I’ve done a lot of hikes since I’ve moved to Denver, but by far the best hikes are those that are tough, have great views, and give you a glimpse into the history of the area. The trail to Forest Lake had all of those things, and quickly became one of my favorites (I probably say that about all of the hikes I do…but they are all really wonderful). The trailhead for Forest Lake is at a location known as the Moffat Tunnel. First of all, it had the biggest parking lot I’d ever seen for a trailhead, so it’s hard for me to believe that you can’t get a spot if you get at the trailhead later in the day – we got there at 10:00am and there were plenty of spaces.
The Moffat tunnel on the East side is the trailhead for our hike – if you were to view the tunnel from the West side it would be near Winter Park, Colorado. The idea for the tunnel began around 1902 with David Moffat and the Denver, Pacific, and Northwestern Pacific Railroad. The original idea for the tunnel was for it to go over what is now known as Rollins Pass, but the harsh winter conditions made snow removal impossible – thus the idea for the tunnel. There was quite a bit of controversy after Moffat died in 1911 as to how to finish (or if they would finish) the tunnel – it’s definitely worth researching if it’s something you are interested in. Eventually the tunnel was completed and the first train went through in 1928. Today it is the 3rd longest tunnel in the country, and also one of the 30 tunnels you will travel through if you take the Amtrak from Denver to Winter Park.
- Starting Elevation: 9,211 feet
- Ending Elevation: 10,664 feet
- Net Elevation Gain: 1,453 feet
- Round Trip Length: 6.8 miles
- Trailhead: Moffatt Tunnel near Rollinsville, CO
- GPS Coordinates: N39 54.181 W105 38.660
- Drive time from Denver: 1.5 hours with no traffic
- Fee: None
- Dogs allowed?: Yes
After we parked and read a little bit about the tunnel – we got going on the trail. I would highly recommend having a map with you, because I was little confused at the beginning about where to go. There isn’t a clear map at the trailhead and I hadn’t really researched the first trail we would be on before intersecting with the Forest Lake trail. Anyways, when you first start the trailhead is to the right of the Moffat Tunnel – the South Boulder Creek Trail. It’s 1.3 miles of meadows, forests, and more meadows with a steady climb of about 350 feet; the perfect warm up to a more aggressive climb.
We turned right to continue to Forest Lake at the trailhead split – staying straight takes you to Crater Lakes, which is where I suspect most of the crowds were, but our trail was very peaceful with few people. Shortly after the split we crossed a bridge to go over Arapahoe creek, and braced ourself for the steep 2.1 mile climb to the lake.
Most of the remainder of the trail was shaded by thick trees, with the occasional breaks like the one pictured above. The information and reviews about the hike that I read said that at 2.4 mile marker there will be a split for Arapahoe Lakes, where you turn north to continue to Forest Lake, or straight for Arapahoe Lake. However, it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t see that sign when we did the hike – the path looked like it was blocked with trees, perhaps by the Forest Service.
There were also several reviews about how the end of the trail is hard to follow – but the path is well-marked so if you pay attention and take your time you’ll be fine. The trail finally flattened out after we gained about 1,100 feet, and then the lake was in sight! It is quite deceiving, as we had to walk around the left side of the lake to stay on the trail and walk around a meadow to get to the lake.
If you do this trail, I have to stress that it is important to stay on the trail and not cut across to the lake skipping the meadow before the lake. Areas at this high of elevation are damaged so easily and it could take years for the area to be back to normal if people keep walking off the trail – as it was quite obvious it happens often. The lake is relatively small in size, but it’s still just as beautiful as any large lake.
There is another lake if you continue on the trail, but we decided to save that for next time. Part of the joy in going to beautiful places like this is leaving at least one thing unseen – then you have a reason to go back. Although I have to admit when we go back we probably won’t hike to it (even though I did love the hike).
We ran into a group on the way back down who let us in on a secret that if you drive to the top of Rollins Pass, you can hike 1/2 mile down on a trail and get to Upper Forest Lake. Don’t get me wrong – I think there is nothing better than exploring places of the world with your own 2 feet; but I will never say no to a new area to go off-roading.
Until the next adventure…