May 31 – September 5: up above Idaho Springs
As I mentioned in the last post, our Colorado summer was all about hiking. Staying in one place for three months plus a global pandemic that has kept us close to home means we had some extra time to fill. Fortunately, we were in the perfect position to use that extra time for one of our favorite outdoor activities.
The already busy Colorado trails were even busier this summer as more people stayed close to home for recreation and even more people chose outdoor hiking as their “safe” activity. In an effort to stay away from crowds we tried to avoid the most popular trails at the busiest times. We were mostly successful in this endeavor, and as a result, had a fantastic time exploring many of the trails within an hour’s drive of our home base.
Around the Neighborhood – Blue Valley
This was a great neighborhood for hiking. Not only were there miles of infrequently traveled dirt roads lined with widely spaced homesteads for walking, but there was also a whole network of trails that wound through the forest.
There was even a reservoir roughly a 6-7 mile round trip hike depending on the route you chose. We quickly established a few 3 and 4-mile loops – both on the dirt roads and on the forest trails – that we could easily do after work. Provided it wasn’t raining in the afternoon of course. We really experienced the full effect of the Colorado monsoon season this year. There were more than a few times when we got caught in sudden downpours. It was not unusual to leave the house with not a cloud in the sky and be hiking through the rain (or hail) an hour later. Fortunately, Tim’s work is pretty flexible and he was able to occasionally take off in the middle of the day for a hike before the storms rolled in.
June 1: 3 miles
We hiked Chief Mountain the day after we arrived. It was Monday, June 1st and when we got to the trailhead around 8 am, there were already at least 20 cars lining the road. That was our first clue that this was going to be a busy hiking summer.
Chief Mtn. is not a new trail to us. In fact, we hiked it back in 2017 when we last stayed with Jeremy and Robin. The trail starts up above 10,000 feet and after less than a mile you are above the tree line and marveling at views all around. This is a short trail that offers a lot of wow for minimal effort.
June 28 – 11.5 miles
The trail to Bear Tracks Lake is located in the Mount Evans wilderness. It was an hour-long drive to the trailhead – mostly because the last 10 miles took us down a skinny, curvy dirt road. In an effort to beat the crowds and afternoon storms we left the house at 7 am. When we arrived right at 8 the parking lot was full and cars lined the road for nearly a mile. The trail itself was not busy at all though, so I suspect most of the cars belonged to people using the trailhead as a starting point for overnight backpacking.
The hike to Beartracks Lake is long but not overly steep. I think all together it gained 2,000 feet in elevation which isn’t bad when you stretch it out over 5.5 miles or so. The wildflowers were out and we very much enjoyed the scenery along the trail and at the lake.
July 3 – 4 miles
The Squaw Mountain trailhead was less than a 15-minute drive from home which made it a must hike for the summer. We did this one on the Friday morning of the 4th of July weekend and it wasn’t busy at all. Probably because everyone else was a few minutes up the road hiking Chief Mountain. The trail follows a dirt road up to a fire tower that you can rent out for the night (except not this summer). Overall, it was an easy hike with good views and no crowds. You can also drive all the way up the fire tower.
July 18 – 8 miles
This was one of my favorite hikes of the summer. It was also the busiest as St. Mary’s Glacier is incredibly popular and an easy drive from Denver. The lake and glacier view is only a 3/4 mile trek from the parking lot which makes this a hike that most people can manage and therefore it’s very busy on a sunny weekend in July. Get there early if you want to find a place to park. We arrived before 8 am, snagged one of the last spots in the lot, and headed up to get a glimpse of the glacier. Technically, for the past 25 years St. Mary’s glacier has been classified as a snowfield instead of a glacier, but whatever name you use, it’s still an impressive amount of snow.
After tackling the slippery snowfield (hiking poles for the win) we hiked across an open plain, past some alpine lakes, and up to the top of James Peak. The crowd thinned as soon as we started hiking up the snow. Most people don’t make it past the lake. The rest of the trail wasn’t overly busy, but when we got back down to the lake a little after mid-day there were a sizable number of people hanging out near the lakeside.
Clocking in at 13,294 feet, James Peak is one of the 637 Colorado mountain peaks above 13,000 feet.
August 1 – 12 miles
If you want to hike a trail near Mt. Evans, don’t mind more forest than open views, and are trying to avoid crowds, this is the trail for you! Starting at the always busy area near the Echo Lake Campground and the start of the Mt. Evans Highway, this trail immediately dives into the woods leaving all the people and cars behind. We hiked steadily uphill and through the woods for several miles before coming upon an old burn area with great views.
