Hiking Colorado’s Alpine Lakes
For many, hiking in Colorado is all about the mountains. The spine of the Rocky Mountains bisects the state and defines the Continental Divide; it is no wonder that over half of the United States’ 14,000-foot peaks can be found in Colorado. Hiking to the summit of these 14ers, often called “peak bagging,” is a popular pastime for residents and visitors alike. As a result, it is a challenge in its own right to park on summer weekends at the trailhead of peaks that are deemed relatively easier, such as Quandary Peak and Mount Bierstadt, or more accessible, like the ever-popular Pikes Peak.
On the other hand, for those who do not find bagging a 14er quite so appealing, there are thousands of miles of trails that crisscross the Colorado Rockies, ranging in terrain and difficulty level. Throughout my hiking adventures in the southwestern U.S., some of the most enjoyable and visually stunning treks have been to alpine lakes.
When found in the high mountains, alpine lakes are typically rather small, and can be very blue due to the rock flour suspended in the water. These particles distort the wavelengths of light and reflect blue and green tones. While there are hundreds of high altitude lakes in our state, some require a fair amount of work to attain. Because of their elevation, many alpine lakes are not accessible until mid-to-late summer, either due to snow pack or inaccessible trailheads.
The Pikes Peak region is home to a number of lakes, and a journey to any of these destinations will be a rewarding experience.
Near the towns of Cripple Creek and Victor, the South Slope Recreation Area encompasses three bodies of water at approximately 11,000 feet. The McReynolds, Mason, and Boehmer reservoirs are property of Colorado Springs Utilities and are accessible by permit only. From the McReynolds parking area, the Mason Trail is open all the way to Boehmer Reservoir after July 15 to accommodate for bighorn sheep lambing season. This easy 9.4-mile round trip has gentle rolling hills and stunning views of nearby mountains, including the south face of Pikes Peaks. If you have a fishing license, you can even throw a hook in a reservoir. Permits are limited in number each day and available from the week before Memorial Day through the end of September.
Southwest of the twin small towns of Silver Cliff and Westcliffe, you can find three lakes at 11,460 feet. The trail to the Goodwin Lakes is a moderately difficult 10.5-mile round-trip hike. During this out-and-back trek, you will gain 2,400 feet to the uppermost lake. The hike shares a trailhead with the more popular, difficult, and longer Venable-Comanche Trail loop, leaving the Goodwin Lakes trail a little quieter and, in my opinion, more desirable.
A bit further southwest of Westcliffe are the more challenging Upper (11,745 feet) and Lower (11,471 feet) Sand Creek Lakes. If you want to reach these lakes, you will first need to drive 3.5 miles on a four-wheel drive road, followed by a steep hike to the top of Music Pass. From there, it is relatively straightforward; the trail to the two lakes is well defined and easy to follow. Before heading off to the lakes, take the time to absorb the breathtaking view from Music Pass, which gets its name from the sound of the wind as it roars through the valley below. Assuming that you can drive to the trailhead, this hike registers as a 12.5-mile round trip. If not, tack on another 7 miles to your outing. Consider taking advantage of the dispersed camping that is available along the trail and making it a two-day trek.
Near Buena Vista, Cottonwood Pass has a number of alpine lake hikes, including Hartenstein Lake (11,451 feet), and Ptarmigan Lake (12,132 feet). The hike to Hartenstein Lake starts at Denny Creek Trailhead on Cottonwood Pass Road, a shared starting point for hikes to the 14er Mount Yale. Crossing Denny Creek during the spring runoff can be a little tricky, but the 7.5-mile round trip to Hartenstein Lake is otherwise moderate. Farther up Cottonwood Pass Road, Ptarmigan Lake is a popular hiking destination. The trailhead is well marked, with sufficient parking on most days. The hike to the lake is just less than 7 miles round trip and is moderately difficult, although the elevation of the lake may render someone new to high altitude hiking a little breathless.
Near St. Elmo, a ghost town in Chaffee County, Grizzly Lake is just over 11,000 feet. The fairly moderate 6-mile round-trip hike to this lake is also accessible in the winter as a snowshoeing escapade. From County Road 162, take Forest Service Road 295 just past St. Elmo for a short distance to reach the trailhead. This hiking venture is scenic with plenty of wildflowers in the summer and deep, soft powder in the winter.
If you’re looking for a great Colorado hiking experience, along with wonderful photographic opportunities, head on up to one of these pristine alpine lakes. You won’t be disappointed!
Words & Photos by “Hiking Bob” Falcone