Fall arrived late to Colorado in 2019, thanks to the fact that winter persisted in the mountains until early July. Typically, fall colors peak in the mountains in mid-September, but this year they didn’t arrive until the end of the month. And then it promptly snowed all over everything, putting an abrupt end to the season. The leaves never even changed in Denver; they went from green to brown overnight thanks to the early arrival of winter.
I haven’t lived here very long, but I have to assume this was one of the shortest summers ever.
But anyway, I did manage to squeeze in a few final “summer” hikes during the month of September before the high country got snowed in for the year. The first was a pretty Saturday morning hike to Square Top Lakes with a friend.
The two Square Top Lakes sit in a bowl beneath Square Top Mountain and are accessible via the South Park 600 Trail on Guanella Pass. The trailhead for Mount Bierstadt – one of the most popular of Colorado’s 14ers – is just up the road from here; cars were parked all over the road for that hike, but the parking lot and trail for our hike were refreshingly uncrowded.
We set off just after 7:00am and reached the first lake in about an hour and second lake approximately 30 minutes later. This isn’t a long or difficult hike; trail information puts it at about 4.3 miles (6.9 km) round-trip with about 900 feet (275 m) of elevation gain. The trailhead starts above 11,000 feet (3350 m), though, and both lakes sit at over 12,000 feet (3660 m) so the elevation does bump up the difficulty level somewhat.
The first lake is easily accessible; it’s right along the trail and there is an obvious path down to the shore.
To reach the second lake, follow the trail uphill past the first lake and when you come to the fork, stay right (the left fork climbs the ridge up Square Top Mountain). This section of trail is not well maintained and it was extremely muddy the day we were there. It’s always important to walk through the mud, not around it, as going around widens the trail. So we carefully picked our way through the mud, stepping on rocks where possible. The good thing about mud is that when it dries it’s just dirt, and can be easily brushed off your hiking boots.
We were the only people at the upper lake when we arrived, and only a couple other people showed up while we were there.
Wind was whipping down over the ridge of Square Top Mountain so it was a bit chilly, especially at the second lake. But both lakes were gorgeous and there are beautiful views and the trail meanders through patches of willows, making for a short but pretty excursion on this fall morning!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the South Park 600 trailhead is located at the top of Guanella Pass, which can be reached by following the scenic byway between the towns of Georgetown and Grant; road closed in the winter
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: 4.3 miles (6.9 km) round trip with about 900 feet (275 m) of elevation gain to reach both lakes
- Where to stay: to make this an overnight trip, snag a campsite at one of the 5 campgrounds along the scenic byway; however, they’ve recently tightened restrictions for dispersed camping in this area… more info here
- Other: Guanella Pass is extremely popular and crowded, though this trail is lesser travelled than others in the area; nevertheless, arrive early to secure parking