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

Trails are much more peaceful in the wintertime.EXPAND
Trails are much more peaceful in the wintertime.
Photo by Andrew Ly on Unsplash
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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).

White River National Forest in the fall.EXPAND
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.

Hike to Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.
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.

Hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park.EXPAND
Hiking at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Lily Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park
Easy, 0.8 mile loop

This easy trail is perfect for families visiting Colorado as well as seasoned-Coloradans looking to experience the joys of winter hiking. With less than fifty feet of elevation gain during this hike, an excursion to Lily Lake is also a great escape for people of all ages and most abilities. This loop takes you along the shores of the lake for the entirety of the hike. There is another route that adds distance and about 100 feet in elevation along with outstanding views. Whichever route you take, remember the trail will be snowy during the winter. Spikes or snowshoes are probably not necessary, but sturdy shoes are a must.

Loch Lamond
Arapahoe National Forest
Moderate, 4.6 mile out-and-back

Loch Lamond is a stunning lake that can be hiked to all year round with the proper gear. Snowshoes and spikes are a must for this hike in winter, since it begins above 10,000 feet and gains almost 1,000 feet in elevation. The road to the trailhead is not in good shape, so park at the beginning of Forest Service Road 7011 and continue on foot from there.

Maroon Lake
White River National Forest
Easy (moderate in winter), 1.9 mile loop (13.9 miles in winter)

In warmer months, those looking for an easy to get to alpine destination should head to Maroon Lake. Located beneath the famous Maroon Bells, this trail sees less traffic than much of the surrounding area and only involves 160 feet of elevation gain. In winter, the road to access this trail closes, adding six miles each way. For some, this is an enticing challenge. But for others it's a turn-off. If you are going to attempt this trail in the winter, bring snowshoes and snow pants.

Monarch Lake Loop Hike
Arapahoe National Forest
Easy, four-mile loop (six miles in winter)

With marginal elevation gain, this hike is one of the easiest in Colorado, making for a great family outing. The trail works its way through forests, past brooks, and along the shores of Monarch Lake, with minimal elevation gain. The trail is popular among wildlife enthusiasts, since it traverses differing ecosystems flush with animals. The access road to this hike is closed in the winter, which adds two extra miles. Snowshoes or spikes may be helpful.

Sapphire Point Trail
Swan Mountain Recreation Area
Easy, 0.6-mile loop

This super-short hike still packs a punch. Located off of Swan Mountain Road in Summit County, it offers stunning views of Lake Dillon, the Ten-Mile Range, the Gore Range, and the towns of Frisco and Dillon. This trail is quite popular, so expect packed snow over an even surface. On a sunny day, shoes with good traction should be all you need to do this trail. Sapphire Point Trail is so beautiful and easy, you may hike it twice.

What are your favorite winter hikes? Let us know at editorial@westword.com.

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