Seven amazing getaways to the coolest lakes in the Rockies!
White River National Forest
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.
White River National Forest
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.
San Juan National Forest
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.
White River National Forest
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.
Flat Tops Wilderness Area
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.
Indian Peaks Wilderness Area
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.
Rocky Mountain National Park
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.