Caribou Lake lies at treeline on the west side of the Continental Divide in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, part of the Front Range of Colorado. The great western wall of the Arapaho Peaks rises behind it. To the right, just out of the frame, is Arapaho Pass. A trail switchbacks up a steep, rubble-strewn slope between the lake and the pass.
Caribou Lake, besides being one of the most beautiful spots in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, is an important place for understanding ancient human history area as well. It was visited for millennia by Indians who used the pass as a major route across the Continental Divide. The Ute and Arapaho tribes, historically enemies, would meet at the pass in peace to trade. The Arapahos called the Arapaho Peaks the Pawnee Forts, after a group of Pawnee sought protection and defense on the mountain’s slopes. There is the possibility that Shoshone and Apache also travelled through this country as well.
Before that, Paleo-Indians – those tribes and cultures that lived and traveled through this area in ancient times – visited Caribou Lake as well, but the area was quite different back then. Up until 3,500 years ago, there was not an easy route between the pass and the lake. The slope where the modern trail lies didn’t exist; in its place was a steep wall and rotten gullies. Landslides eventually built the slope, and an easy crossing developed. After this point visitation increased, but the archeological record shows that people visited Caribou Lake long before landslides created the slope. Investigations of long-buried camp hearths near the lake shore (chiefly by the late Front Range archeologist extraordinaire Jim Benedict) have revealed a trove of information about the early human history of Colorado’s mountains.
Paleo-Indians are known to have lived on or visited the Colorado plains as long as 14,000 years ago, but large ice-age glaciers in the Front Range kept them away from the high peaks. Around 8,000 years ago the climate warmed enough such that the glacier that resided in Caribou Lake’s basin retreated and trees grew near the shore, offering an ideal campsite. The oldest hearths found here were dated to that period. A site by the hearth was used for manufacturing and sharpening stone projectile points. It is unclear why Paleo-Indians visited the area – this was nearly 7,000 years before high altitude game drive hunting developed in the region, and the slope to Arapaho Pass didn’t exist. Travelers crossing the Divide from Caribou Lake likely had to climb the steep slopes and rotten gullies west of the lake leading up to Caribou Pass – not an ideal crossing point! Most of the tools and fragments from that time frame found here were made from rocks in Middle Park, suggesting that the people camped here while traveling from the west side of the Divide to the east, or were using the lake as a place to trade with Paleo-Indians who lived on the plains – chiefly the Cody and Elko cultures, though the difficult Divide crossing at this time raises plenty of questions.
After the Paleo-Indians Colorado was inhabited by cultures of the Archaic period. There is no evidence found at Caribou Lake of human occupation over the next several thousand years, which suggests the climate cooled enough to bury the lake under snow for most of the year, keeping cultures of the Early, Middle and Late Archaic periods away. The next oldest hearths date to only 2,000 years ago. In that time, populations on both sides of the Divide grew, spurred on by a moist climate that favored agriculture, especially maize crops. By this time the slope the modern trail ascends from the lake to the pass was in existence, easing travel. The people likely used Arapaho Pass, and other Front Range passes, to travel between the population groups, stopping at Caribou Lake to camp for the night before continuing their journey.
Excavations show that the use of the site changed around 1,000 years ago, as the climate warmed, with hunting replacing traveling through as the chief reason for visiting the lake. People stayed longer, and worked on creating or sharpening new tools, and possibly used the lake as a staging point for game drive hunting at higher elevations.
Use of the Caribou Lake campsites persisted well into Arapaho-Ute times. The introduction of the horse once gain changed the use of the campsite. Hunters no longer camped at the lake since forage for the horses is scarce at this high altitude. Visitors likely only stopped to camp for the night, en route across the Divide, and didn’t stay to hunt. A deeply rutted trail near the lake has been dated to this period – the deep ruts likely caused by horses.
One interesting archeological mystery remains at Caribou Lake. Over 400 pottery sherds comprising three vessels were found during excavations, which represents 98% of all pottery sherds found in the Indian Peaks. Why were so many pot sherds found here? Nobody knows for sure. One intriguing hypothesis is that Caribou Lake was used for spiritual purposes, especially fasting and vision quests. The pots may have been used to hold offerings for those seeking spiritual power and guidance. Many pot sherds have been found at other sites in the Front Range known to have been used for vision quests. Obsidian and ocher were also found here, which also suggests spiritual and religious use.
And it’s not hard to see why. Caribou Lake, surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery of the Front Range, is an ideal place to this day to meditate, pray and renew your spiritual connection with nature.