Hiking in Mount Evans Wilderness – Arapaho & Pike National Forest, Front Range, Colorado
Updated: Jun 4
One of the closest wilderness areas you can explore from Denver is the Mount Evans Wilderness. It is located 40 miles west of Denver - south of I-70 and north of Highway 285. This wilderness contains two popular fourteneers - Mt. Evans (14,264 feet) and Mt. Bierstadt (14,060 feet).
The Mount Evans Scenic Byway, the highest paved road in North America, is the the most popular access to this wilderness area. Of course the roadway is not part of the wilderness, and there is a fee to enter here. The road to the summit of Mount Evans is actually State Highway 5. The scenic byway starts as Highway 103 in Idaho Springs, the nearest town. It continues past Echo Lake and onward over Squaw Pass to Evergreen. Another popular way to access Mt. Evans Wilderness is via Georgetown to Guanella Pass (County Road 381). The pass can also be accessed from the south by following Highway 285 to the junction of the Guanella Pass/Geneva Road in Grant.
Before the creation of Wilderness Act of 1964, there was the U-Regulations of 1939 which designated primitive areas within the national forests. They governed Forest Service wilderness policy for more than twenty years prior to the wilderness act. Before the Mount Evans Wilderness was created, the U Regulations designated 5,880 acres as the Abyss Lake Scenic Area in Pike National Forest in 1956. In 1980, Congress designated the area as Mount Evans Wilderness, under the Wilderness Act. It spans 74,400 acres today.
Mount Evans is the highest peak in this wilderness. You don’t have to hike here! You can just drive up to the parking lot and then a short walk to reach the summit. That is one reason why it's a very popular destination for thousands of visitors, it's an easy access with no effort, if you can handle the drive to the top.
The famous western landscape painter Albert Bierstadt was the first to summit this mountain. He initially named the mountain after his wife-to-be, Rosalie, but it was officially named “Mount Evans” in 1895, after John Evans, the second territorial governor of Colorado. The name Mount Rosalie was then moved to a 13,575-foot peak, about three miles southeast.
Driving here might not be for everyone since the road is quite a "hairy" drive. The road is narrow, meandering and with deep ravines at the edge. But if you do drive here you will be rewarded by the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. You might also get lucky to find mountain goats, or even bighorn sheep, along the way. I tell you, it's quite an experience.
Stop at the Summit Lake before continuing on the remaining meandering road to the top. You can calm your nerves while anticipating the view that awaits on top. Also, look out for wildflowers, they last only for about 40 days. High mountain wildflowers have a short window to bloom.
The mountains in close proximity to the city can become hectic at times, especially on summer weekends and holidays, so you might have to wait a while to find a parking spot. Come early or go on weekdays. If not, then look on the positive side, most visitors don't hang around here very long since it can be cold and windy. Once you reached the top and took some "selfies" with the wonderful view as a backdrop, you can now brag about it.
- HIKING -
So, if you are into hiking, there are approximately 120 miles of trails in the Mount Evans Wilderness. We hiked some of these trails, some of them more than once. You can check the list here: Cub Creek Trail, Indian Creek Trail, Lost Creek Trail, Beartrack Lakes Trail, Beaver Meadows Trail, Lincoln Lake Trail, Captain Mountain Trail, Chicago Lakes Trail, Hells Hole Trail, Roosevelt Lakes Trail, Resthouse Meadows Trail, Summit Lake Trail, South Chicago Creek Trail, Abyss Lake Trail, Rosalie Trail, Meridian Trail, Threemile Trail, Tanglewood Trail, Mount Bierstadt Trail.
ECHO LAKE – 1.3 mile
If you live in Colorado and you have out of town visitors, most likely you will take them to Echo Lake before driving up to Mt. Evans. We do! It's the closest beautiful spot to impress out-of-towners. In winter, when the lake is frozen and everything is white, this area is like a winter wonderland.
In summer you can hike, or walk, around Echo Lake as it’s an easy loop trail even for flat-landers. Mind the elevation if you are not acclimated yet. The lake is at about 10,640 feet, so you might find yourself out of breath. This lake is a favorite among families with kids. You can do some fishing, picnicking or just enjoy the day by the lake. There are picnic tables and also camping sites nearby for a real wilderness experience.
Echo Lake is also the trailhead for some of the hiking trails in the Mount Evans Wilderness such as Chicago Lakes Trail, Resthouse Meadows Trail, and Captain Mountain Trail.
On the east end of the lake is the Echo Lake Lodge built in 1924, right on the corner of Squaw Pass Road (Highway 103) and Mount Evans Road (Highway 5/Mt. Evans Scenic Byway). This lodge offer food and souvenirs to take home.
CHICAGO LAKES – 9.5 to 10 miles
This trail is strenuous and can be long if you hike all the way to the upper lake. The trailhead begins at Echo Lake. The trail goes downhill for the first mile or so, then as you pass Idaho Springs Reservoir, the trail goes uphill for the last three to four miles depending how far you want to go.
You will find an area where 400 acres were burned in the Reservoir Fire in 1978. Wildflowers have overtaken that burned area today, at least while the forest tries to recover. It takes time.
