The beauty of the Colorado wilderness never ceases to amaze me. I am so ridiculously in love with this state. From alpine lakes to dramatic mountain views to vibrant wildflowers, Colorado has it all. Having now spent two summers hiking every single weekend (and many weekday evenings, too) here, I get a lot of questions about where people should hike. The short answer is, just pick a trail. If it’s in Colorado, you can’t go wrong. The long answer, of course, is it depends on what you’re looking for!
I am forever discovering new incredible trails to hike, and it would be hard to point you toward just one. However, let’s pretend you have four days to hike (a nice long weekend!), the energy to hike fairly long distances, the driving distance of said hikes does not matter, and you only want to day hike (as opposed to backpacking). Here are the four trails that I would choose, based solely on those that I’ve hiked so far (I still have so much left to see!) and in no particular order!
Mirror and Crater Lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
This hike has been on my bucket list all summer, and having just made it out there this past weekend, I’m still glowing from how amazing it was! This trail is pure magic. It’s a long one at about 16 miles roundtrip, but the grade is mild and there is plenty to distract you along the way — enchanting forest, thunderous waterfalls that are just off the trail, a sparkling creek that winds for miles along the route, and finally, the spectacular Mirror and Crater Lakes, which are framed by the towering Indian Peaks.
This is an out-and-back, so once you arrive at Crater Lake (which is just past Mirror Lake — follow the trail to the right and you will find it), you’ll end up following your footsteps back to the trailhead.
Trail length: 16 miles according to AllTrails.
Closest town: Tabernash, Colorado
Getting there: Start at the Monarch Lake Trailhead in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and begin on the Cascade Creek Trail. Follow the signs for Crater Lake.
Additional information: This hike passes by several lakes and swimming holes. If you’re into swimming (in frigid water, even in summer), bring along a suit! If you’d like to make it into a backpacking trip, you’ll need an Indian Peaks backpacking permit. There is also plenty of camping nearby, including campgrounds and dispersed camping.
Ice Lake Basin in the San Juan National Forest
My close friend and original climbing buddy, Seth, is the part-owner of The Avon, a historic hotel and hostel that’s nestled in the San Juan Mountains in Silverton, Colorado (check it out if you’re in the area!). I met him and his wife, Alysha (who I introduced him to!), for an extended fourth of July weekend there this year, and had a day to myself as I awaited their arrival. How did I spend my day solo? By hiking, of course! Specifically, I visited the Ice Lake Basin Trail, and boy was it spectacular.
The trailhead for Ice Lake Basin begins at an elevation of 9,845 feet, and ascends steeply from there, climbing about 3,100 feet if you make it all the way up to Upper Ice Lake Basin (I only visited the lower basin). This hike has it all: waterfalls, meadows, creeks, greenery, wildflowers, peaks, and the most gorgeous alpine lake I’ve ever seen. When I was there, Rocky Mountain columbines (the official flower of Colorado!) dotted the landscape, and it was the most lush place in Colorado I’ve seen. Lower Ice Lake Basin is incredibly beautiful — the water a deep sapphire blue, and the emerald green mountains surrounding it decorated with patches of snow.
You have the option to make it to Lower Ice Lake Basin and turn around, making it an out-and-back, or continuing on the half a mile up hill to Upper Ice Lake Basin and making it a partial loop. This hike may be on the shorter side at 8.7 miles according to AllTrails, but don’t be fooled — it is challenging as well. However, it is more than worth the effort, and I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the area!
Trail length: 8.7 miles roundtrip, according to AllTrails.
Closest town: Silverton, CO.
Getting there: Start at the Ice Lakes Trailhead and follow the Ice Lakes Trail.
Additional information: This is a popular hike and the parking lot fills up, so get there early in order to get a space. There is a campground at the trailhead if you’d rather spend the night.
Beartracks Lake in the Mount Evans Wilderness
Beartracks Lake is the place that I’ve gotten one of my very favorite Instagram photos, and that is saying something! The trail is long but fairly gentle, passes through lovely pine forest, a burn area, and by some cool rock formations, offers lovely views and the chance to see moose along the way (they’re most active at dawn and dusk!), and brings you to Beartracks Lake, which is a just gorgeous lake surrounded by green pines and stately mountains. This is a loop, which I always prefer over an out-and-back, and if you’re keen to make this into a backpacking trip and camp out, there are plenty of spots near the lake. There is no other way to put it — this hike is just pleasant!
Trail length: 11.3 miles according to AllTrails.
Closest town: Evergreen, Colorado.
Getting there: Start at the Camp Rock Campground in the Mount Evans Wilderness and follow the Beartracks Lake Trail.
Additional information: Because this hike begins at a campground, parking spots are limited. Arrive early if you can.
Cirque Meadows and Emmaline Lake in the Comanche Peak Wilderness
Thanks to my Appalachian Trail friend Jukebox for sharing his knowledge about the Comanche Peak Wilderness with this Colorado newb. Jukebox lived out in Fort Collins for about 10 years, so when I asked him for tips on where to backpack out there with a visiting friend from Washington, D.C., I knew he’d have the answer. He sent us out to the Emmaline Lake Trail in the Comanche Peak Wilderness, and it was a treat! We hiked the trail over two days, but it is totally doable as an out-and-back one day trip. However, if you’d like to camp out, there are plenty of (gorgeous) places to do so near Cirque Meadows.
This trail begins at the Emmaline Lake Trailhead near the Colorado State University Mountain Campus. At about three (flat and easy) miles in, you’ll arrive at the extremely picturesque Cirque Meadows. Follow the trail around to the right, and once you pass by the meadows, it begins climbing and does not stop until you reach the lake. It passes through gorgeous forest, across creeks, and past several small ponds (where we saw two moose!) before reaching Emmaline Lake, a spectacularly pretty aquamarine lake surrounded by crumbling mountains.
Trail length: 13 miles roundtrip according to AllTrails.
Closest town: Glen Haven, Colorado
Getting there: Begin at the Emmaline Lake Trailhead near the Colorado State University Mountain Campus. Follow the Emmaline Lake Trailhead past Cirque Meadows to Emmaline Lake.
Additional information: There is plenty of camping available at Cirque Meadows if you’d like to stay overnight.
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