Feature

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.

Hanging Lake

White River National Forest

  • Nearby city: Glenwood Springs
  • Ranger district: Eagle–Holy Cross, 970-827-5715
  • Trail length: 1.2 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 1,020 feet; lake sits at 7,160 feet
  • Skill level: Strenuous
  • Along the way: Spouting Rock
  • Camping: Camping is not available along the trail or at the lake.
  • Lodging: The Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs is just a 15-minute drive from the Hanging Lake Trailhead. The hotel is adjacent to the famous Glenwood Hot Springs and an easy walk to downtown restaurants. www.hotelcolorado.com
  • Grab a bite: Order a glass of Chianti and a plate of pasta at Italian Underground (715 Grand Ave., 970-945-6422) or mosey down the street to the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company for an appropriately named pint (or two) of Hanging Lake Honey Ale. www.glenwoodcanyon.com
  • Quick tip: If you get on the trail by 8 a.m., you’ll likely beat most of the crowds and get to the lake at the right time to see it illuminated by the sun.
  • Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west and take Exit 121 to access the Hanging Lake Trailhead. If you stay in Glenwood Springs before your hike, take I-70 eastbound and use Exit 125 to access the trail.

Witnessing the sun rise at a Rocky Mountain lake means getting up in the wee hours of the morning to hike in the dark—and this is the less-than-satisfactory situation my friend and I find ourselves in as we hike toward Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. At the moment, I am attempting to avoid two things: 1) vomiting from exertion and 2) tripping over one of the barely visible rocks buried in the steep trail.

In a race to beat the sun, we hustle along the path, which has distance markers every quarter mile. The first three-quarters of a mile are arduous, with rock-strewn patches; the next quarter is more gradual; and the final one-fifth of a mile brings to mind Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Once at the lake, we explore the surrounding area while waiting for the sun to rise, which takes hours longer than we’d imagined because of the high canyon walls. The short trail to Spouting Rock, a picturesque waterfall that gushes directly out of a rock wall, is more than worth the quick jaunt. The water that surges out of Spouting Rock feeds Bridal Veil Falls, which cascades over moss-covered ledges into Hanging Lake below.

By 9 a.m., the sun has crept within inches of the western edge of the water. For those few peaceful moments, when the wind is quiet and the light dances off the water just so, I admit to myself that the early wake-up call was well worth it.

Ice Lakes

San Juan National Forest

  • Nearby city: Silverton
  • Ranger district: Columbine, 970-884-2512
  • Trail length: 2.2 miles to Lower Basin, one way; Upper Basin is 1 mile beyond Lower Basin, one way
  • Elevation gain: 1,697 feet (Lower Basin); +750 feet (Upper Basin); Upper Ice Lake sits at 12,257 feet
  • Skill level: Trail to Lower Ice Lake Basin is moderate; trail to Upper Ice Lake Basin is strenuous
  • Camping: There are free, no-permit-required backcountry sites available in the Lower Basin. You can camp in the Upper Basin but be forewarned: It’s exposed and windy. Campfires are permitted when there are no restrictions in San Juan National Forest.
  • Lodging: Reserve Room 2 (it’s spacious and has its own bathroom) at the Teller House Hotel along Silverton’s Main Street. www.tellerhouse.com
  • Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. 285 south toward Fairplay. After about 123 miles on U.S. 285, turn right onto U.S. 50. After 124 miles, turn left onto U.S. 550. After 60 miles, take a slight left onto C.R. 110 into Silverton. The Ice Lakes Trailhead is a short drive from downtown Silverton. Take U.S. 550 toward Ouray. Go left on F.S.R. 585. Drive about four miles until you see South Mineral Campground. The trail begins from the campground.
  • Quick tip: If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, take a right at the Clear Lake four-wheel-drive road (before you get to the campground) and drive until you reach the first major switchback. You can park in the elbow of the curve and catch the Ice Lakes trail there, cutting off about 500 feet in elevation gain and about a half mile of hiking.

As Colorado hikes go, the 2.2 miles to the verdant Lower Ice Lake Basin are manageable. Rife with pines, streams, waterfalls, and soaring cliffs, the Lower Basin is stunning, even if Lower Ice Lake is unspectacular. The climb—and yes, it is a nasty mile-long ascent—to Upper Ice Lake takes us about an hour, longer than we thought it would. We walk for a few minutes after reaching the top of the narrow trail and scan the rolling Upper Basin floor. We’re above treeline; it’s windy and cold and there’s no water in sight. But then I see it. A happy shriek escapes my lips, attracting the gaze of my hiking buddy. The bluest lake we’ve ever seen rests just to our right.

Upper Ice Lake is a glacial tarn—a lake carved and fed by glaciers—that gets its near-fluorescent blue color from rock flour. When a glacier moves, it grinds the bedrock below, creating a crushed-rock powder that suspends in the water and absorbs the sun’s light spectrum in a way that creates a beautiful cerulean appearance. There are only a handful of similarly colored glacial lakes in the state—Lower Blue Lake, near Ridgway, is rumored to be just as gorgeous—and although we’re standing along its banks, we still can’t believe its hue is natural.

