I think most lists of “best hikes near Denver” include Chicago Lakes. It’s not an easy hike – in terms of length or elevation gain – but it’s certainly worth the effort. Which also makes it extremely popular. We arrived at 6:30am on a Saturday morning to find the ample parking lot already approaching full. Don’t even get me started on the obscene number of cars overflowing out of the lot by 11:30am when we finished our hike.
The trail to Chicago Lakes begins at Echo Lake Park, located on Highway 103 at the base of Mount Evans. Echo Lake is a popular day trip of its own, and plenty of the cars belonged to people who were simply hanging out at the lake to fish, have a picnic, or take a leisurely stroll. About 2 miles (3.2 km) up the trail is the Idaho Springs Reservoir, which is also a destination for some individuals, particularly those looking to do some fishing. The heartiest of visitors may even attempt to hike all the way to the summit of Mount Evans from here.
Long story short, this is a busy area with many recreational opportunities.
Our hike began with a 5 minute walk along one shore of Echo Lake. At the edge of the lake, the trail forks; left encircles the lake while the right branch is marked for Chicago Lakes. So we went right. This is perhaps the most cruel part of the hike, as the next mile of trail is all downhill – which you then have to climb back up at the end of the day after you’ve already hiked almost 9 miles (14.5 km). It wasn’t actually too terrible – it’s a pretty steady grade – but it’s not the ideal way to wrap up a hike.
Eventually we reached the bottom and found ourselves crossing Chicago Creek. From here, the trail follows a fairly flat dirt road for the next mile (1.6 km). Land on both sides of the road is private property so it’s important to respect that and stay on the trail. This continues all the way to Idaho Springs Reservoir.
Beyond the reservoir, the trail begins to resemble a trail again as it crosses into the Arapaho National Forest and begins regaining the elevation we’d lost – and then some more elevation. Shortly after the forest boundary are signs marking entry into the Mount Evans Wilderness, where we will remain for the rest of our hike.
For the next 2 miles (3.2 km), the trail meanders through remnants of a 1978 forest fire as well as some fully intact forests, gaining elevation fairly gradually. There are some excellent views of the mountains surrounding the Chicago Lakes Basin, allowing us to track our progress. As we neared tree line, the landscape began to open up and the pine forests gave way to fields of willow – aka prime moose habitat. We didn’t see any, but I know people who have.
Not long after, we caught our first view of lower Chicago Lake off to the left.
Many people stop at this first lake, including to fish or set up camp for the night (backpacking is allowed so long as wilderness restrictions are followed). We, however, continued to the second lake, from which views of the first lake are even better.
It’s about 0.6 miles (1 km) between the lakes; on this particular mid-June day, this stretch of trail was exceedingly muddy. But we persevered, and after conquering the mud and then the final steep (very steep) climb up the headwall, we were rewarded for our efforts!
Upper Chicago Lake sits in a bowl below Mount Warren at an elevation of about 11,800 feet (3600 m). A gander over our shoulders revealed a wide open view of the lower lake and the Chicago Creek Basin. We rock hopped our way out to the edge (this is the appropriate way to navigate through tundra to avoid crushing delicate plants) and found an excellent snack and photo spot. The outlet stream from the upper lake cascaded down to our right, and we spent quite some time enjoying the sound of the water, the breeze, the sunshine, and the excellent views.
We spent part of our hike back debating the merits of returning here on a backpacking trip in the future, which would allow us to set up camp and then wake early and attempt to summit Mount Evans. What we could see of the trail looked brutally steep, but it’s also such a beautiful area and I have no doubt that the views would only improve as we climbed. We haven’t yet reached a decision – not that there’s any hurry – but one thing is certain: Chicago Lakes is a hike I would absolutely repeat!
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: the trail begins at Echo Lake Park on Highway 103 at the base of Mount Evans; arrive very early to secure parking, especially on weekends
- Fees and passes: none, but overnight stays in the Mount Evans wilderness require self-registration for a free permit (this can be done at the National Forest entry sign just past Idaho Springs Reservoir)
- Hiking: 9.8 miles (15.8 km) round trip with 2000 feet (610 m) elevation gain
- Where to stay: camping is not allowed at Echo Lake Park, but backpacking is allowed within the National Forest portion of the hike (i.e. not in the first couple miles where the trail is surrounded by private land)
- Other: I said it above and I’ll say it again – arrive early. Very early. This place is exceedingly popular. Also, please be prepared to adhere to all wilderness regulations (dogs on leash, stay on trail, don’t camp right on the lake shore, etc.)