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  • Writer's pictureVien R. Guenther

Shelf Lake, Pike National Forest – Front Range, Colorado

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

More people are getting into nature these days it seems. Especially at this time of pandemic when no one can travel far. There is a lot happening this year, so I don’t blame you if you want to get away from it all, even for a short time. Where else can you can go besides your backyard or out in nature. The best thing about Colorado is the abundance of nature and outdoor opportunities. One area you can go to is in Pike National Forest, named after Zebulon Montgomery Pike, an American brigadier and explorer.

Pike National Forest

The Pike National Forest, located west of Colorado Springs, covers nearly 1,000,000 acres of public land. About 230,000 acres of this land are managed for recreational opportunities - hiking, fishing, camping, boating and cross-country skiing. In winter, we hike in the foothills, but in summer and fall we hike in the high mountains where the weather is cool. Besides that, the most amazing views, lakes and wildflowers can be found here. But as they say, “no pain, no gain,” it takes a little effort, more if you are not acclimated, but you will be rewarded in so many ways.


So, if you are into hiking, one trail that is still not inundated with people is the Shelf Lake Trail, located in Clear Creek County. There’s a reason for why there are fewer hikers here. Parts of the road are rough and require a high clearance vehicle. When you arrive at the new trailhead it will be quite obvious unlike the old trailhead which was hard to find. There is a large parking area on the right side of the road with a kiosk telling you about the trails that start here.


From Denver to the trailhead is about 1½ hours drive via US 285, the shortest route, or two hours via I-70 and Guanella Pass. From 285, turn right onto Geneva/Guanella Pass Road, heading northwest. From Grant to the trailhead is about 9.8 miles, 26 minute-drive. At the fork in the road, follow the signs to Geneva Park Campground and then keep going to the trailhead.

SHELF LAKE TRAIL – 7 to 9 miles round-trip

Shelf Lake Trail starts at 10,000 feet. This trail is mostly uphill, and quite steep, so if you are not acclimated, it can be difficult. Shelf Lake Trail is one of the best hiking trails for finding wildflowers, not to mention the beautiful lake at the end of the trail. That’s why we keep coming back here. The best thing is, not a lot of foot traffic here. In fact, we found ourselves alone on two occasions.

Waterfalls along the trail

We hike here in summer time or autumn. The best time to to see the wildflowers at their peak is early August, but that also depends on mother nature, more precipitation means more wildflowers.

The trail starts within the trees but it opens up soon enough as you climb higher. Then the trail gets interesting as you reach above tree level. The meadows are so colorful you might want to stay there and absorb the surroundings. We linger among the flowers obviously, taking dozens of pictures and simply absorbing the beauty of the place.

The trail
Amazing array of wildflowers along the trail.

We don't linger too much though, afternoon thunderstorms happens here. Weather in the high mountains can change suddenly; we got drenched by the rain one time on the way back down.

There are a couple of switchbacks on the last stretch of the hike to the lake, but nothing major. You will be surprised as you reach the top. Shelf Lake is one of the best lakes we have seen in Colorado. Here, you will have a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscapes. One prominent mountain on the east side is the Square Top Mountain (13,794 feet). Behind that mountain are several other beautiful lakes, but that's on different trails.

View of Square Top Mountain
Shelf Lake sits below Decatur Mountain (12,890 feet).
Shelf Lake in Summer
Shelf Lake in Autumn

Shelf Lake is at about 12,000 feet. You only see part of it as it meanders out of sight. But from above you get a great view of the whole lake, as well as a different view of the surrounding landscapes. It adds some miles to your hike but it doesn't take that much extra effort.

Shelf Lake from above

If you have time, and the weather is nice, you can fish in this lake. On the northeast side of Square Top Mountain (not in Pike National Forest), are two lakes - Murray Lake and Silver Dollar Lake reached by the Silver Dollar Lake Trail, in Arapaho National Forest.


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