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Hectic week? Mountain lakes are a great stress-reliever
SAN ISABEL NATIONAL FOREST After a heart-wrenching week in Colorado Springs — heat, fire, destruction, smoky air — we needed an escape.
We settled on a place that sure seemed promising: Lakes of the Clouds.
It proved to be a good choice.
High in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe, the air was cool and the only sound was the water’s gentle lapping at the shore. The water was brisk and clear, reflecting the jagged spires of the peaks above. Pumped through a filter, it tasted sweet.
This was wilderness therapy, a reminder that despite the fury of the most destructive wildfire in state history, not all of Colorado was burning.
And these are just three of the thousands of high-altitude lakes in the state, fed by snowmelt, the water and fish trapped by geography, remote and beyond the reach of those unwilling to work to get there. They make some of the best summer destinations in Colorado.
LAKES OF THE CLOUDS
These three lakes at 11,200 feet are less than 2 hours’ drive from Colorado Springs, but you’ll feel a million miles away. The drive is easy but the hike isn’t — on a rocky and, at times, agonizingly steep trail that seems to run forever through aspen and pine forests. There are three lakes within a half-mile of each other, each prettier than the last. They’re known for great trout fishing, and on a recent weekend many fisherman had made the long trek.
To get there: From Westcliffe, take Hermit Road west to where it ends at Sampson Ridge Road, nearly 6 miles, to County Road 172. Turn left and continue to the trailhead. The last 1.5 miles require a high-clearance vehicle.
The hike: 9 miles round-trip, 2,200 feet of elevation gain. Follow the Rainbow Trail north to the Swift Creek Trail.
Overnight trips: There is camping near the lakes. For the best sites, go right at the lower lake, left across the creek just below the middle lake and camp near the shores of the upper lake. Non-backpackers can find a couple of campsites near the trailhead.
Optional: Make it more of an adventure with a climb, from the upper lake, of 13,423-foot Spread Eagle Peak. The trail is faint and often disappears, and there’s an exhilarating amount of exposure near the top, so this one is not for beginners.
Summer is short at these lakes near timberline in the Holy Cross Wilderness, and you’ll have some company on summer weekends. But the payoff is big for a relatively short hike with great views of the northern Sawatch Mountains that provide Colorado Springs with much of its water.
To get there: From Leadville, head north on U.S. 24 and west on Forest Service Road 703/Homestake Road. After eight miles, turn right on Forest Road 704 and go 2 miles to the trailhead.
The hike: 7 miles round-trip, 1,400 feet of elevation gain. Follow the Missouri Lakes Trail past numerous lakes. The last one is at 3.5 miles, after which the trail climbs to Missouri Pass.
Overnight trips: Many excellent backcountry campsites dot the area. You’ll find the best views (and the coldest nights) at the upper lake near treeline.
Optional: Continue a steep half-mile and 550 feet of elevation to Missouri Pass and drink in the views of this rugged backcountry.
The view of bizarre-shaped monoliths towering above this lake is one of the most iconic in Rocky Mountain National Park. But photos don’t do it justice. See it for yourself. Expect to have company, as the hike is relatively short from the Bear Lake parking lot.
To get there: From the east side of the park, take U.S. 36 and turn left on Bear Lake Road. Construction in 2012 and 2013 means all hikers will have to use shuttles between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. during peak season.
The hike: 2.2 miles round-trip, 500 feet of elevation gain.
Overnight trips: Sorry, no overnight camping allowed in this part of the park. The national park has several campgrounds near the trailhead.
Optional: Make it an incredible loop by continuing past Dream Lake counter-clockwise, with a quick side trip to The Loch, another splendid alpine lake, and finish the loop past Alberta Falls and back to your car.
There’s a reason they’re so named. These hanging lakes above the trees near Silverton, in the grand San Juan Mountains, are cold and brilliantly blue, in a rugged basin that offers some of the best early-summer wildflower viewing in Colorado. Old mine buildings will make you marvel at the toughness of the folks who scraped out a living here.
To get there: From Ouray (about 5 hours from Colorado Springs), take U.S. 550 south and turn right onto County Road 7, about 2 miles northwest of Silverton. After 6 miles. park at the South Mineral Campground.
The hike: 9 miles round-trip, 2,400 feet of elevation gain to upper Ice Lake.
Overnight trips: You can pitch a tent in the lower basin, though there are few trees to shelter you from the weather. The South Mineral Campground offers excellent car camping, for a fee.
Optional: Though the trail ends at the upper lake, two more lakes can be explored a little higher in the large basin. Watch out for rusty nails from the old mine works.
