the distinct rock face to gain the actual ridge top just shy of 13,000 feet (Photo #19). You are about half a mile from the true summit of Kiowa now. There is some moderate exposure as you move along the ridge top.
Ascend this false summit and view the remaining route to Kiowa’s summit (Photo #20). However, one last challenge remains. At 5.7 miles and 13,030 feet, a notch in the ridge creates a short Class 4 upclimb. This can be avoided by dropping left a few feet into a rocky, scree-filled gully and ascending again on the other side of the Class 4 face. (Photo #21). Turn left at the Class 4 face, drop through a notch in the rock and descend 20 feet. Turn immediately right again and carefully ascend a steep scree-filled chute to the ridge line. Once on the ridge line, look back and make a note of the entrance to the correct chute to bypass the Class 4 section (Photo #23), so as to avoid dropping into the wrong chute or unintentionally committing into the Class 4 downclimb.
After this the ridge line stay fairly flat for 500 feet, past a couple more chutes, and the true summit comes into view (Photo #22). Push up the last Class 3 pitch and arrive to the summit cairn and snowpole at 5.95 miles and 13,250 feet.
Enjoy the summit and then return via Kiowa’s ridgeline to the saddle between Kiowa and Arikaree. Approaching the saddle, the direct route up Arikaree is clear (Photo #24). This is a good time to evaluate the weather and whether to attempt Arikaree. It is about 0.75 miles and 500 feet of gain for the round-trip from the saddle to Arikaree’s summit (13,150’) and back.
After summiting Arikaree or deciding not to, descend the saddle between Kiowa and Arikaree and head toward the lake. Follow the ascent route back. The climb up to the top of Niwot Ridge after the creek crossing is about 500 feet of gain. After that, head east across the tundra until you find the correct drainage to descend to find the lower portion of the Niwot Ridge trail. It’s easy to drop one drainage too soon, especially at night or in bad weather, which leads to difficult forest without trail. Look for the stone wind shelters on Niwot Ridge (Photo #25), proceed just east of them, and then descend to find the trail cairn. From there it is just two miles back to the Long Lake trailhead.