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15 Best Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado

15 Beautiful Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado for Your Next Adventure

For both locals and visitors, Colorado’s alpine lake hikes provide a unique opportunity to immerse in the state’s natural beauty. The trails take you through diverse landscapes – from dense forests to open meadows – leading to the main attraction, the crystal-clear alpine lakes. Each hike offers its own unique charm and challenges, providing a satisfying outdoor experience for all.

Whether you’re an avid photographer, a birdwatcher, or a family seeking a weekend adventure, these hikes promise unforgettable experiences and breathtaking views. So lace up your boots, pack your gear, and embark on a journey into the heart of Colorado’s wilderness.





Table of Contents

Safety First

Before we dig in, here are a few reminders on how to stay safe while hiking to alpine lakes in Colorado’s rugged mountain landscape.

  • Always check the weather forecast before you start your hike. Mountain weather can change rapidly, and it’s important to be prepared for all possibilities.
  • Research the route before you go and carry a map and compass, even if you are using a GPS unit. Batteries can die, and signals can be spotty in the mountains.
  • Pack the ten essentials and carry them with you at all times in case you are injured, get lost, or come across someone else in need of assistance.
  • Be aware of altitude sickness. Drink plenty of water, take your time to acclimatize to higher altitudes, and descend if you feel unwell before it gets worse.
  • Bring a buddy, write down your plan, and leave a copy with a trusted contact back home and make sure they call for help if you miss your check-in time.

 

Read our comprehensive mountain safety guide to learn everything you need to know for a safe time out in the Colorado backcountry.





15 Best Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado

Here are my fifteen favorite hikes to alpine lakes across the state of Colorado. Some are easy, some are difficult, so there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

1. Sky Pond

Sky Pond Hike
  • Distance: 8.6 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,771 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Glacier Gorge
  • Nearest Town: Estes Park, Colorado

 

Located in Rocky Mountain National Park above the treeline, Sky Pond is one of my favorite alpine lake hikes in Colorado thanks to its rugged terrain and the amazing views up above. While it’s one of the tougher lakes to reach, the spectacular views and crags are well worth the challenge if you are ready for a full day in the mountains. During winter, the trail becomes far more challenging, requiring crampons and an ice axe, but can still be done with the right gear and mindset.

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2. Emerald Lake

  • Distance: 8.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 748 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Bear Lake
  • Nearest Town: Estes Park, Colorado


Emerald Lake is another captivating spot in the Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s much easier to reach than Sky Pond, making it a great destination for families or those new to hiking. The trail offers stunning views, passing by other beautiful lakes on the way to the main attraction. However, all these factors make it one of the busiest lakes on this list. You will need a timed entry reservation for the Bear Lake section of the park, so plan ahead if you want to reach this special spot.

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3. Blue Lake

  • Distance: 6.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,112 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Mitchell Lake
  • Nearest Town: Ward, Colorado

 

Blue Lake is a picturesque destination nestled in the Indian Peaks Wilderness at the base of Mount Audubon, a striking Colorado thirteener. The trail is moderately difficult, making it a great choice for those looking to step up from easier routes. Along the way, hikers are treated to stunning views of multiple alpine lakes and the surrounding peaks just an hour and a half from Denver and the front range metro area.

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4. Hanging Lake

  • Distance: 2.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,231 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Hanging Lake Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Glenwood Springs, Colorado


Hanging Lake, located near Glenwood Springs, is an iconic Colorado destination. The trail is short but steep, leading to a stunning turquoise lake surrounded by lush vegetation and waterfalls. A permit and reservation is required to hike to Hanging Lake, so be sure to plan ahead. If you just show up, you will be turned away. The trail is undergoing major reconstruction and restoration during 2024 which will limit the number of available permits and reservations.

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5. Chasm Lake

  • Distance: 8.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,501 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Longs Peak
  • Nearest Town: Allenspark, Colorado

 

Chasm Lake sits at the base of Longs Peak and offers breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest peak. Although the trail is challenging, the stunning alpine scenery and the tranquil lake at the end make it more than worth the effort. It’s one of the quietest alpine lakes in the national park if you are looking for solitude. Pack a good book to enjoy alone along the water’s edge.

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6. Mohawk Lakes

  • Distance: 8.3 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,400 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Spruce Creek Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Breckenridge, Colorado


The Mohawk Lakes trail, nestled in the heart of Colorado, offers a diverse array of scenic views that are sure to leave any nature lover awe-struck. The trail is a winding path that takes you through an enchanting series of lakes. Each lake you encounter offers its own unique charm and beauty, leading up to the grand finale – the uppermost and largest of them all, Mohawk Lake. This majestic lake, surrounded by the breathtaking landscape, is the perfect spot to soak in the tranquility of nature.

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7. Lake Isabelle

  • Distance: 4.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 450 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead: Long Lake Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Ward, Colorado


Lake Isabelle is an idyllic spot located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness near Denver and the front range metro area. The trail is relatively easy, making it a perfect option for beginners or those seeking a less strenuous hike. The path is teeming with wildflowers in the summer, and the lake offers a serene and picturesque setting for a picnic. The area requires an access fee and sometimes reservations, so check before you go!

