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Tucked in the San Juan Mountains along the Continental Divide is one of the Centennial State’s hidden gems: Lake City. The small mountain community, which stretches less than a square mile, was founded as a mining town when four prospectors illegally set up mines in Ute territory in 1871. After the Ute people ceded the territory in 1874, five men discovered a hotspot for silver and gold in what was then called the Hotchkiss Lode (now known as the Golden Fleece Mine). Lake City was officially incorporated as a town in 1875. Today, Lake City stands as mecca for outdoor recreation—from ice climbing and mountaineering to fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching. Here’s why this charming town should be a destination on your Colorado bucket list, no matter the season.
The Odometer: 255 miles from Denver, one-way
Just down the street from Lake City’s town center is Colorado’s second largest natural lake, Lake San Cristobal. Spanning two miles, the lake is well-stocked with trout and is often visited by moose hanging around the swampy shoreline. When the water freezes over during the cold months, Lake San Cristobal offers an ideal destination for ice skating and snowshoeing. And while the water stays cold year-round, visitors can enjoy some relief from the summertime heat by way of boat, SUP, and kayak.
Adjacent to the lake is the start of the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway—a rugged, 63-mile network of roads connecting Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray and offering access to the San Juan Mountains, ghost towns, wildlife, and picturesque fields of wildflowers. While this scenic excursion can be completed in just seven hours, we suggest breaking it up over at least two days and camping along the byway in order to truly take in all of the high-country beauty.
Lake City’s surrounding backcountry also offers access to five fourteeners: Wetterhorn Peak, Redcloud Peak, Sunshine Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, and Handies Peak; three of which—Redcloud, Uncompahgre, and Handies—are accessible from the Alpine Loop. The shortest trek of them all, Handies Peak, is a 5.5-mile, round-trip hike from American Basin (pictured above). During the summer months, don’t be surprised if you’re greeted by a marmot or two scurrying amongst the wildflowers.
When you’re exhausted from playing in the San Juans Mountains, cool off (or just snap a picture) at any of the four waterfalls surrounding Lake City. Less than a mile roundtrip from the trailhead, Whitmore Falls is located just off the Alpine Loop (about an hour from downtown Lake City) and offers access to crystal clear water and breathtaking views.
If you’re planning on making your way down to Lake City in the colder months, the city hosts a series of winter-themed events called Winter WhiteOut. Starting at the end of January and lasting six weeks, activities like pond hockey on Lake San Cristobal, an ice-climbing competition, and a snowshoe race take over the city and attract adventurists from all over.
Arts & Culture
Though small, the town places substantial value in its rich history. At the Hinsdale County Museum, open from Memorial Day through mid-September, visitors can take cemetery, mining, and ghost tours and learn about Lake City’s mining history at the mineral and ore exhibit. The museum also features a permanent display about Alferd G. Packer, also known as the Colorado Cannibal, who killed and ate five men during a winter excursion through the San Juan Mountains in 1874. The location where the bones of the five men were found now serves as a gravesite attributed to them with a quote by the owner of the saloon from that time that reads: “You man-eating son of a…There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you ate five of them.”
Down the street from the museum is the Russ Brown Gallery, where Brown, the gallery’s owner and artist, showcases his brightly colored landscape and wildlife paintings. On most days, you can find Brown painting freehand and ask him questions regarding his work or for tips about painting. Just down the road is the Silver Street Fine Art Gallery, which features works in a variety of mediums—from oil on canvas to wood burnings—all available for purchase.
If movies are more your speed, venture down to the Mountaineer Movie Theatre. This one-room, vintage theater was opened by Phillip and Carolyn Virden in 1975, a year after they moved to Lake City. Showing one movie a day, this cozy venue is the ideal place to be on hot summer day (or cold winter night).
Eat & Drink
Before you head out for backcountry excursions in and around Lake City, be sure to fuel up with a breakfast sandwich or homemade biscuits and gravy from MelTy’s. The family-owned coffee shop opens at 7 a.m. so you can start your day off right. While it usually closes at 4 p.m., MelTy’s will stay open late on occasion to feature live music and serve up specialty cocktails.
No trip to Lake City is complete without a flight of beers from Lake City Brewing Company. The small-scale brewery has been a hot spot for locals since it opened just over a year ago, alternating beers and serving creative pub fare like wasabi ginger deviled eggs (pictured above) and cuban-styled beef brats. If you’re not too full on beer, head down the street to the San Juan Soda Company for a refreshing scoop (or two) of ice cream, authentic cream sodas, and milkshakes. (We personally loved the double-scoop of cookies-n-cream in a waffle cone.)
For dinner, make a reservation at Climb Elevated Eatery for American-style comfort food and refreshing cocktails. Begin your meal with any of the delicious appetizers (We enjoyed the spinach artichoke dip) along with a glass of their house red wine. For your main entrée, Climb features everything from locally sourced trout to hand-battered chicken breasts. If you still have room for more, be sure to order the pavlova—a house-made merengue with fresh lemon curd.
While there’s plenty to see and do in Lake City, there is also plenty to buy. Cabin Fever Mercantile sells everything from Lake City mementos—t-shirts, mugs, and tote bags—to hand-knitted hats and mittens. Next door to Cabin Fever is Dog + Bone—a husband-and-wife store dedicated to all things dog. The couple makes durable, handcrafted dog leases and collars designed for outdoor adventures and overall wear-and-tear.
If you’re looking for a souvenir that’s more on the eclectic side, head over to Slumgullion Gift Gallery. Housed in a two-story, 1917 garage, the shop houses a variety of trinkets and gifts from handmade pottery and jewelry to wind chimes and home décor.
The backcountry surrounding Lake City offers prime camping sites, either looking out onto Lake San Cristobal at the Wupperman Campground or tucked away in the San Juan Mountains at the Mill Creek Campground. But if you prefer amenities like hot water, a warm cozy bed, and friendly staff, look to G&M Cabins. Operated by the Wonnacott family, the cabins sit right off Lake City’s main road, making it easy to come and go as you please. Starting at $100 a night for a one bedroom, all cabins are equipped with a full kitchen, private bathroom, and wifi. On clear nights, enjoy gazing at the stars from the comfort of your own outdoor patio (fully-equipped with outdoor furniture and a charcoal stove).
If You Do One Thing…
Rent an OHV from High Altitude Adventures. Try as you might, your tiny sedan won’t make it through the rocky (and sometimes muddy) Alpine Loop byway. Depending on the time of year, parts of the road are often closed due to avalanche debris and flooding. ATVs (all-terrain vehicle) and OHVs (off-highway vehicle) are built to endure all the bumps, holes, and puddles you are bound to come across while exploring. Plus, driving one of these vehicles is very thrilling.