My Top Five Easy Colorado Hikes (so far)

It’s no secret that Colorado is a great place to live or to visit. The opportunity to explore this beautiful state is something I have never taken for granted, not for a second. Every weekend the conversation usually isn’t “should we go hiking” it’s “where should we go hiking.”

It can be overwhelming to try to plan things in a state that has so many opportunities for beauty, whether you are living here or planning a trip. Some of the best adventures can be found within just a few hours of Denver, and I’ve decided to compile a list of some of my favorite easy hikes.

1. Emerald Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

This is my absolute favorite short hike close to Denver. Alpine lakes are something of a wonder to me, and you get to see four of them on this hike. Just under 4 miles round trip and 652 feet of elevation gain will get you to Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and finally – Emerald Lake. Each lake is more beautiful than the last, and the gradual elevation gain makes for a very enjoyable, not exhausting hike. Bear Lake trailhead, the starting point for the hike, is about two hours from Denver. I would recommend getting to this trailhead early in the day or late in the afternoon to avoid some of the crowds as this is one of the most popular areas in the park.

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2. Lake Isabelle, Indian Peaks Wilderness

This lovely lake is about an hour and a half from Denver. It’s in the popular Indian Peaks Wilderness Area, so getting here early is important. For reference, we got to the trailhead just after 7:00am and we had to park at Brainard Lake and walk to the trailhead. Although, if you have to do that it’s not the worst thing – you get to walk around a beautiful lake and have prime moose viewing opportunities, so keep your eyes peeled! This hike is 4.5 miles total and 630 feet of elevation gain, so it’s a great opportunity to take your time, take in the views, and see the beauty the Indian Peaks Wilderness has to offer.

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Lake Isabelle

3. Hagerman Pass, near Turquoise Lake 

For those willing to drive just a little bit farther (approximately 2.5 hours from Denver), and love the joy of being one of the few on the trail, I highly recommend Hagerman Pass. The details are in a previous blog, but this hike was so wonderful it’s worth mentioning twice. For me, this hike has everything you would want on a Colorado hike: alpine lakes, mountain views, ghost towns, and wildflowers. At 5.5 miles round trip, this hike will take you a little longer than the previous mentioned, but the gradual elevation gain of 590 feet makes it a relatively easy hike. The only reason it will take you a little longer is because of the views; they are more than worth taking your time.

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Opal Lake, Hagerman Pass Trail

4. Crater Lake, Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness

Most people visiting Denver probably don’t want to drive 3.5 hours to get to Maroon Bells – but once you’re there, you’ll see why so many make the trek. This is quite possibly one of the most photographed areas of Colorado, and for good reason. It’s absolutely beautiful at every season – although it’s worth noting that in the winter the only way to access this area is by hiking or snowmobiling, so be sure to check the road closures if you are coming in the Spring or Fall. Crater Lake is perhaps the most popular short hike at Maroon Bells; it’s 3.4 miles total (with 630 feet of elevation gain). If you can be an early riser, I recommend arriving well before sunrise to photograph the magical glow and reflection with Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake.

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Crater Lake, Maroon Bells – Snowmass Wilderness

5. Mayflower Gulch Trail

Lastly, for those that want an easy hike, but a little bit more of an elevation gain, this is the trail for you. It’s about 6.5 miles beyond Copper Mountain (about an 1.6 hours from Denver),  but parking has never been an issue when I’ve hiked here, so just watch the weather for afternoon storms as you’re planning. I have to admit, the hike doesn’t have anything super interesting (besides amazing views) until you get to your destination at 3.1 miles, after 1550 feet of elevation gain. The trail leads you to an old ghost town, the Boston Mine, where you can explore the remains of the cabins of the people who used to live there in the early 1900s.  I recommend doing your research before this hike, as there can be snow well into June or July and it’s important to make sure you have the right traction devices.

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Mayflower Gulch Trail

The Adventure to Sky Pond

As a girl from Minnesota, one would think I was in love with the great outdoors. However, I wasn’t at all. I would go on a few hikes occasionally, like around Gooseberry Falls outside Duluth, MN – but that was the extent of my hiking. I preferred shopping, hanging out on the lake, and spending time with friends (but not outside, there were too many bugs).

When I moved to Colorado that clearly changed, and throughout my second summer here I have been working up to longer and more difficult hikes. I finally had the right gear (kind of), the confidence (most of the time), and I was ready to stomp all over the hike to Sky Pond; which I had heard was one of the more difficult hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).

You might recall we tried to do the hike to Sky Pond a few weeks ago, and it was an epic fail (well not totally, we did a different amazing hike, but that’s besides the point). We got to the parking lot at about 9:30am, which is prime for Bear Lake Trail traffic. This time though, we were prepared. We had our bags packed, alarms set, and we woke up at 4:00am to be on the road by 5:00am. Starbucks in hand, we were at the trailhead about two hours later and got close to the last spot in the parking lot.

