Some mountain beaches attract sunbathers, picnickers and those seeking mellow places to paddleboard. Others draw experienced hikers willing to work for the views. Before the leaves turn gold and the snow starts to fall, explore the scenic trails of these ten alpine lake hikes in Colorado:
Hard, 8.7 miles out and back
Although permits and timed entries aren’t involved, Blue Lakes requires a different sort of prep. Not only should you be physically fit for this strenuous hike, but depending on conditions, you’ll also want bug spray, trekking poles and a high-clearance vehicle. Once on the trail, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of three glacial lakes, each shining with a vibrant aquamarine color.
Hard, 5.4 miles out and back
Resting at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, Cathedral Lake is one of the most stunning alpine lakes in Colorado. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can take the mile-long dirt road to the trailhead; otherwise, park at the lot on Castle Creek Road. The ascent is steep but gradual, and the views along the way are as breathtaking as the lake itself. In the quiet morning hours, colorful cutthroat trout are often seen swimming in the crystal-clear water.
Cascade Creek Trail
Hard, 16 miles out and back
Regardless of your skill level, Cascade Creek Trail to Mirror Lake and Crater Lake is best experienced as a two-day trip. It’s one of Colorado’s prime backpacking routes, and in the summer is known for abundant wildlife, wildflowers and waterfalls. With a backcountry permit, you can camp overnight and wake up to Lone Eagle Peak’s reflection on the alpine lakes.
Moderate, 3.5 miles out and back
The Maroon Bells are famed as the most photographed location in Colorado, but no image can capture the full beauty of this iconic Aspen destination. Many book a day-use permit and simply take in views from Maroon Lake, just feet from the parking lot. But the moderate, family-friendly hike to Crater Lake is well worth the effort. At dawn and dusk, hikers often see deer, moose, marmots and even porcupines in this scenic area of the Maroon-Snowmass Wilderness.
Crystal Lake Trail
Hard, 8.4 miles out and back
The alpine lakes on this list aren’t easily accessible, but Lower Crystal Lake may be the one exception — that is, if you’re accustomed to off-roading in a 4WD vehicle. Alternately, you can hike to the Lower and Upper Crystal Lakes, enjoying creek crossings, mountain views and plenty of dispersed camping. After a day outdoors, stop in for a pint at Breckenridge Brewery, one of the best breweries near hiking trails.
Hanging Lake Trail
Moderate, 3.1 miles out and back
Hanging Lake ranks as one of the best winter hikes to alpine lakes, but regardless of summer crowds, it’s a bucket-list attraction in Colorado. Though short, the trail is steep. You’ll stair-step through uneven, rocky terrain and cross several wooden bridges over Dead Horse Creek. Just before you reach your destination, the trail opens up to panoramic views of Glenwood Canyon, followed by the picturesque alpine lake and cascading waterfalls.
Herman Gulch Trail
Moderate, 7.2 miles out and back
On Herman Gulch Trail, you can experience a short segment of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a 3,100-mile route that connects the borders of Canada and Mexico. Whether you're a thru-hiker or day-tripper, the scenery here is something to behold, especially in autumn. Not only is Herman Lake one of the best places to go leaf peeping, but year-round, it’s where you can find some of the greatest views near Denver.
Ice Lake Basin
Hard, 8.3 miles out and back
Marvel at some of the state’s brightest, bluest lakes on this challenging hike near Silverton. From start to finish, Ice Lakes Basin boasts jaw-dropping scenery, including wildflower meadows and countless waterfalls. At the second junction, consider veering left to Island Lake. This adds 1.2 miles to your trip, but most hikers would agree that you don’t want to miss this quick detour.
Moderate, 3.6 miles out and back
Emerald Lake is famed as one of the most popular hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, and from that same trailhead, you’ll find Lake Haiyaha. Here you’ll experience fewer crowds and impressive scenery. To hike to this alpine lake, expect to pay $30 for a day pass, and be sure to book your timed entry in advance.
St. Mary’s Glacier
Moderate, 2.4 miles out and back
Known for backcountry skiing and riding, St. Mary’s Glacier is one of Colorado’s best winter hikes, but views of this alpine lake are amazing in all seasons. Given its short length and distance from Denver, the trail is highly popular among both locals and tourists. Remember to leave no trace, and if you see others cliff jumping, don’t: Water levels are lower than in years past. Don’t forget $5 cash for parking, and of course, pack your camera, too!