Because there are so many possible ways to do this, and depending on where on the Front Range many people may live, we'll leave it to you to figure out how to get to state highway 119, also known as the "Peak-to-Peak" highway which along with SH72 and SH7 connects Blackhawk, Nederland, Ward, Allenspark and Estes Park. If coming from the west on I-70, you'll probably want to take the newer Central City cutoff just east of Idaho Springs, to Central City, Blackhawk and SH119. Out of Estes Park, the road you want is SH7. North of Nederland, SH119 switches to SH72. The goal is to get to Ward. Just north of the turn for Ward, turn west onto the Brainard Lakes Road (FR112). The poorly-maintained, paved road climbs up some switchbacks and then heads generally west and comes to a new, large parking area on the right with facilities. This new lot serves as a trailhead for some trails that take you on back to the Brainard Lakes, but starting from here will add significantly to overall mileage if heading back to the main group of peaks. Just past this lot, there is an entry, "fee" station. Cost for admission is $10 with various government issued passes allowing free access such as a "Senior Pass." During off hours, you'll need to self-register.
Continuing past the entry station, in a couple more miles you'll come to another turn on the right, just before the main Brainard Lake for the Pawnee Campground, and just past there will be another road on the right that will take visitors into yet another large parking area with toilet & water facilities and a wheelchair accessible picnic area. Drive on the main road west to the west end of Brainard Lake. The road to the two parking lots crosses S. St. Vrain Creek then forks. Turn left twice for the Long Lake parking lot. This will provide access to Apache and Navajo Peaks. Being the closest parking to the main trails, these lots fill up the earliest.
WARNING: Because of the popularity of this area and its close proximity to the recreational-seeking hordes of the Front Range, the parking for Brainard Lakes quickly fills on summer weekends to the point where later arrivers may have to park far back from the trailheads. Arrive Early! Think - Longs Peak parking problems.
The only close-by camping is the Brainard Lakes Campground, a fee area maintained by the Forest Service. Presently, advance reservations cannot be made, so finding an open campsite between Memorial Day to Labor Day can be difficult. No camping is allowed beyond the entry station in any other area. The Indian Peaks Wilderness does allow backcountry camping, but by permit only. If that's your choice, you can begin your research at the link below. Because of the mixture of private and forest service land all around Ward, it's very difficult to find any at-large spot where you can pull off and spend the night without possibly violating someone's private property or being so close to such, that you have no privacy. The nearest other National Forest campgrounds are Camp Dick (less than 10 miles north on 72) and the Rainbow Lakes, south on 72 and then up CR116.
From the Long Lake trailhead parking, walk on the well-used trail to Long Lake through forest. Compared to the Mitchell Lake/Blue Lake trail, this Long Lake trail is in much better shape. The trail initially takes you near the lake outlet in about .2 mile. After that, it goes along the north shore, in the forest and stays well away from the lake. Follow the trail around the lake on the north shore for a mile to a trail intersection. Stay left here for the trail marked "Isabelle Glacier." Continue another mile on trail to Lake Isabelle staying on the north side of the lake. The trail gains elevation more steeply just before the lake, then follows close to the shore through some willowy sections and then climbs a little before dropping you back down through a rubble area back to the shore. Beyond Lake Isabelle, there are three successive basins with intervening, steeper sections to ascend. Just beyond Lake Isabelle, the trail ascends on some switchbacks next to a beautiful cascading stream. In the next basin, the trail meanders over to the south side of the basin, crossing the main stream and becoming somewhat lost in that section by following the stream course briefly. After that, the trail ascends up to the next basin which holds a small, unnamed lake at the foot of Shoshone Peak. By the time you reach here, most of the terrain is rocky with plenty of boulder-talus. In earlier season, expect to be mostly on snow from here on out. The trail to "Isabelle Glacier" will no longer be of use here. Continue WSW either off-trail or following faint climbers trails to a yet higher basin at 12,100 filled with more boulder-talus. Now, you are at the foot of Apache and Navajo and it's time to make a decision as to which of these two summits to climb first or which you'll be doing alone as a single peak day. You may also want to make mental note of "Airplane Gully" for future reference, especially if you plan on including Navajo in your plans for the day.
A note before continuing: In 1998, Gerry Roach published his book on climbing in the Indian Peaks, the year in which we climbed Apache and Navajo. If only we had known about that book at the time! We did this climb with very little beta to go on. With that said, our choice that day was to head directly up a snow-filled couloir that topped out just a little south of the Apache summit. This route has become known as the "Apache Couloir." We did this route about July 8th. The couloir was completely snow-filled. In fact, from Lake Isabelle on, we had been on snow most of the time. The couloir probably averages 35 - 45 degrees. Ice axe is mandatory. Crampons or micro spikes are welcome. We had only brought ice axes. The east-facing couloir will soften up quickly in the morning so step-making should not be a problem. Watch for a cornice at the head. You don't want that releasing while you're in the gully. The 1,000 feet of gain is just a long grunt. We rate it Class 2+ because you at least need to know what you're doing with an ice axe and how to handle yourself on steeper snow. Gerry Roach classifies this as a "classic" route. In mid-summer, surrounded by almost all rock and snow/ice, it certainly has an alpine feel about it.