Trail Stats

  1. Starting Elevation: 9,240 feet
  2. Ending Elevation: 10,900 feet
  3. Net Elevation Gain (because of ups and downs): 1,780 feet
  4. Round Trip Length: 9.0 miles (add 0.3 if you are starting at Bear Lake Trailhead)
  5. Trailhead: Glacier Gorge or Bear Lake Trailhead, RMNP
  6. Fee: 20 dollars (or free if you have a National Parks Pass or RMNP Pass)
  7. Dogs allowed?: No

The trail starts out in a wooded forest going downhill, which is important to note because we had to save some energy to go back uphill at the very end, when everyone is usually exhausted. At just over 0.8 miles we arrived at our first destination, and one of the most popular in RMNP, Alberta Falls.

 

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Alberta Falls

Following Alberta Falls we followed the trail about halfway up the falls to the right. This portion of the trail had a gradual incline and was shaded in the morning, but not the afternoon on our way back, which was another great reason to get an early start. At 2.1 miles we arrived at the Loch Vale/Mills Lake junction. We continued right to go up to our second destination, the Loch Vale. Soon we were welcomed with a snapshot of the incredible views of Glacier Gorge that we would soon see much closer.

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Another shaded, but steady climb was ahead of us through a series of switchbacks. The trail was a little busier than I thought, but we kept moving over so people could pass as we maintained our moderate pace. However, shortly after groups passed us, we almost always passed them – maintaining a moderate pace, esspecially up steep areas, is important because we won’t be exhausted at the end of the hike.

We arrived at the beautiful views of the Loch Vale at about 2.8 miles. It was a perfect spot to rest as we had climbed to 10,190 ft (gained 950 ft), and needed to refuel for the last 1.7 miles.

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Loch Vale

Full of energy and hydrated, we continued in hopes of getting some of the views to ourselves at Sky Pond. The trail followed around the lake and climbed gradually for another 0.8 miles. After a bridge at mile 3.6, we continued left here to go to Sky Pond, as going to the right will take you to Andrew’s Glacier. Soon after this we started to see a waterfall, one that I assumed was Timberline Falls as I read you saw a beautiful waterfall before Sky Pond – but my mind was having a hard time believing we actually gained THAT much elevation. Spoiler alert: you do gain that much elevation.

Just after we continued the left, the trail steadily climbed until the ultimate climb – the trail of stairs that didn’t ever want to end. I was thankful we started the hike early, because this portion of the hike was completely exposed, and rose a steep 200 ft in 0.15 miles (not pictured because I was soley focused on surviving the ascent).

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Loch Vale from above (Photo Credit: Bill Chopp)

Everyone always says that the climb is worth it – and that is definitely still the case when it comes to this hike. Not only were we able to see just how much we had climbed, but we were able to see Timberline Falls up close and personal; without all the crowds.

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Timberline Falls (Photo Credit: Bill Chopp)

I always research hikes before I do them, naturally because I like to know what I’m getting myself into; elevation gain, time to hike, time to drive, and more difficult parts of the hike. That being said, I knew we had to climb the right side up Timberline Falls to get to the Lake of Glass and Sky Pond. What I didn’t know, was that the right side might still have water, and that the whole climb up would be wet and steep. Again, the climb was more than worth it, it just took a little bit of time (and patience, as you will likely have to wait for other hikers either on your ascent or descent). A few boulder hops later and we arrived at the Lake of Glass.

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Lake of Glass

We followed the Lake of Glass on the West side to continue the final 0.4 miles to Sky Pond. Here the trail became a little harder to follow, but if you pay attention you’ll be fine. The only reason it may have been a little difficult for me was because I was distracted by the amazing views and wildflowers that were surrounding us. It’s a flat final stretch though, which was a nice break after the 1,780 feet we had just completed. We continued the  boulder hopping trend, turned the corner and there it was, Sky Pond. We walked around the left side of the lake to get a more picturesque view of the Sharkstooth and enjoyed our lunch in front of one of the best views of the Rockies.

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Sky Pond

I hike now because I like it. Because I was unaware of how at home one can feel in nature. I didn’t know that I would feel at home in the wilderness. It’s like people say, you never know until you try. I tried, and it became an obsession. An obsession with pushing myself to the limit, an obsession with seeing amazing views that you can only walk to with your own two feet. An obsession that’s not only good for my health, but good for my soul. Hiking helps keep me grounded, it relaxes me. For me, hiking has added an intangible something to my life that I’ll probably never be able to describe, and I will always be thankful for it.

 

 

Hiking to Timber Lake

I am a destination hiker. I love the feeling of reaching the top of a peak, a lake, a waterfall, or anything else one might consider a destination. So, this weekend we planned to hike to Lake Haiyaha, at the ever popular Bear Lake Trailhead, in Rocky Mountain National Park. We made the rookie mistake of getting there at 10am, when we probably should have gotten there by 7am or much later at 4pm to get a spot and avoid the crowds.

