Known for its alpine lakes, Colorado has a wide-variety of trails and lake scenery to choose from. In fact, alpine lakes in Colorado are so famous, nearly every mountain hike passes a pristine lake nestled in the mountains. Although it’s hard to go wrong, here’s a look at the best alpine lake hikes in Colorado for any ability level.
When to Hike Alpine Lakes in Colorado
In reality, you can make your way to an alpine lake any time of the year. However, in the winter months, some of the roads to various trailheads aren’t maintained, and this may add a substantial amount of snowy hiking to your journey.
The snowpack is different every year, so it’s tough to say when trails will be snow-free. It’s best to check with AllTrails.com or even local hiking Facebook groups to get the most up-to-date information. Just be sure if you ask a hiking group, you make it clear that you’ve already checked with good old Google.
With that being said, typically alpine lakes are frozen and mostly snow-free starting in July through around mid-October depending on the year. Wildflowers are at their peak in July and early August, by late August, the high alpine environment begins to brown, and temperatures drop substantially overnight.
What to Bring on an Alpine Lake Hike
Again, it depends. It’s always important to pack the Ten Essentials in a small backpack. This includes water, snacks, sun protection, extra layers, and more. You’ll want to be prepared for cooler weather, even in the middle of summer. Above tree line, weather can move in quickly and even on a sunny day, the air can feel quite cool.
For more on what to pack see my post about what you REALLY need to go hiking.
How to Prepare for an Alpine Lake Hike in Colorado
Before you hit the trail, there are several important things to remember.
- Check the weather. Then recheck it the day before your hike. Again, July is a popular month to hike, but we also experience a monsoon season. Getting caught in a lightening storm at altitude is dangerous, it kills people every year, so be sure to check the weather and plan appropriately.
- Go early. In order to avoid storms at high altitude, you’ll want to start your hike EARLY, sometimes before the sun rises, depending on the length of the hike. This helps you beat those pesky thunderstorms and stay safe. Keep in mind, the average hiker moves at about 2 miles an hour, or covers 1,000 feet of elevation gain in an hour. Plan accordingly.
- Tell someone your plans. It’s always a good idea, especially on longer, difficult hikes or solo excursions, to let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. Give them instructions about who to call if they don’t hear from you. Set a check-in time and have that person try to check in with you first, before calling authorities (just in case you forget to circle back).
Nymph, Dream, Emerald, and Lake Haiyaha in Rocky Mountain National Park
If you just can’t get enough alpine lakes in Colorado, why not choose a hiking trail that hits four different Lakes? Start from the Bear Lake parking lot and hike the gentle trail towards Lake Haiyaha. On the way you’ll pass three additional lakes, including the iconic Dream Lake. The Lake Haiyaha hike is accessible year-round and a great option for beginners or those looking for a gentle day.
Distance: 3.6 miles
Elevation: 846 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs. In winter, you will have to take a walk-around to avoid avalanche terrain so be alert. The Bear Lake parking area fills up quickly throughout the year, even on weekdays, so plan on arriving early or be prepared to take a shuttle.
Wellington Lake in the Lost Creek Wilderness
Not so much an alpine lake hike as it is a recreation hot spot, Wellington Lake is an awesome place to explore earlier in the season before the alpine lakes in Colorado are thawed. There is plenty of fishing, swimming, camping, and even small, easy hiking trails that provide plenty of family fun.
Distance: Varies, hikes on the property are short, it’s three miles to loop the lake
Elevation: nothing notable.
Red Tape and Local Tips: This is a great family-friendly spot, however, there are day fees and other camping fees to use the area. Check with the Castle Mountain Recreation Company for more up-to-date information.
Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Sprague Lake is one of the most easily accessible alpine lakes in Colorado. It even has a wheelchair-friendly trail, making it an ideal choice for those who may need a little extra encouragement to hit the trail. However, don’t be fooled by the easy accessibility. Sprague is one of the best places to catch the sunrise in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Distance: 0.8 miles
Elevation: 32 feet
Difficulty: Easy with accessibility ramps
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs. Wander the lake at sunrise for incredible views.
St Mary’s Glacier and Lake in Arapaho National Forest
Famous for its year-round snow, at the base of St Mary’s Glacier, is one of the most accessible alpine lakes in Colorado. Make your way up the two-mile trail to the base of St. Mary’s Glacier (not really a glacier, but a permanent snow field) where there is a picture-perfect alpine lake. Adventurous hikes can continue up the “glacier” just be sure to bring some traction and maybe a hiking pole or two.
