Originally Posted June 2020
Pictured Above: Jess at Upper Chicago Lake
Date Hiked: 6/7/2020
Starting Elevation: 10,611 ft
Ending Elevation: 11,780 ft
Round Trip (RT) Mileage: 10.2 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,182 ft
Trail Conditions: Dry with Muddy/Wet Sections between the Lakes
Temperatures: 40s-60s (Very Windy in the AM and at the Top)
Dogs Allowed: Yes
(Actual Trail Recordings from 6/7/2020)
First alpine lake hike of 2020! Also, I should note that this is the second time I've completed this hike, the last time was September 2019. It was really cool to see the landscape change between the seasons!
This spring, I tried to maintain my hiking fitness by hiking local trails, trail running (when weather allowed), and running. I definitely felt better than normal for the first hike of the season, but I definitely underestimated how much the elevation would affect my pace. It's funny... I've lived in Colorado for over twenty years now, and every summer, I still forget about the mosquitos (until I get bitten) and how much harder it is to hike at higher elevations (until the first one of the season).
This hike starts at Echo Lake in the Mount Evans Wilderness. We started our hike at about 7:15am on Sunday morning, and we managed to get a close parking spot across the street. All of the main parking spots (there aren't many) were already full by the time we arrived. It's not a huge issue though because people park all along the street throughout the day. There were definitely always people around us while we were hiking, but it wasn't particularly bothersome. On the ascent, you'll play leap-frog with other hikers as you stop and rest along the trail or wait for others to pass by. On the descent, you'll find that you're waiting for others at a few sections, and the trail is certainly populated, but most people are pleasant and you won't find the people distracting.
As for weather, it was A LOT colder than I thought it would be. Idaho Springs was about 50-60 degrees at 7am but Echo Lake (10,000ft) was around 40-50 degrees with a TON of wind, especially in the early morning. Luckily, a fair amount of this trail is in the woods, especially the first mile. Nevertheless, I would recommend preparing for variable weather, dressing in layers, wearing shoes with solid tread, and having a windproof jacket.
The trail starts out relatively flat and then starts to descend into the woods. You'll cross a small log bridge and then continue to hike up a dirt road - this is where the incline begins for the hike. As you're hiking along the road, it isn't very picturesque. You'll pass Idaho Springs Reservoir (on your left) while you're on the road and the official trail start will be a little ways past the reservoir on the right. For the most part, it's what I consider a gradual and steady incline all the way to Lower Chicago Lake. It's not particularly challenging for anyone of average fitness levels, the main factor is that you're starting at 10,000ft. If you've been hiking a lot at lower elevations throughout Colorado (5-8,000ft), you'll definitely feel the difference once you start to go uphill. It'll get your heart rate up, but you can pace yourself and the trail isn't overly exposed.
Once you hit the official trailhead, you'll hike through fairly open woods until you come to a clearing. This is when you'll start to see Lower Chicago Lake (to your left). The mountain views are pretty cool, especially this time of year when there's still a little bit of snow to provide contrast.
I didn't take any pictures until we hit this clearing before the lower lake. But once you spot the lower lake, you'll definitely want to stop for some photos. There are a couple of small boulders you can stand on for instagram-worthy pics!
I really love Lower Chicago Lake because you get to see it from a variety of angles throughout the hike.
Once you pass Lower Chicago Lake, you'll run into some muddy sections (I experienced this both this June and last September). The trail starts to wind through some boulders and bushes, and the trail itself is a wet and muddy path. You can avoid this by being very careful with your steps, rock hopping, and climbing along the side banks with a little assistance from the bushes. We definitely saw a number of dogs and hikers that were covered in mud, so I'd plan on getting a little wet and/or muddy. We made it through mud-free, but we many people we passed had boots covered in mud. So, plan accordingly!
As you're winding through this muddy, bush section, you'll have to alternate between moving forward on the path and letting others come back through. Many sections are one-at-a-time. Since we started early, we didn't run into any traffic jams on the ascent, but on the descent, a few hikers had to wait for us to pass before they were able to continue forward. Earlier is better.
Once you're through the muddy section, you get to start the final climb to the top. Make sure you take a look back at Lower Chicago Lake because the views are pretty nice!
It's a short climb, about 1/4 of a mile, but you'll gain a little over 200ft in that distance. Please make sure if you stop to rest (which most of us do), you find a place where you can stand slightly off to the side to allow others (ascending and descending) to pass. Trail etiquette reminder: uphill hikers have the right-of-way! That being said, on steep climbs, you'll find that many of them will prefer to rest and allow those coming down to pass first, but you should always communicate with them and offer them the right-of-way before moving past them.
As we approached the top, we crossed a small snowfield before coming up and over the ridge to Upper Chicago Lake. If you don't want to cross the snowfield (it might not be around much longer), you can easily skirt around it, but it wasn't difficult to hike up in my trail running shoes.
The first time I did this trail was with my brother (a flat-lander from TN, mid 40's, fit) and he made it up with only a few stopping points, mostly during the final climb. Since he was pretty tired and not used to long hikes, we didn't stay and explore much of the lake. But yesterday, I had a blast rock hopping and adventuring to find the perfect photo spots! So if you have time, I highly recommend exploring the many different views from the top.
If you look to the left of Upper Chicago Lake, you'll notice some fun rocks you can explore to get some different views of the lake and glacier. We chose to have lunch in this area because the views were incredible - plus, it's fun to play on rocks! We tried to find some fish in the shallow waters (just by looking - not fishing), but we didn't see any. However, there was a fisherman in that area!
If you're feeling extra motivated, you can always add-on the extra mile (2 mile RT) to continue along the trail to the left, hike/scramble up the side, to access Summit Lake. You can technically drive up Mount Evans road to this access this lake; however, this year, the Mount Evans road will not reopen for the summer/fall. So, if you want to see Summit Lake in 2020, you'll have to climb from Chicago Lakes! I will say, the view from Summit Lake looking down onto Chicago Lakes is pretty phenomenal. Just remember, on the way back, the hike ends with a 1-mile uphill hike back to Echo Lake. So you'll need to have a little gas left in the legs for the final climb. It's not steep, but if you're not used to long hikes or ending a long hike with an ascent, I'd just make sure you're pacing yourself and you're prepared.
This was an awesome way to kick off our hiking season, and I love that we were able to access some alpine lakes this early in the season. However, that also makes me a little concerned about wildfire season, so make sure you're adventuring responsibly to protect these beautiful lands!
So interesting personal note, my first time on this hike (September 2019), I completed it about 4hr 45min with my brother, and we stopped a lot, especially on the way down because his boots were bothering him. So, I had anticipated closer to 4hr moving time for this trip and was baffled to find that it took us longer! I realized after the hike a few things... First, it's early hiking season versus the tail end of hiking season, so my fitness levels are slightly different. Second, it's the day or two before my period starts, so that explains why my body felt sluggish (and why I felt super bloated and crampy on the descent). Finally, we had to slow down considerably on the muddy section (both ways). So, I feel a little better about my time with those things taken into consideration.
Anyway, plan 4-6 hours to complete this hike, depending on your fitness levels. Wear/pack layers, start early, make sure your shoes have good tread, wear sunscreen and insect repellent, and don't forget trail etiquette! Happy hiking everyone!
For more pictures of my adventures, follow me on IG: @jelli_rose
More adventures to come!