Summertime in Colorado’s high country is nothing short of magical. When the Rocky Mountains start their annual snow melt, granting full access to the backcountry in late June and early July, there’s no limit to the adventures Centennial Staters can undertake. And while summiting thirteeners and fourteeners, accessing high mountain passes, and two-wheeling along singletrack trails are tantalizing endeavors, time spent relaxing at a pristine alpine lake may have all of those activities beat. Defined as bodies of water at or above 10,000 feet, alpine lakes are plentiful in Colorado, which boasts more than 2,000 of these high-country jewels. Slather on the sunscreen, grab your telescoping fishing rod, and trek up to one of these seven beauties to celebrate the start of alpine lake hikes season.
Trail length: 7.7 miles, round-trip
Distance from Denver: 356 miles
Closest town: Silverton
Trailhead: Ice Lakes trailhead
This hike into the wilds of the San Juan National Forest will net you three lake views for the price of one relatively strenuous—but absolutely stunning—trek. Beginning from the South Mineral Campground, just a few miles from downtown Silverton, the first 2.2 miles of the path are fairly painless, although you’ll be breathing hard due to the elevation, which is about 9,800 at the trailhead. When those first two miles are up, you’ll be standing at the banks of Lower Ice Lake, a pretty enough lake surrounded by a spectacular basin replete with pine trees, waterfalls, creeks, and cliffs. (This is where you might consider pitching a tent, if you’re making this an overnight trip.) From here, the trail climbs dramatically—roughly 750 feet in one mile of rocky terrain—to Upper Ice Lake, a glacial tarn whose waters look like blue Gatorade. You might be satisfied to stop your hike here; after all, how could any lake be more beautiful than Upper Ice Lake? Let us introduce you to Island Lake, only a half mile farther. This cerulean green body of water with a small island right in the middle is surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. Hikers can walk all the way around the lake—even climbing up to Grant-Swamp Pass—for some of the most incredible views in the Centennial State. From Island Lake, the trail loops back down to the main trail, which you’ll take back the way you came.
Upper Mohawk Lake
Trail length: 6.8 miles, round-trip
Distance from Denver: 84 miles
Closest town: Breckenridge
Trailhead: Spruce Creek Trail (there is four-wheel-drive parking lot a short distance past the main parking area)
Just south of Breckenridge, the Spruce Creek Trail to Upper Mohawk Lake is a popular one. And for good reason: It’s strenuous, but not too strenuous, and it’s got some of the most beautiful alpine scenery you’ll find anywhere in the state. At the start of the route, you’ll hike through forests of lodgepole pines and aspens before passing an old miner’s cabin and Mayflower Lakes, where you can take a water break. The trail gets steeper after that as you pass Continental Falls en route to Lower Mohawk Lake. (If you fish, you might want to get your line wet in the shallow waters here.) The trail again ramps upward after Lower Mohawk Lake, and as you approach Upper Mohawk Lake, you will find wide open views of a postcard worthy high alpine gulch. In the distance, you’ll see the dramatic summit of Pacific Peak, which tops out at 13,950 feet, but take a few minutes for some trail mix and a drink alongside the deep blue-green waters of Upper Mohawk Lake. You can double back to your car from this point, but if you’re interested there are three more unnamed lakes past Upper Mohawk, all of which are worth the extra effort.
Trail length: 17 miles, round-trip; 27.1 miles when linked with the Four Pass Loop
Distance from Denver: 170 miles
Closest town: Aspen
Trailhead: Maroon Lake trailhead
The West Elks are known as some of the most dramatic mountains in Colorado—and some of the most dangerous, if you’re trying to bag a fourteener. Fortunately, you don’t have to strap on your climbing helmet to take in the scenery on this challenging hike through the White River National Forest. Start by reserving parking or shuttle bus access to the Maroon Bells Scenic Area. The trail to Snowmass Lake starts behind the information board in the parking area and winds through aspens with a gradual grade. (Bring water shoes for crossing Snowmass Creek.) After a difficult set of switchbacks, you’ll crest 12,400-foot Buckskin Pass and be rewarded with spectacular views of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. From here, descend into dense forest before ultimately arriving at Snowmass Lake, which is situated at the foot of Snowmass Mountain. If you’re doing the Four Pass Loop and camping at the lake, arise with the sun to photograph the fourteener reflected in the (hopefully) calm waters of Snowmass Lake. If you’re on a dayhike, return the way you came by heading back over Buckskin Pass.
Mystic Island Lake
Trail length: 9.8 miles, round-trip
Distance from Denver: 149 miles
Closest town: Minturn
Trailhead: Lake Charles Trail #1899 (from Fulford Cave Campground)
A little-known, tucked away gem, Mystic Island Lake is exactly what you picture when you see the words “high-alpine lake.” To reach it, you’ll leave from Fulford Cave Campground and quickly find yourself gently climbing through aspens for roughly 2.5 miles. Take note that the path is sometimes bumpy and there are a handful of stream crossings, although most of them require only a medium-size hop to clear. (Carrying water shoes is never a terrible idea.) There are two short-but-steep climbs before you reach Lake Charles at about four miles in, and the striking cone of 12,947-foot Fool’s Peak looms large in the reflective waters. But this lake is not your destination. From here, you’ll traverse a truly magical valley of wildflowers before arriving along the banks of Mystic Island Lake. This crystal-clear body of water, which you’ll often have completely to yourself, laps the banks below a jagged cirque. Plenty of large rocks around the water’s edge make for perfect perches for enjoying the beer you’ve (smartly) packed in.
