Great Lakes

We drove 1,762 miles, hiked 15,594 vertical feet (sometimes in the dark!), and spent 14 days on the road seeking out Colorado’s most magnificent alpine lakes. Here are seven stunners that will leave you breathless—and not just because of the altitude.

June 2011

Piney Lake

White River National Forest

  • Nearby city: Vail
  • Ranger district: Eagle–Holy Cross, 970-827-5715
  • Trail length: You can drive to the lake.
  • Elevation gain: 0; lake sits at 9,347 feet
  • Skill level: Easy
  • Camping: There are 12 backcountry sites (starting at $20 per night) on the Piney River Ranch property, which is adjacent to the lake.
  • Lodging: Piney River Ranch has two cabins that sleep four people each (starting at $99 a night) as well as three teepees and two yurts. (The teepees and one of the yurts are being renovated and should be available by midsummer 2011.) www.pineyriverranch.com
  • Quick tip: Perfect for taking out-of-towners: The scenery is gorgeous, yet flatlanders don’t have to hike at elevation to see it.
  • Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west to Vail. Take Exit 176; at the traffic circle, take the second exit onto I-70 Frontage Road West. Turn right at Red Sandstone Road. Travel about a mile, then at the third switchback, continue straight onto unpaved Piney Lake Road. Follow signs to the lake, about 10 miles.

The 12-mile, switchback-laden drive from Vail to Piney Lake seems to be taking longer than it should. Only when we arrive at the lake do we realize it took us 50 years—back in time. Since the 1960s, the Piney River Ranch has been operating a summer camp–style getaway on the property around the lake, which sits in the shadows of the craggy Gore Range.

By the looks of it, the ranch hasn’t changed much in the last half century: There’s a smattering of buildings, including some lakeside cabins, restrooms, a tented area with picnic tables, and a barbecue restaurant with a bar. Canoes float alongside a large dock. In the best way possible, the place feels like a Rocky Mountain scene straight out of Indian Summer.

The ranch caters to outdoors-lovers, and people are making the most of the afternoon. A man baits his spinner, steps into the water—shoes and all—and casts. He hooks a six-incher in no time. Three friends skip off for a late-afternoon trail run. Ambling along the lake behind the cabins, near where the water lets out into the trout-filled Piney River, we see three moose sipping from the stream. Birds chirp and rustle around in the leaves. The air is redolent with sun-baked pine needles. We backpedal to the tented pavilion where a large wooden deck overlooks the lake and we laze away an hour, watching as a passing rain cloud creates a fine mist above the water. A double rainbow materializes before the summer sun burns off the haze.