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8. American Lakes

  • Distance: 6.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,450 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Michigan Ditch Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Walden, Colorado


The American Lakes, also known as the Michigan Lakes, are situated in State Forest State Park and are well worth your time. The trail provides a challenging hike, passing through beautiful meadows and forests before reaching the alpine lakes, which are typically not very crowded compared to others on the list. This hike offers a memorable experience with breathtaking views of the Never Summer Mountains and Rocky Mountain National Park to the east.

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9. Crater Lake

  • Distance: 3.6 mile
  • Elevation Gain: 600 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Maroon Lake Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Aspen, Colorado


Crater Lake, nestled in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, is one of Colorado’s most iconic hikes. It’s an easy, three-mile scenic trail that offers stunning views of the Maroon Bells, two of Colorado’s most famous peaks. The trail is perfect for families, photographers, and visitors looking for a less strenuous hike. In the fall, the changing aspen trees create a breathtaking backdrop against the reflective lake. Remember to arrive early or use the shuttle service, as parking is limited during peak times.

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10. Saint Mary's Lake and Glacier

  • Distance: 1.7 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 530 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Trailhead: Saint Mary’s Glacier Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Idaho Springs, Colorado


Saint Mary’s Glacier is a popular hike located near Idaho Springs, Colorado. Despite its name, this hike actually leads to a perennial snowfield, rather than a true glacier. The trail is relatively short but can be steep in parts, making it accessible for most hikers. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the snowfield and Saint Mary’s Lake. This is a great choice for those wanting a quick hike with a great payoff.

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11. Ice Lake

  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,762 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: South Mineral Campground
  • Nearest Town: Silverton, Colorado


Ice Lake is a stunning alpine lake located in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado. The hike to the lake is challenging due to its high elevation gain, but the breathtaking views of the turquoise lake nestled among towering peaks make it well worth the effort. Along the trail, hikers pass through beautiful wildflower meadows and have the opportunity to visit a second lake, Island Lake. Just be sure to start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms that are common in the area.

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12. Willow Lake

  • Distance: 9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,800 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Willow Creek Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Crestone, Colorado


Willow Lake is nestled at the base of Challenger Point, a well-known 14er in the Sangre de Cristo Range. The hike to the lake is considered strenuous due to the significant elevation gain and the challenging terrain. However, the trail offers breathtaking views of waterfalls, vast meadows, and towering cliffs. The tranquil lake is a perfect spot for camping or a peaceful afternoon rest. The trailhead is accessible from Crestone, a small town known for its spiritual retreat centers. Just be prepared for a full day of hiking and start early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.

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13. Mirror and Crater Lakes by Lone Eagle Peak

  • Distance: 14.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,700 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Trailhead: Monarch Lake Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Granby, Colorado


Mirror and Crater Lakes are nestled beneath the impressive Lone Eagle Peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The hike to these lakes is a challenging adventure due to the considerable distance and elevation gain. However, the striking views of Lone Eagle Peak reflected in the calm waters of Mirror Lake make the journey well worth the effort. Due to its difficulty and distance, this hike is best suited for an overnight trip, and there are plenty of campsites near the lakes. Remember to obtain a wilderness permit if you plan on camping.

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14. Lost Lake

  • Distance: 3.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 430 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Lost Lake Trailhead
  • Nearest Town: Grand Junction, Colorado


Lost Lake is a hidden gem located in the Grand Mesa National Forest. The trail to the lake is considered moderate, with a steady but manageable elevation gain. The path winds through beautiful aspen and pine forests before opening up to the stunning lake, which is aptly named as it feels like a serene escape from the world. The area is known for its abundant wildlife and wildflowers, making it a fantastic choice for nature lovers.

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15. Highland Mary Lakes

  • Distance: 4.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 1,400 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Cunningham Gulch
  • Nearest Town: Silverton, Colorado


Highland Mary Lakes are a series of three stunning alpine lakes hidden in the San Juan Mountains. Although lesser-known and therefore less crowded, these lakes offer some of the most breathtaking views in Colorado. The trail to the lakes is moderately challenging, with a steady elevation gain, but the effort is well worth it. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of verdant meadows, wildflowers, and the shimmering waters of the lakes set against the backdrop of rugged mountain peaks. Remember to pack your camera and plan for a picnic by the lakeside.

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Leave No Trace Tips:

Outdoor adventures such as hiking in Colorado’s beautiful alpine lakes not only provide thrilling experiences but also bring us closer to nature. However, it’s paramount that we enjoy these natural wonders responsibly to minimize our impact and ensure their preservation for future generations. The Leave No Trace principles provide a framework for outdoor ethics that every hiker should follow. Here are key takeaways:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Research your hike beforehand. Understand the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Stick to established trails and campsites. Avoid venturing onto undisturbed land to protect the ecosystem.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. If necessary, dig catholes to bury human waste.
  4. Leave What You Find: Preserve the natural environment. Do not disturb plants or wildlife. Leave rocks, shells, and historical artifacts as you found them.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impact: Use a camping stove for cooking instead of making a fire. If you must have a fire, use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Observe wildlife from a distance and never feed animals.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Keep noise levels down and let nature’s sounds prevail.


