Arts and Culture

Take a Hike: Ten All-Season Colorado Alpine-Lake Hikes

Trails are much more peaceful in the wintertime.
Trails are much more peaceful in the wintertime. Photo by Andrew Ly on Unsplash
Colorado's alpine lakes make for stunning destinations for hikers. While summer is the easiest time of year to reach the trails, winter has a special allure. Sunlight dances on ice, snow covers the peaks, and the solitude cold weather affords is impossible to find in warmer months.

Here are some of the greatest alpine-lake hikes that can be reached all year long. If you do decide to take them on during colder months, check trail conditions, avalanche risks, and access points to ensure the roads are open. Study the ins and outs of winter hiking. Bring along the right equipment, including water, extra food, emergency shelter, a compass, fire starters, layers, spikes, snowshoes and trekking poles, along with a pair of sturdy, waterproof hiking boots and warm socks. And remember: There are risks with any hike, and there is no shame in turning back if the conditions demand it.

So bundle up, find a buddy, and take a hike (just don't try to swim).

click to enlarge White River National Forest in the fall. - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
White River National Forest in the fall.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Crystal Lake from Hoosier Pass
White River National Forest
Moderate, 3.5-mile loop

Starting from the top of Hoosier Pass at almost 11,500 feet, this hike should only be attempted by those who are already comfortable at elevation. For those who have adapted to Colorado’s thin air, this trail offers great bang for your buck, with magnificent views the whole way, a true sense of wilderness, and the pristine Crystal Lake at the end. If attempting this trail in winter, bring snowshoes, since it is seldom traveled and the snow is likely to be deep.

Emerald Lake Hike
Rocky Mountain National Park
Moderate, 3.1-mile out-and-back

The hike to Emerald Lake is a good option for those looking to get into winter hiking. Involving around 700 feet in elevation gain and reasonable mileage, this trek is doable for most hikers. With incredible views of the Rocky Mountains and three alpine lakes, even the coziest couch potato might be tempted to venture into the great outdoors. The trail begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead and passes both Nymph Lake and Dream Lake before ending at pristine Emerald Lake. It is popular even in the winter, so expect packed snow. Spikes are recommended, though, as the trails are often icy.

Grand Lake East Shore Trail
Rocky Mountain National Park
Moderate, 20.9-mile out-and-back

Grand Lake is the largest natural lake in Colorado. It is in a gorgeous location, surrounded by mountains and near the town of the same name. Along the east shore of Grand Lake, there is a trail that stretches for over ten miles. Offering gorgeous views of the lake and the mountains the entire way, this hefty hike can be adjusted to anyone’s ability level. Travel for only a few miles, then turn around, or go the whole way for a serious workout. Sturdy boots are a must, and spikes or snowshoes may be warranted, depending on the conditions.

click to enlarge Hike to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. - IMAGE VIA FLICKR
Hike to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.
Hanging Lake
White River National Forest
Moderate (difficult in winter)
2.4-mile out-and-back

This alpine-lake hike should make every Coloradan’s bucket list. Located in gorgeous Glenwood Canyon, the drive to the trailhead is reason enough to go here. The hike to Hanging Lake is short but steep, with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain in just over one mile. The lake is a rare travertine geological formation, so it's important that visitors respect this natural wonder by staying on the trail. A parking permit is required to visit Hanging Lake. Permits cost $12 per person during peak season and $10 per person during off-peak season, which is November to April. Along with saving a few bucks, visitors during the winter will enjoy solitude on this trail, which is typically crowded during other times of the year. Just be sure to bring spikes or snowshoes, as the trail will be icy and slippery.

Herman Gulch
Arapahoe National Forest
Moderate (difficult in winter)
6.3-mile out-and-back

This popular summertime hike is also a favorite among winter-hiking enthusiasts who are looking for a challenge with gorgeous scenery. Over the course of this 6.3 mile out-and-back trail, hikers gain over 1,600 feet in elevation. Although the trail is doable in the winter, it does get more difficult as you move deeper into Herman Gulch. As hikers approach Herman Lake, the snow deepens. Snowshoes may be helpful, and cross-country skiers also frequent this trail.
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