As I trudge along the trail through stands of spruce and fir, my legs and shoulders are beginning to protest my heavier-than-usual pack. But the promise of what awaits at camp is worth the extra pounds: Only a couple of miles stand between me and the edges of an alpine lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness. For this weekend trip, my partner and I are carrying the usual gear—a tent, sleeping bags, camp kitchen essentials—plus some extra toys that add a little weight, and a lot of anticipation to the day’s hike. Rather than tackling big mileage, ascending passes, or summiting peaks, we plan to lay low at Brady Lake and soak in the solitude on our stand-up paddleboards.

“Lake bagging,” as people call it, is much like peak bagging—but instead of chasing summits you’re looking for lakes. Hardcore hikers may seal their sojourn with a swim, but if you’re like me, and prefer to explore your destination while staying dry, it helps to have the right gear. A packraft would be overkill for these relatively small lakes. But an inflatable SUP is an ideal vessel for exploring these high-elevation bodies of water.

The catch is that your SUP needs to be light enough to justify lugging it up the trail. Thankfully, Denver-based Kokopelli launched its Chasm-Lite SUP this summer. At about half the weight of most other inflatable SUPs on the market, the Chasm-Lite is the lightest of its kind. Even so, you’re still adding at least 15 pounds to your pack, so this type of trekking demands a trade-off: shorter days on the trail in exchange for more fun at camp. As a general rule, I like to keep the hikes around five miles or less (and that mileage is about all my 12-year-old hound dog, Max, can handle in a day anyway).

On our first morning at camp, rather than rushing to deflate my sleeping pad and pack up for a long day on the trail, I linger in my tent. I brew a cup of coffee and sip it slowly, waiting for the sun to crest the steep ridge above the lake. As the glassy water begins to glint under the morning rays, we pull out the pump and inflate our boards. The lake’s edge is only a couple hundred feet from our campsite, and as I slip my SUP onto the surface, Max steps on to join me for the ride. My partner hops on his with a fly rod in hand, and we spend the day on the water, savoring the last bits of summer sun. We have no summits to conquer and no mileage to meet—just a sublimely lazy morning on the lake.

3 Alpine Lakes to Bag Before Summer Ends

Don’t let this cold front fool you: There are still some warm summer days left, and the lake bagging options are plentiful. If you’re tempted to dip your board in the alpine waters, here are three great places to start. These destinations tick all the boxes: short hikes, good camping, and of course, stellar alOh pine lakes to paddle.

Missouri Lakes. Photo by Stasia Stockwell

Missouri Lakes, Holy Cross Wilderness

  • Distance: 4.4 miles, one way (for the Missouri Lakes out-and-back)
  • Elevation gain: 1,700 feet (to Missouri Lakes)
  • Paddle-able lakes: Missouri Lakes (bonus: Treasure Vault and Fancy)

This series of alpine lakes is the ideal place for packing a paddleboard thanks to the moderate distance and elevation gain—and no shortage of water. You’ll hike about four miles before reaching the largest of the lakes, and you’ll find ample places to pitch a tent and paddle. If you’re not used to carrying the extra gear, the best way to do this is as an out-and-back, starting and ending at the Missouri Lakes trailhead.

If you’re feeling strong, there are other nearby lakes to be paddled. Turn the hike into a loop instead of an out-and-back by continuing on the Missouri Lakes Trail to climb Missouri Pass before descending to Treasure Vault Lake. Then, follow the trail over Fancy Pass to reach Fancy Lake, and end at Fancy Pass trailhead, which is next to the Missouri Lakes trailhead and shares a parking lot. You’ll log more mileage and elevation gain on this route, but you’ll also bag two additional alpine lakes.

Missouri Lakes (as well as Treasure Vault and Fancy) lie within the Holy Cross Wilderness. Take note of restrictions (no campfires in the Missouri Lakes area, and camp at least 100 feet from lakes and streams). Don’t forget to fill out a self-serve permit at the trailhead.

Upper Cataract Lake, Gore Range

  • Distance: 5 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 2,300 feet
  • Paddle-able lakes: Upper Cataract, Lower Cataract

The Gore Range is replete with stunning alpine lakes, but most aren’t easily accessible. The five-mile climb to Upper Cataract Lake is challenging with camping gear and SUPs on your back, but it’s worth it to paddle on this big alpine beauty. The craggy Eagles Nest Peak will serve as your paddleboarding backdrop, and there are a slew of camping spots by the treeline. For a bonus lake bag, hit Lower Cataract Lake on either end of your adventure, which sits among the trees just beyond the Surprise trailhead.

Upper Cataract Lake and the trail leading to it are all within the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Like the Holy Cross, you’ll need to fill out a permit at the trailhead, keep camp 100 feet away from the lake, and forgo the campfire for this trip.

Lakes of the Clouds, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

  • Distance: 4.2 miles, one way
  • Elevation gain: 2,300 feet
  • Paddle-able lakes: Lakes of the Clouds

If you’re up for venturing a little farther from the Front Range, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains offer both seclusion and a handful of heavenly alpine lakes. Start at the trailhead at the Gibson Creek parking area outside of Westcliffe and meander along the stream, linking the first small portion of the Rainbow Trail to the Lakes of the Clouds Trail. After trekking just over four miles, you’ll be greeted by the Lakes of the Clouds, a chain of three emerald pools. Find a campsite tucked in the trees near the lowest lake, then spend a day splashing around in the water.

The Lakes of the Clouds are perched in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness where restrictions apply. Keep your camp and any campfires at least 300 feet away from any of the lakes and streams in the area (more than the usual 100 feet). As with any adventure in Colorado’s mountains, it’s a good idea to pack layers. But Lakes of the Clouds earned their name for a reason: Don’t forget to check the forecast and pack the rain jacket for this one.

Stasia Stockwell
Stasia Stockwell
Stasia is a writer and mountain dweller who currently calls the Tenmile Range home.