“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams
Seeking grace in every step he takes
His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand
The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake”
– John Denver, Rocky Mountain High
John Denver knew it: One of the most magical ways to enjoy summer high in the Rocky Mountains is at one of our amazing alpine lakes. The parting gift of the glaciers that carved up the Rockies and helped create the stunning landscape, their waters are cool, their air crisp, their views stunning, often in a low point of a valley surrounded by high peaks reflecting in the blue water. Whether you’re hiking up to fish, set up a campsite, climb a mountain or just drink in the views while you drink some microbrews, a mountain lake is a feast for the senses.
But roads rarely reach such places, so you’ll need to put in the effort to get there. Here are 10 pristine wilderness lakes, arranged in ascending order of difficulty, that are worth every step to reach. Just remember in federal wilderness areas only foot and horse travel are allowed and groups must be keep to no more than 15 people. And keep in mind that the more remote and harder to reach the lake is, the more likely you’ll find solitude.
Rocky Mountain National Park
No lake in Colorado may offer such amazing scenery for such an easy hike. From the Bear Creek Trailhead it’s a gentle 1 mile to the lake, towered over by the massive cliff of Hallett Peak. Unless you’re pushing a baby in a stroller you’ll probably be thirsty for more, so continue around the lake to quieter Nymph Lake or make a loop to the Glacier Gorge Trailhead. Parking is limited on summer weekends so you may need to park in a satellite lot and take a shuttle (or take a midweek break to avoid the crowds).
Saint Mary’s Lake
Arapaho National Forest
This trailhead along Interstate 70 is less than an hour’s drive from Denver but might as well be in a different world. And it’s pretty easy to reach this world too, just around a mile to the lake fed by Saint Mary’s Glacier, probably the most Instagrammed glacier in the world. Obsessive skiers and snowboarders looking to make turns all year come here in late summer after even Arapahoe Basin ski area has closed. Take Exit 238 just west of Idaho Springs and drive north on Fall River Road for 9 miles to the trailhead.
San Isabel National Forest
Turquoise Lake near Leadville can be crowded in summer, but this easy 2.2-mile hike will lead you to a gorgeous lake where you’ll feel above it all. The sound of engines fades away as you enter the Holy Cross Wilderness and you’ll reach this beautiful lake before your legs even have a chance to get tired. The trailhead is at the western edge of Turqouise Lake.
Gunnison National Forest
The Fossil Ridge Wilderness near Gunnison is so-named because remains of ancient sea creatures have been found in the rock 13,000 above sea level. This gorgeous mountain lake is reached by a moderate hike of just 2.5 miles, though with 1,600 feet of elevation gain it’ll leave you sweaty. A short side trip from the lake to Gunsight Pass is worth it. Reach the trailhead on Colorado 76 to the (almost) ghost town of Ohio City and take Gold Creek Road. The trailhead is at the Gold Creek Campground.
Uncompahgre National Forest
The San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado don’t surrender their secrets easily, often requiring multiday hikes to experience their wonders. Blue Lakes in the Mount Sneffels is an exception, a 6-mile hike (roundtrip) with 1,500 feet of climbing to a stunning mountain basin in the shadow of namesake Mount Sneffels. It might be the bluest water you’ll ever see in Colorado, as the lake is much deeper than many alpine lakes. You can lengthen your trip by hiking up to the next two lakes and as high as Blue Lakes Pass, which would make for a strenuous 11-mile day. The trailhead is on Dallas Creek Road (County Road 7) near the town of Ridgway.
San Isabel National Forest
The Collegiate Peaks Wilderness can feel crowded with so many people climbing the famous 14,000-foot peaks in the area. This lake, one drainage south of popular Mount Harvard, is a different story. Starting at the same trailhead, North Cottonwood Trail, you’ll leave the crowds behind on the moderate 4-mile hike. A worthy side trip takes you to Browns Pass. There’s also plenty of good backcountry camping around the lakeshore.
Lakes of the Clouds
San Isabel National Forest
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains southwest of Pueblo have many, many fine lakes, owing to their jagged terrain and tight canyons that allowed lakes to form high in nearly every drainage. None is easy to reach, but if you’re going to put in the hiking effort, Lakes of the Clouds are some of the prettiest. These are three picturesque lakes teeming with trout, reached by a tough, but doable-in-a-day, 9-mile round-trip hike, with 2,200 feet of climbing. Each lake is a half-mile from the other but be sure to visit all three, as each has its own character. Better yet, heft an overnight pack and spend some extra time in this gorgeous area. 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 (or an even longer hike).
Routt National Forest
The Mount Zirkel Wilderness near Steamboat is a virtual no-mans-land for eight months of the year, owing to the heavy snow that falls and sticks around into late June. This 11-mile round-trip hike takes you to the some of the prettiest, remote and wild yet close-enough-to-be-doable-as-a-day-hike lakes (though many people prefer to make this an overnight backpack trip.) From the Rainbow Lakes Trailhead it’s a modest 3.5 miles to that namesake lake, where many day hikers turn around. Keep going another steep 2 miles to Slide Lakes, perched nearly at timberline and surrounded by great campsites. From the town of Walden take Colorado 14 a short distance to County Road 12W. Head west for 5 miles and take County Road 18 west for another 4 miles. Turn south on County Road 5 and then take a quick right onto County Road 22 for 6 miles to the trailhead. It can be confusing and poorly marked so take a map or an app.
Upper Slate Lake
White River National Forest
This is one of the prettiest lakes in the mighty Gore Range (the mountains that dominate the view from the front side of Vail and Copper Mountain ski areas.) It’s also one of the toughest to reach, 18 miles each way, with plenty of up-and-down to get your legs screaming at you, so most mere mortals do it as an overnight backpack. You’ll walk endlessly over and down forested ridges on the Gore Range Trail until the junction with the Slate Creek Trail, where the fun really starts. Enjoy gentle meadows full of wildflowers before the trail gets absurdly steep for 2 miles. The reward is Upper Slate Lake, one of the prettiest and most remote wilderness gems in Colorado. The trailhead is north of the town of Silverthorne, 7 miles on Colorado 9. Turn left on Rock Creek Road across from the Blue River Campground. Follow the dirt road 1.2 miles and turn left at the road marked “Rock Creek.” The trailhead is at the road’s terminus in 1.7 miles.
San Juan National Forest
Colorado’s largest wilderness area is the Weminuche, 500,000 acres, an area so vast you can only nibble at the edges without an overnight pack and plenty of time on your hands. You’ll need both to reach Emerald Lake, Colorado’s third-largest natural lake, a 10-mile trek from the Pine River Trailhead near Vallecito Reservoir. The first stretch isn’t bad, though it’s heavily used by horseback guides so you’ll have to get used to the omnipresent manure smell. Then the steep ascent to the lake will leave you breathless. But hey, if it was easy to reach, there would be a lot more people up there. Plan to spend at least two nights enjoying this pristine area, with a day trip to Moon Lake at the top of the valley.