• Length: About 7.3 miles out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Moderate effort, non-technical
  • Why we love it: This Grand County trek leads to an idyllic alpine lake perfect for fishing and swimming.
  • Nearby Nosh: Swing by the Tabernash Tavern to reward your efforts with a hearty Antelope Burger or elegant Salmon Au Poivre, complete with wine pairings from an award-winning list. This cozy local icon is currently only open Thursday through Sunday evenings (call ahead to confirm seasonal hours).
  • When to go: Spring, summer, fall
  • Restrooms: Yes, at the trailhead
  • Dogs: Yes, allowed on leash
  • Distance from Denver: About 100 miles

Despite a bumpy 10-mile drive from the tiny town of Tabernash and confusing signage for “Junco Lake Trailhead,” the hike to Columbine Lake is a worthy day trip from Denver. The pristine lake at the top begs for leisurely lounging, and access to several other trails in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area as well as a plethora of waterfront campsites along the Meadow Creek Reservoir, makes this trailhead a goldmine of possibility for backcountry enthusiasts.

On a weekday in late September I arrived at the trailhead about two hours after leaving downtown, including stops along the rough dirt road to bask in the mesmerizing golden aspen groves and pay the $5 entrance fee to the Arapaho National Recreation Area. There were only three other cars in the parking lot, and within the first 30 minutes of walking along the wide, flat trail I passed all three parties going the opposite direction. In other words, I had the wilderness to myself, an experience that was as equally exhilarating as it was unnerving.

My trepidation dissolved into thrill as a break in the trees offered the first glimpse of beautiful snow-dusted peaks rising above a lush meadow. The path grew narrower and ascended a series of switchbacks before coming to a fork with with a small sign offering the option to climb a steep ridge to Caribou Pass on the left. I stayed right and continued toward Columbine Lake. At the forest’s edge, I came to another meadow where giant stepping stones helped me navigate across the sea of marsh grasses. I paused in the middle of the passage to look and listen for signs of wildlife, as I knew moose and elk were active in the area.

Columbine Lake
Photo by Katie Hearsum

On the other side of the meadow the trail became significantly steeper, but its alignment with a charming creek featuring several small waterfalls kept me pleasantly distracted. Leftover snow and ice on the ground from a recent early-season storm made this section somewhat precarious, but the moisture also magnified the heady pine scent of the forest. After climbing along the stream for about 15 minutes the trail leveled and meandered through a collection of small pools indicating that the lake was nearby. After losing the trail a couple of times as I picked my way around the ponds and boulders, I finally saw a peek of deep emerald water and made a beeline for the shore.

The crystal-clear water reflected a shimmering image of snow-dusted granite peaks on the other side. The air was as crisp and clear as the lake, and I savored the silence and a snack while stretched out on a sun-drenched boulder. I scanned the shoreline for grassy swimming and sun-bathing spots to return to in the summer and watched the water pucker in spots as fish surfaced periodically. Unfortunately not long after I arrived a cold breeze and ominous clouds swooped over the hill prompting a hasty goodbye to my private paradise. I made it back to my car about three-and-a-half hours after I had started, pleased with the discovery of a new favorite Colorado trail.

Getting there: From I-70 West, take exit 232 for U.S. 40 West toward Winter Park. In Tabernash, turn right on County Road 83 toward Meadow Creek Reservoir. Take a left at the fork onto USFS 129 and follow it past the reservoir, making sure to stop at the paystation on the left. The Junco Lake Trailhead is on the left about halfway around the reservoir.