Vien R. Guenther
Hiking in Pike National Forest – Front Range, Colorado
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
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, in Arapaho National Forest.
SQUARE TOP LAKES TRAIL/SOUTH PARK TRAIL
Square Top Lakes is a popular hiking trail because of the stunning views and two lakes at the end. This trail is considered moderate, but that also depends on your hiking capability. It’s a 5-mile round trip hike with elevation gains and steep ascents. It's short, but you have to consider the elevation. These are high alpine lakes, and it is wise to go slow. Starting early is best since afternoon thunderstorms can also occur anytime. Since this trail is above tree line it means no shade; you will be in open tundra and under the sun all throughout the hike.
TO GET HERE
From Denver, you can reach the trail from I-70 the Georgetown exit. You will drive through the historic town to the Guanella Pass Road. It’s about 10 miles or so to the trailhead at the top of the pass. The trailhead is on the west side above the hill past the Mt. Bierstadt parking area. You have to be early since this is a popular area and hikers who want to summit Mt. Bierstadt on the east side will take up all available spaces and even occupy both sides of Guanella Pass road as well.
SOUTH PARK TRAIL – 4 to 5 miles round trip
The trail to the Square Top Lakes is an easy downhill at the beginning, but then it gets steeper as you start climbing higher. Take it slow, the air gets thinner as you get higher.
There's a reprieve where you can break up your hike and catch your breath by the first lake before ascending to the upper lake. You can either rest and have some snacks or just enjoy the landscape. You will need it especially if you are not acclimated.
The Lower Lake, which is 12,086 feet and sits below the Upper Lake (12,304 feet). You can end your hike here, but why would you? The view by the lower lake is stunning enough but if you still have the energy, and the will, the best part is going all the way to the Upper Lake.
The South Park Trail is also used to access the summit of Square Top Mountain (13,794 feet). That trail veers off to the left at a junction where the trail to the upper lake begins its steep ascend. There is a sign, but some hiker's get confused here, so make sure you are heading to where you want to be.
The Upper Lake sits below the ridge of Square Top Mountain (on the other side of this ridge are Silver Dollar and Murray Lakes, one of our favorite hikes in the Front Range). To continue up to the Upper Lake is less than a half mile from the junction, but this portion of the trail is the steepest part. It’s worth the extra effort though since the view from up there is unbelievably stunning.
From above upper lake, you will see in front of you an amazing landscape with two prominent fourteeners, Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt.
Now, if you choose to hike to the summit of Square Top Mountain, 200 yards from the junction to the Upper Lake is another sign. From there it is a steep uphill climb all the way. Some hikers turn around part-way up; not enough energy to make it to the top. But even so, the view is worth the effort, even just a short hike up this trail.
The hard part hiking back is you have to climb that last mile or so to the parking lot. You will be huffing and puffing, especially when it's hot, even though it is not really steep. Just think about the beautiful landscape you found at the top and it will be worth it.
If you are looking for wildflowers, this trail also offers an amazing variety. For more Colorado wildflowers and names head to this link https://www.vienrguenther.com/wildflowers