Dive Into the Chill World of Colorado’s Waters

Island Lake near Silverton. Photo ©sumikophoto/AdobeStock

Island Lake near Silverton. Photo ©sumikophoto/AdobeStock

By R. Scott Rappold

When it comes to stunning Rocky Mountain scenery, nothing can compare with an alpine lake. 

The pure, crystalline water – sometimes bright blue or shades of green and typically as cold as melted snow (which it is) – reflects towering mountain peaks or a verdant pine forest. Whether you want to catch some trout, set up a tent for the night, paddle a kayak, take a hike, capture some photos or just enjoy a beer while you drink in the scenery, a visit to a Colorado mountain lake can be an unforgettable summer experience. 

We’ve compiled this list of Colorado lakes to add to your summer travel itinerary. You can drive right up to some of them, while others require trekking into the wilderness. See them now, because summer is short and winter is long in the Rockies. 


Drive right up

Lake San Cristobal, San Juan Mountains

Colorado’s second-largest natural lake is a water lover’s paradise located in a stunning valley in the San Juan Mountains near Lake City. There are public boat ramps, lakeside accommodations and campsites, plus all the rainbow trout you can imagine. Rent a boat or bring your own and when you’re done on the water, spend some time exploring the area’s famous Jeep roads or climbing one of the nearby 14,000-foot peaks. 

“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams. Seeking grace in every step he takes. His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand. The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake. ”   - John Denver, Rocky Mountain High

“Now he walks in quiet solitude the forest and the streams. Seeking grace in every step he takes. His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand. The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake. ”
- John Denver, Rocky Mountain High

Vallecito Reservoir, Four Corners

Located 15 miles northeast of Durango, this huge reservoir is a crucial link in the water system of the Four Corners region and a must-see for boaters and anglers. You can bring your own craft, from stand-up paddleboards to power boats. Or rent one from the Vallecito Marina. There are several U.S. Forest Service campgrounds around the lake as well as commercial campgrounds and lodges. And the mighty Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest, borders the area, making it a great base camp for longer adventures. 

Elkhead Reservoir,  Elkhead State Park

The high desert of northwest Colorado has few opportunities for water recreation, which makes Elkhead State Park a welcome oasis. It offers 900 acres for boating, swimming, fishing, wildlife viewing and a new campground overlooking the lake

Day hikes

Emerald Lake, Gunnison National Forest

It’s tough to imagine a more scenic bang for your hiking effort than Emerald Lake, with a roundtrip hike of just 0.75 miles. It’s located 12.5 miles up Gothic Road from Crested Butte (high-clearance vehicles recommended) near timberline. Be sure to follow the better trail above the lake to get a better view of the namesake emerald waters. 

Mohawk Lakes, White River National Forest

These lakes are located in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge, reached by an 8.5-mile in-and-out hike that starts near Colorado Highway 9. Follow the Spruce Creek Trail three miles to a waterfall, then 0.4 miles to the first lake. Climb above timberline as the trail continues another mile or so to the upper lake. You might wonder what all the pipes and pumping stations are for. Colorado Springs acquired these water rights decades ago to pump the water beneath the Continental Divide.

Blue Lakes, Uncompahgre National Forest

Near Ridgway you’ll find these rare gems – stunning wilderness lakes that are reachable by a relatively short three and one-half-mile hike. The trail begins at the end of Dallas Creek Wilderness and quickly enters the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Most hikers stop at the first lake, which features the bluest waters this side of the Caribbean, and amazing campsites. You can continue on to two more lakes and all the way to the summit of 14,150-foot Mount Sneffels, though that ascent is not for the faint of heart. 

Ice Lake near Silverton. Photo Neill Pieper

Ice Lake near Silverton. Photo Neill Pieper

Ice Lake & Island Lake, San Juan National Forest

High up in the San Juan Mountains near Silverton, find the stunningly beautiful Ice Lake Basin. Accessible via a seven-mile, roundtrip hiking trail, Ice Lake is situated at 12,270 feet in a basin surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks. Wildflowers, rushing streams and high-alpine views abound. If you’re up to the task, bring an inflatable paddle board to get out on the water. A short jaunt above Ice Lake is the aptly named Island Lake. Its knobby island sticks out of cool turquoise waters, giving the whole scene a surreal appearance.

Overnight backpack trips

Gore Lake, White River National Forest

The mighty Gore Range – the jagged mountain ranges seen from the front side of Vail – is known for stunning, hard-to-reach lakes. Gore Lake may be the prettiest, with a hike that begins in Vail. The trail is moderate for four miles, then the spur to the lake becomes steep for another one and one-half miles before the lake, ringed by jagged peaks, comes into view. It’s in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, so your only company will be wildlife and other hikers, and you’ll be glad you brought a tent to stay a while. 

Browns Lake, San Isabel National Forest

This lake is located just south of fourteener Mount Antero in the Arkansas River Valley, a popular summer destination. But the six-mile hike each way keeps all but the hardiest day hikers away. Be sure to check out the waterfall two miles in and continue up a beautiful valley to the lake. You can find camping at the beaver dam where the lake empties, as well as on the far side, though you may encounter ATVs. You’ll feel like you are a long way from the busy valley below. 

Lakes of the Clouds, San Isabel National Forest

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado have no shortage of pretty lakes, but these may be the best. The three lakes each boast their own views and personalities. Starting at the Gibson Creek Trailhead near Westcliffe, follow the multi-use Rainbow Trail until the turn-off for Lakes of the Clouds. You’ll reach the first lake after a good two and one-half steep, rocky miles. Resist the urge to make camp immediately and explore the two upper lakes – reached by turning left or right above the first lake – and find your private campsite in paradise. The Sangres preside over these lakes like forbidding rocky spires. 

R. Scott Rappold is the former outdoor recreation reporter for The Colorado Springs Gazette and a full-time ski and mountain bum who writes when he needs money for skiing or beer.