Experience a quieter side of this rugged spine you’ve seen if you’ve skied the front sides of Vail or Copper at this remote lake northwest of Silverthorne. It’s a long hike, but that means fewer people, and the imposing spires of the Gores make for a dramatic backdrop.
To get there: Take Colorado 9 north from Silverthorne and turn left on Rock Creek Road, across from the Blue River Campground. Follow the gravel road 1.5 miles, turn left at the road marked Rock Creek and go another 1.7 miles to the trailhead.
The hike: Did we mention it was long? It’s 17 miles round-trip, with 3,400 feet of elevation gain. Much of the elevation gain and loss is from the rolling hills of the Gore Range Trail, until you head up the valley on the Salmon/Willow Trail.
Overnight trips: Campsites are abundant near the lakes, though campfires are not allowed near the lakes. You can also camp near the trailhead at the rustic Blue River Campground, though you’ll find little shade as most trees have been removed because of the mountain pine beetle outbreak.
Optional: Drive two cars, leaving one in Silverthorne to make this a multi-day loop by continuing south on the Gore Range Trail.
Escape from the crowds at Great Sand Dunes National Park with an in-and-out hike to this stark landscape above the trees in the Sangres, a few miles south of the dunes.
To get there: From U.S. 160, about 5 miles west of Blanca, turn north on Colorado 150, and turn right after 10.5 miles to BLM Road 5415. Drive 2.7 miles to the trailhead.
The hike: 9.5 miles round-trip, 2,800 feet of elevation gain. Most hikers don’t go beyond the waterfall a half-mile in, so expect solitude as you climb higher into this gorgeous basin.
Overnight trips: Good camping can be found along the trail, and there is one spot at treeline that would make for great, if chilly, camping. The lakes themselves are marshy, with little cover.
Optional: Geography prohibits climbers from going any higher, so retrace your steps and then go climb the dunes.
The summer crowds thin out on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Tucked in a valley below the Continental Divide, you might have this secluded pool to yourself, apart from the abundant wildlife. You’ll want to stay more than one day in this alpine paradise.
To get there: From Grand Lake, enter the park and stop at the Green Mountain trailhead a few miles in on the right.
The hike: 17 miles round-trip, 3,000 feet of elevation gain. You’ll spend much of the trip walking through lush forests and open meadows — watch for elk and moose — and then into the majestic valley.
Overnight trips: Doing this in one day would be miserable. There are eight backcountry campsites, which tend to be more available than the campsites on the east side of the park, including the Haynach site a mile from the lake. Get a permit at the backcountry office at the park entrance. There are also several campgrounds along the road.
Optional: Add a couple of days to your backcountry adventure by making a loop over Flattop Mountain, down the July Switchbacks and back to Grand Lake.
This trail is long — only backpackers need apply — but this huge lake, dominated by the namesake fourteener, is one of the most stunning locations in the spectacular Elk Mountains. You’ll have company here, as it is popular among peak-baggers and those hiking the well-known Four Pass Loop trail.
To get there: In Snowmass, turn south on Snowmass Creek Road, drive 1.7 miles and turn left to continue on Snowmass Creek Road. At 10.7 miles, turn left and cross a bridge over Snowmass Creek. Turn right in 0.2 miles and continue to the trailhead.
The hike: 12 miles round-trip, 1,700 feet of elevation gain. The trail follows the creek the entire way.
Overnight trips: Tons of backcountry campsites abound here. No campfires are allowed because the area is so heavily used.
Optional: Don’t just see the lake from eye level. See it from above with a climb up 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain. Do your homework first, as it is considered a difficult climb.
This lake is in the Mount Massive Wilderness, named for Colorado’s second-highest peak, which towers over the lake. But you’ll see none of the crowds of peak-baggers on this hike, which leads to a large, shallow lake that is popular among anglers.
To get there: Take U.S. 24 west to just south of Leadville and follow signs to Turquoise Lake. Take Lake County Road 4 to the junction of Forest Service Road 104 and turn left. The trailhead is about 3 miles up Hagerman Pass Road (Forest Service Road 105).
The hike: 8.4 miles round-trip, 2,000 feet of elevation gain. The hike goes above timberline for a short stretch before dropping into the lake’s valley.
Overnight trips: Campsites are abundant. The best, with fewer mosquitoes, are around the east side of the lake. You can also camp at one of the many campgrounds around Turqouise Reservoir, though make sure you have reservations if it’s a summer weekend.
Optional: If you have the energy, back at the trailhead, take the much shorter hike to Windsor Lake, a smaller pool surrounded by the splendor of the Rockies.