Cathedral Lake

White River National Forest

  • Nearby city: Aspen
  • Ranger district: Aspen-Sopris, 970-925-3445
  • Trail length: 3 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 2,000 feet; lake sits at 11,866 feet
  • Skill level: Strenuous
  • Side trip: Ashcroft Ghost Town, www.heritageaspen.org/ac.html
  • Camping: There are free, no-permit-required backcountry spots near the lake. Pitch your tent on the southeast side of the lake. Campfires are permitted when there are no restrictions in White River National Forest.
  • Lodging: The Annabelle Inn in Aspen offers beautiful rooms for far less than other downtown accommodations. www.annabelleinn.com
  • Getting there: Take I-70 west to Glenwood Springs. From Glenwood, take CO-82 toward Aspen. Nearing Aspen, you’ll reach a roundabout: Take Castle Creek Road out of the roundabout. Drive 12 miles, past Ashcroft Ghost Town (worth a visit!), until you see a sign for the Cathedral Lake Trailhead on the right. Drive three-quarters of a mile on a dirt road to the trailhead. Get there early; parking is limited.

We’re sitting on a pair of flat-topped boulders wedged into a rare shady crook of the otherwise sun-exposed trail. Sweat has soaked through my T-shirt; the bandana my hiking partner wrapped around his forehead is saturated. We’re spent, yet we still have a mile and a half to go—including the right-at-the-end set of eight monster switchbacks.

The trail to Cathedral Lake rises through aspen groves, scrambles over boulders, and skirts Pine Creek. Although we know the trail is three miles long, we are still duped time and again by geography that suggests it could cradle a body of water. But the air is warm, waterfalls gush around every bend, and with each incline we savor the fact that our journey is not yet complete.

And then, just as we reach our exhaustion point, we see the spires of Cathedral Peak jutting high into the azure sky. Our eyes slide down the gray rock to its base, where scree collapses into a sheer lime-green lake. With sweat still dripping down our backs, we flip-flop into the northeast end, where trout swim in the shallow water. Even in August, the water is breathtaking—so cold that after a dunk we once again find ourselves crouching on flat boulders, this time basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Trappers Lake

Flat Tops Wilderness Area

  • Nearby city: Meeker
  • Ranger district: Blanco, 970-878-4039
  • Trail length: You can park a quarter-mile from the lake and then walk up a short hill to reach the path that encircles the large lake.
  • Elevation gain: Negligible; lake sits at 9,627 feet
  • Skill level: Easy
  • Along the way: Little Trappers Lake
  • Camping: Trapline Campground has 12 first-come, first-served sites ($18 per night) near the lake.
  • Lodging: Trappers Lake Lodge & Resort nestles into the wilderness just steps from the lake and offers small, spartan cabins as well as a restaurant. www.trapperslake.com
  • Getting there: From Denver, take I-70 west to Rifle. Take Highway 13 to Meeker. Take C.R. 8 out of Meeker. Follow C.R. 8 for 39 miles; then take a right onto the unpaved Trappers Lake Road 205. Drive 11 miles to the lake.

In the summer of 2002, the Big Fish and Lost Lakes fires cooked more than 22,000 acres of land in and around the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Even today, nine years later, the devastation is still evident: Forests of charred trees and bushes stretch to the horizon in every direction.

It’s a surreal yet hauntingly beautiful landscape—especially the life that has sprung from the destruction: new saplings, native grasses, and fireweed, a bright red wildflower that grows happily in burn areas. And we’re not the only ones here to appreciate it. We’re sharing the road with SUVs hauling canoes, kayaks, float tubes, pop-up campers, and horse trailers. Everyone, it seems, is on his or her way to enjoy the state’s second-largest wilderness area, known for its trout streams, soaring yet planed-level mountains, and one of Colorado’s largest naturally occurring lakes.

We pull into Trappers Lake Lodge & Resort, check into our tiny one-room cabin with a potbelly stove, and make haste for the lake. It’s a 10-minute walk to the parking lot and another 15-minute hike to the lake’s edge. The blown-open vistas we encounter envelope the vast lake, the ghostly remnants of burnt pines, and vertigo-inducing cliffs, including the jaw-dropping 1,650-foot Chinese Wall to the northeast. The trail that wraps around the lake pitches and rolls but doesn’t ever really stress the lungs. If you’re game to stretch your legs, the undemanding trail to Little Trappers Lake is a must.

For another easy, don’t-miss activity, grab a flashlight (you’ll want one if you’re staying at Trappers Lake Lodge anyway) and make your way to the lake just before dusk. Pull up a patch of grass along the bank, and watch as a million stars appear and the moon sparkles on the lake’s surface. You’ll want to keep your ears open as well—the eerie howls of coyotes can sometimes be heard after sunset.

Lake Isabelle

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.

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.