Distance: 1.9 miles
Elevation: 807 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: There is a $5 parking fee at both parking lots for St Mary’s. This area is also an awesome place to practice mountaineering skills or go for a mid-summer ski session.
Maroon Lake Near Aspen
Talk about iconic Colorado views! Maroon Lake brings you the best of the Bells, the Maroon Bells that is. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a perfect reflection of these towering peaks against the lake. This is a busy area, but for good reason, the views are delicious!
Distance: 1.9 miles
Elevation: 160 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: Maroon Lake is worth a visit year round, including in the (much quieter) winter months. Also, keep in mind there are restrictions on where you can walk, so be respectful of signs and regulations. No dogs.
Want more insider-knowledge about where to go in Colorado? Check out these posts:
- Incredible Colorado 13ers for Your Bucket List
- Fun-Filled “Easier” Colorado 14ers for All Types of Mountain Hikers and Climbers
- The Mega-List of Day Hikes Near Denver
- Local’s Secret Free Campsites Near Denver
Crystal Lake in White River National Forest
Another worth-while alpine lake hike outside of Breckenridge, Crystal Lake gives the ultimate solitude and scenery double punch. The round-trip distance from the lower trailhead is around 8 miles depending on your route, including some road walking, but the upper trail is actually an easy 4-ish mile round-trip jaunt. You’ll need high clearance to get to the upper lot.
Distance: Depends. 8 to 4 miles Round Trip
Elevation: Depends. 2,568 feet max, MUCH less if starting from the Wheeler Trail.
Difficulty: Moderate to easy depending on your route.
Red Tape and Local Tips: Unlike many of Colorado’s famed high clearance roads (where you can usually get away with a small SUV), the road to the top of Crystal Lake is an ACTUAL Jeep trail. Start at the main trailhead and wander up either Crystal Creek Road (the uphill ramp on your right if you’re looking at the end of the lot) or continue straight past the lot to the upper lot (about a 5-car pull out) where the road intersects the Wheeler Trail. Take the Wheeler trail until it intersects with Crystal Creek Road. Plenty of camping up there and a dog-friendly area.
Lake Isabelle, Indian Peaks Wilderness
Lake Isabelle is one of my favorite winter jaunts (add about five miles round trip for the winter hike). In the summer, this is one of the best and easiest lake hikes in Colorado. Start at Brainard Lake and make your way up the valley to Lake Isabelle where you’ll have views of the Isabelle Glacier – a permanent snow field.
Distance: 4.4 miles in summer, 11 miles in winter
Elevation: 448 in summer, 1,030 in winter
Difficulty: Easy (moderate in winter)
Red Tape and Local Tips: The Brainard Lake Recreation Area requires a fee for day use. In the winter, there is no fee, but the road is closed. They have recently been working in that area, so check with the Forest Service for recent conditions.
Silver Dollar Lake in the Arapaho National Forest
If you’re looking for a moderate jaunt with big view payout, check out Silver Dollar Lake outside of Georgetown. This moderate trail evokes a classic Colorado Rocky Mountain charm. You even get two lakes for the price of one hike. In the summer, the wildflowers are quite magical.
Distance: 3.9 miles
Elevation: 1,062 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Red Tape and Local Tips: Sometimes the road in is closed, which adds about a mile each way. Overall, this is a gentle hike with typical views, well worth the short trip if you are in the area.
Jewel Lake in State Forest State Park
For a real adventure, combine your lake hike in Colorado with an overnight at a yurt. Throughout the year, Never Summer Nordic rents two yurts en-route to Jewel Lake in State Forest State Park. Winter enthusiasts can snowshoe the two to three miles up to the yurt and then onwards 2.5 miles to the lake. In the summer, the trail becomes a 4×4 road that you can still hike on, terminating at a parking lot. The lake is an additional 2-ish miles from the parking area.
Distance: 4 miles in summer, 8 in winter
Elevation: 1,614 feet in summer, unknown to the lake
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Red Tape and Local Tips: Although there is a map on AllTrails, it’s not entirely accurate with distances. Keep in mind that State Forest State Park requires a fee. No dogs are allowed in the yurt over winter.
Alta Lakes in Judy Long Memorial Park
Alta Lakes whip up an alpine lake hike with a twist. Travel over the off-road driving trail (either on foot or by 4×4) and reach the Alta Ghost Town. That’s right, a hiking trail that features a lake and an abandoned mining town! Spooky indeed!
