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

Dream Lake

Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Nearby city: Estes Park
  • Park information: Visitor information: 970-586-1206; backcountry office: 970-586-1242; campground reservations: 1-877-444-6777
  • Trail length: 1.1 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 437 feet; lake sits at 9,912 feet
  • Skill level: Easy
  • Camping: There are developed campgrounds ($20 per night) in Rocky Mountain National Park; backcountry sites ($20 with permit) nearest to Dream Lake are numbered 31, 34, 38, 39, and 40. www.rockymountainnationalpark.com
  • Lodging: The YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center has basic-yet-comfortable cabins, some with wood-burning fireplaces. www.ymcarockies.org
  • Grab a bite: Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ & Taphouse has smoky Carolina pulled-pork sandwiches and plenty of suds on draught. www.smokindavesbbqandtaphouse.com
  • Quick tip: Parking at the Bear Lake Trailhead is difficult in the summer; opt for a free shuttle from the Bear Lake Route Park & Ride.
  • Getting there: From Denver, go north on I-25 to Exit 243 (CO-66). Turn west on CO-66 and go 16 miles to Lyons. At the first light, U.S. 36 will supersede CO-66. You’ll follow U.S. 36 all the way to Estes Park, about 22 miles. Access the park at the Beaver Meadows Entrance. Once inside (the park is open 24 hours a day; fee is $20 per car, valid for seven consecutive days), follow the main road for a quarter of a mile, then take a left on Bear Lake Road, which dead-ends into the trailhead parking lot.

Rocky Mountain National Park is home to 156 high-altitude lakes, but the one you really don’t want to miss is Dream Lake. Dream has earned its name, but not for the reasons one might think. The water isn’t fantastically blue. The surrounding peaks aren’t particularly lofty. The mostly dirt pathway to reach water’s edge isn’t strenuous enough to provoke dehydration-induced hallucinations. Yet, the setting is remarkably, well, dreamy.

I’m no expert in geology—or geography, for that matter—but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that it’s the natural composition of the lake and the surrounding peaks that creates an aesthetic appeal. Lines, shapes, swaths of color, negative spaces, the way the light sneaks through rocky cliffs—every element at Dream Lake is so impeccably designed that, as the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As I sit along the banks watching hikers stroll along the north side of the water, I soak in the scene and whisper a quiet thank you to Mother Nature.