Anyways…I have been wanting to explore the trails on the West side of Rocky Mountain National Park for quite some time, and when we couldn’t find a spot at Bear Lake, Timber Lake came to my mind. For those who haven’t been, or those who haven’t spent much time in the park – the West side is magical. There aren’t as many people, the trails are just as beautiful, and you will almost always see wildlife.

I’m a firm believer that things always happen for a reason. If something doesn’t work out – it’s because something better is in the works. It didn’t seem like we were meant to go to Lake Haiyaha, the parking was crazy everywhere. Plus, who really wants to try to fight through the crowds when the options for alpine lakes are limitless in Rocky Mountain Park? So we made our way over Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the United States, and had the luxury of seeing views like the one below the entire drive.

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Hike Stats for Timber Lake:

  1. Starting Elevation: 9,000 feet
  2. Elevation Gain: about 2,000 feet
  3. Round trip length: 11 miles
  4. Trailhead: Timber Lake Trailhead, 10 miles from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center (GPS Coordinates to trailhead: 40.399722, -105.847361)
  5. Time: 4 hours to lake (taking our time), 1 hour at the lake, 2 hours back

The hike began through the trees, and it was absolutely beautiful. The shade was a nice perk as well, especially since it was a sunny 80ºF day. Shortly after we started, the uphill climb began. We took a longer break at the about the 1.5 mile marker where you reach nice plateau with rocks for relaxing – trust me you’ll need it after climbing about 700 feet! When we continued on the hike, we were shortly rewarded with some openings in the trees and views like the one below.

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At roughly the 2.5 mile marker (though the trailhead signs say it’s at 2…I wasn’t convinced), you’ll see the aftermath of a huge landslide from 2012. We ran into a couple of hikers and they said it’s a lot worse than a couple of years ago – now I wasn’t here then, but I can say that it was very difficult to try to figure out. They have a pink/orange ribbon and a sign that says the trail turns up to go above the landslide. However, we didn’t see that on the way there, so make sure you look for it (the sign was on the ground and it was hard to tell). We spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the best way to get around it, and just when I was ready to call it a day my boyfriend found an area that looked passable below the landslide. Kudos to him, it worked out perfectly – we went to the bottom at the end of the landslide, hopped across a couple of creeks, and went the steep grade back up the trail. I highly recommend taking the route we took through the bush wack down and around instead of the seemingly straight up and down alternative that was marked.

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The landslide – when we thought we could try to go through it (mistake).

 

Once we made it past the landslide, the trail continued to climb gently to Timber Creek. After about 1 mile we reached the Timber Creek Junction – I recommend taking another brief break before you turn left and begin the next ascent to Timber Lake (if you turn to the right here you’ll go to Long Meadows). The trail climbs pretty steeply here, gaining about 800 feet of elevation in 1 mile through some rocky switchbacks.

Follwing the 800ft climb, the trail opens up into a pretty meadow, and we started to see a variety of signs for backcountry campsites. When you reach the first Jackstraw campsite you are roughly 0.8 miles to Timber Lake. The views from the meadows were just enough to keep me going for that last stretch, because I was fairly exhausted at this point; I mean we did gain 1,800 feet of elevation so far.

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After we crossed the meadow there was another small section of switchbacks to complete gaining another 200 feet – and then we made it!

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First view of Timber Lake

As soon as I thought the views couldn’t get any better…we continued to walk around and saw not one, but two more small lakes. We walked around the right side of the lake when we arrived, and took the left side back. I recommend just walking on the right side, as there’s quite a bit of rock scrambling and it’s muddier on the left side (depending on the season). We were taking pictures of the second lake and relaxing, when I saw something that looked like antlers. I zoomed my camera in, and it was a MOOSE! Before this hike, I had never seen a bull moose with a rack; but it was definitely worth the wait. We were taking pictures and then all the sudden not one, but two bull moose started walking toward the trees. They clearly sensed our presence (and probably heard my squeal of excitement), because they stared at us for a few minutes.

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The feeling of completing the hike to Timber Lake was incomparable. Since I was little I never thought I would be the girl who climbed mountains; I only thought I would someday see them and marvel at them. But two years ago I moved to Colorado, and now I had literally climbed up a mountain, farther into the backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park than I’ve ever gone.

Remember what I said at the beginning of the hike? How everything happens for a reason? If we would have done Lake Haiyaha and not Timber Lake, we would not have seen our first  two bull moose in the most majestic way I could ever expect to see them. I have been impatiently waiting for two years to see one, and we got to see two! I also would have never accomplished the great feat of climbing 2,000 feet up a mountain. Rocky Mountain National Park…you never cease to amaze me.

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Timber Lake