Distance: 10.2 miles
Elevation: 2,014 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: This trail is primarily used for driving (an easy off-road trial) but if you don’t mind the walk, you can hike it – just give way to vehicles and take care. Doggies welcome.
Hike on with these awesome hiking tips:
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Lake of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
The mountains of southern Colorado are littered with alpine lake hikes. The Sangre de Cristo mountains offer tranquil scenery without the hustle and bustle of the weekend warrior crowd near Denver. Lake of the Clouds brings you tranquil scenery and plenty of views.
Distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation: 2,578 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: To get to this trailhead you’ll want a high-clearance vehicle. Dog-friendly.
Hanging Lake in White River National Forest
In terms of the best lake hikes, Colorado offers some incredibly unique lakes and Hanging Lake takes the cake. Everyone knows about Hanging Lake, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Don’t expect solitude here, even in the dead of winter. However, with that being said, it’s still worth a visit to gaze upon this magical fairytale lake. Keep in mind permits are required and parking fills up fast.
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation: 1,135 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: If you want a fighting chance at a less-crowded experience, go for sunrise. Keep in mind that there is now a shuttle and permit system. Also, don’t be an ass, you are not allowed to swim or climb around on the logs here.
Loch Vale in Rocky Mountain National Park
Does Sky Pond sound too intense? Simply hike to Loch Vale instead. this moderate hike is a great way to get the beautiful scenery of alpine lakes in Colorado without the lung-busting elevation gain. Bring your camera and pack some tasty snacks!
Distance: 5.4 miles
Elevation: 1,072 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs allowed.
South Colony Lakes in the San Isabel National Forest
Hike to the base of several Colorado 14ers at South Colony Lakes. Explore the fantastically beautiful cirque and enjoy views of Kit Carson, The Crestones, and Humboldt Peak. Bonus points if you summit one of the mountains!
Distance: 6.8 miles
Elevation: 1,548 feet
Red Tape: Many 14er-enthusiasts camp here overnight before their summit bids. It’s still worth a visit, even if you aren’t climbing. The route shortens if you can make it up the burly 4-wheeling road.
Mohawk Lakes in Arapaho National Forest
Just one valley over from Cyrstal Lake is Mohawk Lakes, another set of stunning alpine lakes in Colorado. Mohawk Lakes offer plenty of picture-perfect backcountry camping or opportunities to summit nearby mountains, such as Father Dyer.
Distance: 8.6 miles from the lower lot, the upper lot cuts about a mile or so off each way (see Crystal Lake)
Elevation: 2,129 feet from the lower lot (see Cyrstal Lake)
Red Tape and Local Tips: This is a dog-friendly area packed with awesome 13er hiking opportunities.
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Windsor Lake in Mount Massive Wilderness
If you’re looking for short, sweet, and steep with incredible views, Windsor Lake near Leadville is an awesome choice. Scope out sweet views of Mont Massive and the mighty Sawatch Range (home to 14 of Colorado’s tallest peaks).
Distance: 2.8 miles
Elevation: 885 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Red Tape and local tips: Dogs are allowed to use this trail. Be sure to check local road conditions during the winter months, the road is unmaintained and closes, which adds an extra 3 to 4 miles each way.
Pacific Tarn in the Tenmile Range
At 13,420 feet, Pacific Tarn is the highest alpine lake in the United States, and you can have it all to yourself. Seriously, this is the least popular alpine lake hike in Colorado on this list, likely because so few people know about it. However, this is one gorgeous hike, especially during wildflower season. Enjoy spanning vistas of the Tenmile Range including Pacific Peak, Atlantic Peak, and Crystal Peak (all of which are excellent Colorado 13ers to try!)
Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation: 2,362 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Red Tape and local tips: Pssst, there are a lot of nearby small lakes and areas to explore here.
Mirror Lake in Indian Peaks Wilderness
When it comes to alpine lakes, Colorado takes the cake and there is no place on earth like Mirror Lake. The mountains surrounding Mirror Lake defy gravity, and early in the morning, you can get a perfect reflection of the famous Lone Eagle Peak (named the most beautiful mountain in Colorado). This hike can be done in a near-15-mile day over moderate terrain, or you can obtain a permit to backpack and camp right near the lake.
Distance: 14.6 miles
Elevation: 2,373 feet
Difficulty: A difficult day hike or a moderate overnight backpack
Red Tape and Local Tips: Permits are required for backpacking from Memorial Day through Labor Day. There is no overnight parking without a backcountry permit (we learned this the hard way) and there is an entry fee to get to the trailhead. Beware of moose in this area, they are everywhere and not afraid to charge! Dogs are welcome but keep them leashed, I’m not kidding about the moose!