There are two lakes on this trail. You can either stop at the Lower Chicago Lake or continue on to the upper lake. You will find the Lower Chicago Lake at treeline. It offers great views, but hiking all the way to the second lake is even better. It's not an easy trail going to the upper lake though; it is very steep, but it will be worth the extra mile.
We hike here in Summer or Fall - either time offers a different experience. You get to see wildflowers in summer and beautiful fall colors of the landscape in Autumn. Hermann has hiked here many times, but I only hiked here with him three times. There are so many beautiful trails to explore here in Colorado that we don't have to keep coming back to the same trails all the time.
Up by the upper lake is a gorgeous view of the landscape. You can see why it is worth huffing and puffing to the top.
In Autumn this trail is stunning. The different shades of gold and rust covering the landscape are so bright that you almost need to wear sunglasses, if you are not already wearing one.
For a much tougher hike, you can continue hiking south to Summit Lake and all the way to the summit of Mount Evans. The elevation gain will be quite tough, but if you can do it, why not? Not for me, hiking to the upper lake is quite long enough for me.
BEARTRACK LAKES & CUB CREEK TRAILS – 5 to 10 miles round-trip
The Beartrack Lakes Trail begins within the Mount Evans State Wildlife Area. Take note though, public access is prohibited here from the day after Labor Day to June 14 the following year, except for hunting and fishing. To get there from Denver, take I-70 west to the Evergreen Parkway exit. After a few miles turn right on County Road 74/Upper Bear Creek Road, then follow County Road 480. It will take you to the Camp Rock campground, which is the trailhead.
This trail is rated difficult, but popular in summer months for backpackers, campers and hikers. The trail goes along Bear Creek for about a mile, then it’s a gradual ascent. Hiking uphill you will pass the burn areas in two locations. Wildflowers occupy these open burn areas today. In late summer, wild raspberries cover the hillside, right by the trail. I know they're for the bears, but we can't resist sampling some. They're small, but the sweetest we ever tasted. Make sure there are no bears lurking around when you are around in this area.
We a loop on this hike, not going all the way to the Beartrack Lakes, but it took us 10 miles to complete the loop. We only have a few picture of our hike here as well, although we've been here twice. If you are camping or backpacking, fishing by the lakes is said to be good here.
CLIMBING MOUNT BIERSTADT – 8 miles round-trip
To get to the trailhead, take the Georgetown exit off of Interstate 70. Drive through Georgetown and follow the signs for the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. After about 12 miles you will reach two parking lots, located on each side of the road. The trail to Bierstadt begins near the parking area on the east side. Both parking areas have restrooms.
So, this is my only fourteneer I can brag about. My first and last one actually, since I don't want to climb another one. I'm not a "peak bagger". I just wanted to experience the climb and see what kind of a view you can find on top. I was hesitant, but as my husband says, Mount Bierstadt is the easiest climb among the 54 fourteneers in Colorado, and so we did it. This is also a popular trail since it’s close to Denver. Until recently, Bierstadt was considered the most climbed fourteener in the state. In late summer 2019 it was surpassed by Quandary Peak in the Mosquito Range near Breckenridge.
Near the parking lot you will find a pond with a beautiful view. It's a nice detour before tackling the climb to Mount Bierstadt. When Hermann hiked here way before this trail got popular, he had to wade through wet/boggy terrain and thick willows. Today, the trail has a boardwalk along some parts of the trail so you can't complain about getting your boots wet.
You don't need a GPS to navigate this trail, just follow the crowd. The trail passes a creek, and more willows, before the trail goes uphill. On the last leg to the summit, the trail is rocky and steep; it's an ankle breaker, so you have to be careful. Wearing hiking boots saved me from any accident and is always recommended.
Upon reaching the summit, you might have to wait for your turn to take pictures. Everybody does it. Well, you have to, it's an accomplishment. When we were there, somebody brought along a paper with the name of Mt. Bierstadt, the date and the elevation written on it. Some people just think of everything to make their experience memorable, don't they? The sign was passed around so that we had proof that we summited.
No need to bring your tripod here; fellow hikers will offer to take your pictures. No need to take "selfies" either, unless you want to. We chose a perfect day when we climbed Mt. Bierstadt. It was chilly at the top but sunny. It was a fun climb I should say.
From the top there's a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. It is spectacular, but I still prefer the views down below. You can't stay long up there, the chilly wind is not so nice and there is nothing to shield you from the wind.
Photos of the Sawtooth Mountain and the valley below.
Wilderness Areas have special regulations, check the U.S. Forest Service for information. Check with Idaho Springs Visitors Center or Colorado Department of Transportation for road conditions.
The Mount Evans Road and Scenic Byway (Colorado Highway 5) is usually open from Friday of Memorial Day weekend through the first weekend in October, depending on weather conditions. The road and access to the top of Mount Evans is closed at Summit Lake the day after Labor Day.
Weather conditions can change, even in summer, so come prepared. The best way is to dress in layers, it's easier to take it off when it gets warm or put it on when it gets chilly, hail, rain or extreme wind. Watch out for afternoon summer thunderstorms - they are common here and you don't want to be caught outside in one at this altitude.
Vehicles over 30' long are not recommended on Highway 5 (Mount Evans road) due to the steep, narrow, winding road.