Once you top out at the head of the couloir, it's an easy stroll over scree and talus to the summit just a short distance away. If you are averse to a snow route, then perhaps the easiest other way up is called the "East Ledges" route. Rated at Class 2+, the route begins in the same boulder-filled basin at 12,100 feet. (Snow filled in earlier season.) We returned in 2016 to climb Apache (and Navajo) by starting up this route. Head uphill in the direction of the large snowfield below the Navajo-Apache saddle. Some call this Navajo Glacier. A little below the snowfield, turn right (north) and follow a complex system of rock ledges to gain the south ridge of Apache not far from its true summit. In mid-July 2016, we could complete about 98% of this route off snow. Frankly, snow would have been easier than the talus. About mid way up, we found one very distinct ledge that we followed uphill to the north which deposited us on a slope of mostly broken rocks and boulders at times. We found it easiest to just head mostly directly straight up to the Apache south ridge. In essence, this ledges system just parallels the Apache Couloir on what will usually be exposed rock on the south side. The ledges consist of rock, some talus, gravel and boulder talus and some occasional tundra. Once on the south ridge of Apache, walk on easier but still rocky terrain, north to the summit.
Once on top, soak in the amazing view. To the east you see the broad expanse of the eastern plains of Colorado and much of the front range corridor. North and south, you see all the Indian Peaks summits and all the way into Rocky Mountain NP. To the west, you can see off toward Granby and the ranges beyond there. Now, make a decision as to whether or not to continue to Navajo Peak. If you do so, you need to be prepared for Class 3 scrambling, and a Class 4 ascent on Navajo. Some may wish to have a rope. If just heading back down, for those with ice axe and necessary skills, descend back down the Apache Couloir for an amazing glissade. If not skilled and/or somewhat terrified by such, follow the "East Ledges" route back down.
A few points first: A. Though we list Arikaree and Kiowa as neighbors to Navajo, they both fall within the City of Boulder Watershed and are thus, "forbidden fruit." Enter at your own risk. B. As mentioned with Apache Peak, we were climbing these two summits without much beta/help. Wish we had known about Gerry Roach's book. It would have saved us some grief which leads to the third point. C. The actual route we took from Apache to Navajo was more of a mistake than a route. While we don't necessarily recommend this route, having completed the standard Apache to Navajo traverse using the NW couloir on Navajo, we've decided that this alternate route is really not that much worse.
From the summit of Apache, we headed south along the ridge crest on talus and scree. The immediate destination was the false summit of Apache along this ridge. After about a third of a mile, a sharp drop on the ridge tempted us to head down on the east side and onto the "glacier." We had to jump from a rock face across the "berschrung" and land on a flatter spot on the snow. From there, we wanted to go up the west or northwest side of Navajo, by traversing back to the Apache/Navajo saddle (which would have been the standard traverse route had we known) but a group of roped up climbers convinced us that perhaps that way was more technical than it appeared and we didn't want to be stuck behind them with no gear of our own. So... we began a long descent down the glacier of about 600 feet in elevation before contouring east on a lot of snow to some sloping rock benches below the north face of Navajo (perhaps 12,600 ft.). At one point on this descent, Carrie lost control and had to self arrest. These sloping benches led us over to the two main, north-facing couloirs that lead up from the 12,100 bowl to the saddle on Niwot Ridge. One source we had recommended using the eastern gully (which turned out to be "airplane gully"), but we decided to go up the first or western one. It wasn't long before we encountered a cliff and a waterfall. Not good. So we got out of the gully on the west side and clambered around (3rd class with some exposure) on fairly stable rock for a while before re-entering the gully higher up (about 150 feet) above the waterfall. Now the gully became steeper and was filled with snow. So we forged our way on up making use of our ice axes until we finally reached the saddle on Niwot Ridge. Hurray! Now on the ridge, we headed west on broken rock and climbed up the remaining 400 feet to the Navajo summit. This last 3rd class scramble was the delight of the day. When we arrived at the summit, the rope-using group had arrived before us from the ridge traverse and were now departing. Another group of climbers then arrived having just completed the traverse without needing rope. Bummer! If only we had known. So there's our route. A photo in the gallery shows our approximate route. Now for a couple more reasonable suggestions.