From there it’s another mile or so to Lincoln Lake. If you look closely at the ridge above the lake you can see where the Mount Evans highway passes by. The road stayed closed all summer due to Covid, but it’s still open to bikers, and from what we could see, they were taking full advantage of this rare car-free summer. The lake was gorgeous and serene so we stayed a while and soaked up the sun. I think altogether we saw less than a dozen people on the trail and at the lake. You know you’re in an area with lots of hiking options when a trail like this attracts so few people on a perfect summer weekend.
August 5 – 11.25 miles
I had this trail on my radar all summer and we purposely waited until August to hike it so we didn’t have to deal with snow and ice. Even though it doesn’t go all the way to the top of a mountain peak, the Chicago Lakes trail is one of the more popular trails near Mt. Evans. In an effort to beat the crowds, Tim took a day off mid-week, and at least on the way up, we had the trail mostly to ourselves.
Unfortunately, by this time of the summer, we were starting to see a lot of smoke from the numerous wildfires burning around the state which made for some hazy views. It also started to cloud up really early – like around 10 am – and by the time we got to Summit Lake, it was already threatening to storm back in the direction we came from. Luckily, we only had a few light sprinkles of rain, but it’s always nerve-wracking to see those storm clouds form when you’re up above 12,000 feet on the side of an exposed mountain.
Despite the weather, this was a spectacular trail that passed several high alpine lakes and through wildflower-filled forests. We even got to see marmots!
For me at least, this was the most difficult hike of the summer. The trail gains over 3,000 feet in elevation and the section from Upper Chicago Lake to Summit Lake is insanely steep. It was slow going, and for the last 1/2 mile, I had to stop to catch my breath and let the dizziness pass every 20 feet or so. Up until now, we had both been feeling surprisingly good during these high altitude hikes, but for some reason, this one really got to me.
We made it to the top and there in front of us was Summit Lake with Mt. Evans beyond. At 13,002 feet in elevation, Summit Lake is still 1,260 feet lower than the top of Mt. Evans. There is a trail from Summit Lake up to the top of Evans, and I suspect that it’s really popular in normal times when the access road is open.
As we looked around for a place to sit and rest, we both spotted a movement in the distance. It was some kind of animal. And then we saw another. And another! Turns out the entire Summit Lake parking lot and the surrounding area was filled with fuzzy white mountain goats and bighorn sheep. We later learned that the mountain goats are known to hang out near the lake, but it seems that this year with the road to Mt. Evans closed, they have taken over the area. So cool!
August 15 – 8.25 miles
This was another trail that we chose based on the hope that it wouldn’t be busy. We were right. Aside from the trails that we’ve hiked around the neighborhood, this was the least busy of the summer.
The first half of the trail traveled up through a dense forest before opening up to some mountain views. It ended in a grassy, bowl-shaped area called a glacial cirque. Even though it was called Hell’s Hole, it was very pretty and we wanted to hang out for a while. But the biting flies and our lack of bug spray squashed that idea.
August 30 – 7.5 miles
Square Top was the last of our big hikes in the area. The trail starts in Guanella Pass just across the road from the very popular Mt. Bierstadt Trail. Clocking in at 13,800 feet, Square Top is just short of the 14,000-foot mark. Those 200 feet mean the difference between a parking lot with 40ish cars for people hiking Square Top, and a parking lot with 60ish cars plus at least two miles of roadway lined on both sides with cars for people hiking the 14,065 foot tall Mt. Bierstadt.
Per our usual routine, we started early to beat the crowds and any afternoon storms. Neither ended up being a concern on this hike, but it was our coldest hike of the summer with a steady cool wind at the bottom that turned into a strong cold wind at the top.
There’s no denying that this hike was hard. The last few miles were incredibly steep and the constant wind did not help. We persisted nonetheless and made it to the top for a few photos before immediately rushing down to get some relief from the wind and cold.
And that wraps up our summer of Colorado hiking! Well, kind of. Just yesterday we left Idaho Springs behind for some mountain boondocking with hopes of hiking more trails over the next two weeks before fleeing to lower elevations and warmer temperatures. But that might all be just a dream since it’s currently snowing (8:30 am, September 8th) and we could get up to 10-inches! If that happens I think our high mountain hiking season is over, but stay tuned as we’re determined to sneak in a few more Colorado fall hikes.