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.
Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
- Nearby city: Nederland
- Ranger district: Boulder, 303-541-2500
- Trail length: 2.1 miles, one way
- Elevation gain: 353 feet; lake sits at 10,868 feet
- Skill level: Moderate
- Camping: No camping is allowed around Lake Isabelle during the summer months.
- Quick tip: From the Long Lake Trailhead, you’ll follow the Pawnee Pass Trail to Lake Isabelle. You can extend your hike by 0.2 miles by following the Jean Lunning Trail around Long Lake; the Jean Lunning Trail meets back up with the Pawnee Pass Trail.
- Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. 36 west toward Boulder. In Boulder, turn left on Canyon Boulevard (CO-119). Follow Canyon Boulevard to Nederland. In Nederland, take CO-72 to Ward. From CO-72, you’ll turn west onto Brainard Lake Road. Travel two-and-a-half miles to the entrance of the recreation area, and continue another three miles to the Long Lake Trailhead.
Even in August, the early-morning mountain chill cuts through my fleece. A stiff wind glances off oLake Isabelle, and whitecaps form across her surface. Foam froths over a rocky outcropping in the water. Yellow, purple, and white wildflowers and a few sparse spruce line the well-maintained path along the north side of the lake, which licks at the feet of Navajo (13,409 feet), Apache (13,441 feet), and Shoshoni (12,967 feet) peaks. Their summits are awash in reddish alpenglow as the sun creeps near the horizon.
As the crow flies, Lake Isabelle is only 40 miles from downtown Denver, yet the stunning alpine scene—complete with glaciers—belies its proximity to the city. The fact that it’s an easy drive and a modest hike makes not being able to camp along Lake Isabelle’s banks bearable. That nearby Pawnee Campground is located adjacent to beautiful Brainard Lake also helps. (Pawnee may be closed for maintenance this summer.) But the best part about visiting Lake Isabelle, besides actually seeing Lake Isabelle, is fishing for greenback cutthroat at Long Lake (buy a fishing license at wildlife.state.co.us), which is the first body of water you’ll come to along the trail to Isabelle.
Our advice? Hike to Isabelle in the late morning—it’ll take you a few hours to go up and back. Return to your car at the trailhead, eat a snack, and grab your gear for twilight fishing at Long Lake. If you’re on a spinner, try using ladybugs as bait. Fly-fishermen should bring waders, tie a dry fly, and cast 30 to 40 feet off the bank to where the shelf drops off steeply. Once you’ve got a line wet, take a deep breath of mountain air, look to the west, and watch as the sun slowly dips behind the Rockies.