Want to camp in the backcountry? Here’s how:
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- How to Make Your Own Backpacking Meals
- The Complete Guide to Backpacking with a Dog
Crater Lakes in Roosevelt National Forest
Check out three different alpine lakes in the James Peak Wilderness with the Crater Lakes Trail. This trail is well-used but has an interesting start as you make your way up next to and around a huge railway tunnel. Hike your way up to the lakes for breath-taking views and lakeside goodness!
Distance: 6.5 miles
Elevation: 1,804 feet
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Red Tape and Local Tips: This trail gets insanely busy in the summer, so start early. Dogs are welcome, but due to the crowds, keep Fido leashed.
Gore Lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness
As one of the best lake hikes in Colorado, this strenuous 12-plus mile hike is best done in two days. Once you arrive, you won’t want to leave! It’s my favorite backpacking route in Colorado and well-worth an overnight. Although Gore Lake looks reasonable on paper, this is a tough hike, with much of the elevation gained in the last couple of miles. Don’t forget to turn left at the graves or you’ll pass right by the final push to the lake!
Distance: 12.5 miles
Elevation: 2,890 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: This mountain range holds snow well into July, so be prepared for a few patches of snow, even in late summer. This route is delicate, so always practice Leave No Trace when visiting. Dogs welcome.
For more about backpacking in Colorado, check out Colorado’s most scenic backpacking trails.
Sky Pond in Rocky Mountain National Park
This strenuous hike leads to one of the most dramatic alpine lakes in Colorado. Take the Glacier Gorge Trail up a steep, winding dramatic valley that terminates at the famed Sky Pond. Catch dramatic views of the Sharkstooth and Taylor Peak. You’ll have the added bonus of passing two additional scenic alpine lakes along the way.
Distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation: 1,765 feet
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs allowed. In winter the trail may be impossible without ice climbing gear.
Twin Crater Lakes in the Rawah Wilderness
Another long-distance doozy, the Twin Crater Lakes hike is well-worth a backpack, unless you have hiking super-powers, in which case, it technically can be done in a day. What I love about this Colorado lake hike is just how quiet it is. Not many people venture to the mountain ranges down south, so expect lots of solitude.
Distance: 23.8 miles
Elevation: 4,767 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: Dogs are welcome to use this trail. It’s a burly hike in, especially with a pack, so be prepared.
Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
Another difficult hike for your Colorado bucket list, Mills Lake boasts 11 miles of stunning beauty. Start on the Glacier Gorge Trail (like you would for Sky Pond) except veer left at the fork. Continue for several more miles until reaching the base of The Spearhead, a famous mountaineering objective. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy spanning alpine lake views.
Distance: 11 miles
Elevation: 2,529 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs. Make sure to pay attention to trail signs and take a GPS, there are a lot of intersecting trails in the area.
Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains
Another iconic alpine lake hike in Colorado, Ice Lake brings you unbelievable brilliant blue waters. The electric, mineral-rich water beckons. Be sure to bring your camera and a snack to enjoy at the lake, it’s really that unbelievable.
Distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation: 3,093 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: This is a well-known spot. Opt to get their early or make it an overnight to get more time.
Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park
For dramatic views of Long’s Peak and the iconic Diamond headwall, head up to Chasm Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. This 7.7 miles trail boasts a wow-factor unlike any other. Surround yourself in an amphitheater of dramatic rock and scope out of the best alpine lakes in Colorado.
Distance: 7.7 miles
Elevation: 2,522 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: No dogs. This hike also has a waterfall. The parking lot can get crowded, so plan accordingly.
Chicago Lakes in Mount Evans Wilderness
Chicago Lakes is a popular hiking trail in the Mount Evans Wilderness that has two magnificent lakes with stellar views towards the foothills and of Mount Evans. The trail starts off steep, dropping into a valley before running flat, then climbing steeply up again. However, the serenity of the lakes is well-worth the butt-busting effort.
Distance: 9.1 miles
Elevation: 2,142 feet
Red Tape and Local Tips: Chicago Lakes can get pretty crowded, but there’s plenty of prime backpacking sites to pitch a tent and enjoy the views!
With so many lake hikes, Colorado will have your hiking itinerary booked for years! Each of these alpine lake hikes brings you the best of the Rocky Mountains and picturesque mountain scenery.