Trail length: 10.4 miles, round-trip
Distance from Denver: 50.2 miles
Closest town: Eldora
Trailhead: Hessie trailhead
There’s no getting around the reality that parking for the Hessie Trailhead—which gives entrée to the Indian Peaks Wilderness, Lost Lake, Woodland Lake, Devil’s Thumb Lake, and King Lake, among other desirable spots—is a nightmare. Be smart and avoid the melee by simply parking at Nederland High School and grabbing the free shuttle. You’ll be glad you avoided all that parking stress once you begin climbing. The trailhead starts from a rocky road that quickly gains elevation. You’ll pass by some nice camping spots (accessible by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles) and then come to a span over the North Fork Middle Boulder Creek after about a half mile. Roughly a mile later, you’ll cross a bridge over raging South Fork Middle Boulder Creek and then start ascending a wide trail, which eventually melts into singletrack with some ahhhh-inducing shade for about two miles. You’ll pass a split for Betty & Bob Lakes Trail around mile 3.6, but keep going to see gorgeous wildflowers—and ultimately come to King Lake. Surrounded by the Indian Peaks Wilderness, King Lake is tucked into a gently rounded cirque that, at more than 11,500 feet, promises to still have snow into July. Pick a grassy spot to enjoy the view and a snack before turning around to go home the way you came. Or, if you’re jonesing for more mileage, try the High Lonesome Loop: Continue past the lake and climb above it, where the trail will meet up with the Continental Divide Trail at Rollins Pass. Travel along the divide for roughly 2.5 miles before dropping down steeply toward Devil’s Thumb Lake Trail (#902), which eventually meets back up with King Lake Trail and on back to the Hessie trailhead.
Trail length: 8.2 miles, round-trip (or 13.3 miles if you do full Venable-Comanche Loop)
Distance from Denver: 158 miles
Closest town: Westcliffe
Trailhead: Comanche-Venable trailhead (at Alvarado Campground)
Tucked just west of the town of Westcliffe, the Venable-Comanche Loop is a rugged, rarely crowded circuit with scenery that’s worth the 13.3-mile slog. Yes, you can go out and back to the lake on Comanche Trail (#746), which climbs steadily and steeply on a heavily forested path up to Comanche Lake. But our recommendation would be to tackle the full circle counterclockwise by starting on a short feeder trail to reach Venable Lake Trail (#347). From there, you’ll begin climbing in earnest, but it’s a more gentle approach than Comanche Trail. Along the way, you’ll want to look for Venable Falls (about 2.4 miles in); notice lovely aspen groves and flowing Venable Creek; and lay eyes on the Venable Lakes, two gems you’ll get a view of at about 4.6 miles in. Stay on Venable Lake Trail until taking a left onto Phantom Terrace Trail (#359), which is a camouflaged ledge with a 1,000-foot drop that you can’t see until you’re on it. Summon your courage because once you’ve conquered the terrace, you’ll find flowing singletrack along Spring Mountain before getting to Comanche Pass at mile 6.8. (At this point you can climb about 500 feet to summit Comanche Peak, if you so choose.) If not, take Comanche Trail (#746) down to beautiful Comanche Lake, where you can get a line wet if you packed your rod. Take a breather here before enjoying the downhill hike on the remaining 4.1 miles back to your car.
Trail length: 7.8 miles, round-trip
Distance from Denver: 77 miles
Closest town: Dillon
Trailhead: Intersection of Peru Creek Road and Chihuahua Gulch Road
For those who love to mix activities, the journey to Chihuahua Lake is a great option not too far from Denver. Those with a penchant for high-clearance, four-wheel-drive off-roading can crawl up Chihuahua Gulch Road, a seriously rock- and dip-strewn dirt road that anyone with a two-wheel-drive vehicle will have to consider part of the hike. Whether you use big ole tires or your boot-clad feet to reach Chihuahua Lake Trail two miles in, this is where the skyward ascent begins. Although most of the trek is relatively low on the hardcore scale, there are several creek crossings (bring water shoes and extra socks) and a steep section right before you get to the lake. But the views of the high-alpine basin and of several 13,000- and 14,000-foot mountains—including Torreys and Grays peaks (which are summitable via Grays Peaks’ southwest ridge from a road that splinters off Chihuahua Gulch Road)—will make you forget all about your wet feet and all that huffing and puffing. The lake itself is a deep blue jewel, often ringed with snow well into the summer, that you won’t want to stop staring at all afternoon.