Remember, when we step into nature, we’re entering the home of countless species. It’s our responsibility to minimize our impact and maintain nature’s balance. By practicing these principles, we can ensure that these beautiful alpine lakes and their surrounding environments remain pristine and enjoyable for years to come.





What Should You Bring Hiking in Colorado?

Bringing the right gear with you will make your hike to these alpine lakes safer and more enjoyable. Here’s a primer on what you should carry in your backpack for these beautiful alpine lake hikes in Colorado.

  • Hiking Boots: A good pair of waterproof hiking boots will provide the support and traction you need on uneven trails.
  • Water Bottle: Keeping hydrated is crucial, especially on longer hikes. Bring a reusable water bottle or hydration bladder.
  • Map & Compass: While digital maps are handy, a traditional map and compass are fail-safe navigation tools that don’t rely on battery power.
  • First Aid Kit: A compact first aid kit with band-aids, antiseptic wipes, and bandages can be a lifesaver in case of minor injuries.
  • Headlamp: Even if you plan to return before dark, a headlamp is a must-have in case your hike takes longer than expected or in case of an emergency.
  • Extra Layer: Mountain weather can be unpredictable. Pack an extra layer of clothing for warmth.
  • Extra Food: Bring along some high-energy snacks like trail mix or energy bars.
  • Sun Protection: High-altitude sun can be intense. Don’t forget a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • Backpack: A comfortable backpack with good support is essential for carrying your gear.
  • Trek Poles: Trekking poles can take some strain off your knees, especially on downhill sections.
  • Satellite Communicator: In remote areas with no cell service, a satellite communicator can be a lifeline to the outside world.
  • Fire Starting Kit: In case of an emergency, being able to start a fire for warmth and signal is crucial.
  • Whistle: A whistle can be used to signal for help in case of an emergency.

Check out my complete hiking gear packing list for beginners to make sure you bring everything you need on your Colorado alpine lake hikes.

Hanging Lake Colorado Reconstruction

Conclusion

From the serene waters of Lake Isabelle to the rugged beauty of Lone Eagle Peak, these alpine lake hikes in Colorado offer an adventure for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just starting out, these trails provide a unique opportunity to connect with nature and challenge yourself. So lace up your hiking boots, pack your backpack, and set off on your next adventure.

Looking for more info about alpine lake hikes in Colorado? Check out my FAQ section below or leave a question in the comments section and I will get you an answer as soon as possible.

FAQ: Best Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado

Here, we delve into the most commonly asked questions about alpine lake hikes in Colorado, providing comprehensive information to ensure that you’re well-prepared for your next hiking adventure.

Q: How many alpine lakes does Colorado have?

A: Colorado is home to a staggering number of alpine lakes, with over 2,000 scattered across the state. These lakes are nestled within the Rocky Mountains and other mountain ranges, offering breathtaking views and unique hiking experiences. Each lake has its own unique charm, making every hike a new adventure.

A: Pacific Tarn, which is considered the highest elevation alpine lake in Colorado, is located at an approximate elevation of 13,420 feet above sea level. This gem is hidden high in the mountains and offers a unique hiking experience for those who are up for the challenge.

A: In terms of surface area, the largest alpine lake in Colorado is Grand Lake. Located in Grand County, it spans an impressive 500 acres. The lake is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering opportunities for boating, fishing, and hiking.

A: While swimming in Colorado’s alpine lakes is technically possible, it’s important to note that the water in these high-altitude lakes can be extremely cold, even during the summer. Additionally, local regulations may prohibit swimming in certain areas for environmental reasons, so it’s always a good idea to check before diving in.

A: Yes, Colorado is home to a number of glacial lakes. These are lakes that were formed by the movement and melt of glaciers. As the glaciers moved, they carved out basins in the landscape, which were later filled with water, forming these stunning glacial lakes.

A: An alpine lake is typically considered to be a lake that occurs at high altitudes, often in mountainous regions. These lakes are usually found above the tree line, where the environment is too harsh for most trees to grow. Alpine lakes are known for their stunning, pristine beauty, often surrounded by rugged mountain landscapes.

A: Despite the crystal clear appearance of alpine lake water, drinking it directly is not recommended. Even the cleanest looking water can contain harmful bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Always treat or filter water before drinking to ensure it’s safe for consumption. This can be done through boiling, using water treatment tablets, or a portable water filter.

A: Rocky Mountain National Park is teeming with beautiful alpine lakes, making it hard to choose just one. However, some of the most popular and breathtaking ones include Emerald Lake, Sky Pond, and Chasm Lake. Emerald Lake offers a moderate hike with stunning views, Sky Pond is a challenging but rewarding trek and Chasm Lake sits at the base of Longs Peak, offering breathtaking views of the park’s highest peak. Each lake offers a unique hiking experience and stunning views, so you really can’t go wrong.

15 Beautiful Alpine Lake Hikes in Colorado for Your Next Adventure




Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.





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