In the summer of 2016, we returned to do the Apache/Navajo climb by what has become the "classic" route so we could write this up from first-hand experience. We ascended Apache using the Class 2+ "ledges" route. So, from the summit of Apache, walk south on the connecting ridge over easy Class 2 talus heading for the two false summits along the ridge. You can bypass the first false summit on the west, (makes little difference in effort) but it's not advisable to do so on the second because of steep drops and gullies. At the second false summit, the ridge heads down steeply. It can be a little intimidating at first, but goes as a Class 3 downclimb if you remain on the ridge crest. Some may be tempted to take a steep, loose gully on the left to sandy looking benches below but the ridge crest appears to be the best solution. The route on the left (east) will likely force you out onto a section of the Navajo Glacier. Continuing directly down the 3rd class ridge crest, at the last 15 - 20 feet, there will be a broken rock face to downclimb the remaining last bit to the saddle and Dickers Peck - a rugged pinnacle and from the convoluted name, you can guess what was really imagined when named. We used a cleft on the left to make the downclimb. This was a 4th class move that required proper facing-in technique, but did not require protection because exposure is minimal. From the saddle, walk around the east side of the pinnacle and past a "tunnel" that looks down to the west, then scramble up (there's one little 3rd class move to get onto the ramp) to an obvious ramp that heads right (SW - 3rd Class). This ramp takes you to the "West Chimney"/couloir. There are actually two couloirs here. The left one is the first and obvious choice. Sources say the chimney ascends about 100 feet. It seemed like and appeared to be more. It's a 3rd class climb with at least two short sections that require a 4th class move. In early summer (June), this chimney may still be filled with snow, in which case ice axe and crampons are required. Later season, it can still be wet in here thus requiring greater care. In our mid-July 2016 ascent, there was no wetness, ice or snow to contend with. Though the chimney has its share of loose rocks, the holds and footing are generally secure, but the chimney is quite narrow. There are really no places climbers below can get safely out of the line-of-fire of the lead climber. So bring & use a helmet! Do you need a rope & protection for this couloir? It will definitely depend on your comfort level in such situations. I would not bring a novice in here without some back-up gear. But for us, we did not use a rope or any other protection other than helmets. While the couloir has a very vertical feel to it, the narrowness of it makes you feel less exposed - kind of like a slot canyon.
Once out of the chimney, you are still below the summit block of Navajo. There's more than one way to finish from here. One source says to head right toward a "platform" on the skyline. This was to us, the obvious choice and it followed a "ramp" of sorts across the head of the couloir. Once on a ridgeline, we scrambled back to the left some and basically followed the easiest path or path of least resistance. This connected us with the route that comes up from Airplane Gully, not far from the summit.
If you're coming from the summit of Navajo to Apache, as you descend to the connecting ridge, the gully described above will be the northernmost of the gullies on the west side. Many seem to view going down this gully as more difficult than going up. That makes some sense since downclimbing is almost always more intimidating. This is when you may really want a rope for some protection.
For Navajo alone from the basin at 12,100 feet, you'll need to ascend up "Airplane Gully," for the standard route. As you stand in the basin looking south toward Niwot Ridge and Navajo, you'll see two distinct couloirs. Airplane Gully will be the couloir to the left. The one to the right is what we ended up in in our 1998 climb. The "Airplane Gully" is so named because of the wreckage left behind of a crashed C-47 aircraft from the winter of 1948. Parts of the wreckage are still strewn all along this route. Head up the talus cone into the loose, rock-filled gully. About half way up the gully, it forks. Either fork will work. The left one becomes quite narrow. There's more wreckage in the right fork. Coordinates for the head of the eastern most fork are: N 40° 03' 13.9" W 105° 38' 31.9"
From the top of "Airplane Gully," head west up along the ridge crest toward the summit on Class 2, 2+ broken rock and ledges. The summit is protected by a rocky cliff band. There are at least two ways through. One route goes right onto the north face and heads up a Class 3 chimney to broach the cliff and comes out very near the summit. There's something of a trail to guide you up through here anyhow. There is also a Class 3 broken chimney on the SE side of the summit cliff band. We also found a Class 2+ way utilizing various ledges to descend on the SSE side and then work back over to the east ridge. There's more than one way to skin a cat here. Make it as fun or as easy as you prefer. This final 3rd class summit scramble is the best part of the day. Enjoy it. It will end all too quickly. Please visit our photo gallery for pictures taken of our 2016 ascent of both Apache and Navajo.
Of the various sources consulted, this link provided some good route detail and excellent route photos of some of the key sections: http://indianpeaks-runner.blogspot.com/2013/09/apache-peak-13441-navajo-peak-13409.html. There are plenty of other reports on SummitPost as well and on Lists of John. In conclusion, just hiking back into the basin below Apache and Navajo peaks offers stunning mountain views, scenery, flowers, waterfalls and glaciers and snowfields. Don't miss this hike!