Hiking in Pike National Forest – Front Range, Colorado
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.
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.
- HIKING -
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.
TO GET 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another hiking trail is to Mount Bierstadt. This trail starts at the summit of Guanella Pass in Pike National Forest. It is so popular that you can expect lots of foot traffic at all times. You are are not going to be alone as thousands of peak-baggers are vying to make the summit.
CLIMBING MOUNT BIERSTADT – 8 miles round-trip
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.
TO GET HERE
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.
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.