Colorado, Travels

Colorado Day Hikes: Strawberry Lake

The morning after summiting Mount Ida, we packed up our campsite and headed back to Denver… but not before squeezing in one more hike. The hike to Strawberry Lake is only 3.7 miles (6 km) round-trip and the trailhead is a 2.5 hour drive from Denver, which isn’t a very ideal driving/hiking ratio for a day trip, so we figured we’d check it off the list while we were already in the area. Plus, hiking two days in a row was good training for the multi-day backpacking trips we had planned for later in the summer (more on these in future posts, stay tuned!).

The road to the trailhead (Grand County Route 6) is dirt but well maintained. It’s also located in the Arapaho National Recreation Area (ANRA), which requires a daily entrance fee, an ANRA annual pass, or an Interagency Pass upon entry. If you don’t have a pass, be sure to stop and pay at the kiosk at the beginning of the road.

The trail to Strawberry Lake is unmarked; there are pullouts on the side of the road and a trail leading back into the forest, but there are no signs. I dropped a pin in my maps app in advance (if you zoom in enough, you can find the trail) and we were able to navigate without difficulty.

One thing I neglected to look at when planning this hike was the distribution of the elevation gain. It’s only about 900 feet (275 m), but most of it is in the first mile of the hike. It was uphill from the very first step, and after climbing a mountain the day before our legs were not exactly happy about it. The saving grace of this first section of trail was the dozens of Colorado Columbines – some of the largest ones I’ve ever seen! We even found a mutant one. Columbines generally have 5 purple petals and 5 white petals. This one had 7 of each!

After a substantial amount of climbing, the trail descends and crosses a creek, climbs, and then descends again and crosses another creek twice. One of these crossings has a bridge; the others require a little creativity. The trail was, at times, more of an obstacle course than a hike. In addition to water crossings, I lost count of the number of fallen trees we had to climb over or awkwardly wedge ourselves under.

After the creek crossings and some tree acrobatics, we reached the junction with the Strawberry Bench Trail. Before continuing along the Strawberry Lake trail from here, I recommend a brief jaunt out to the meadow (the path is obvious) for a beautiful view.

Strawberry Lake is at the opposite end of this meadow, and the remaining short section of trail meanders through the forest at the meadow’s edge. We hopped over a few more dead trees and soon found ourselves at the lake.

The “land” surrounding Strawberry Lake is a floating mat fen. A fen is an area of constantly saturated soil called peat, which is made up of partially decomposed plant materials and held together by the roots of living plants. A fen accumulates extremely slowly (the sign said 8 inches (20 cm) per 1000 years).

These plants are specially adapted to withstand constant saturation and low oxygen levels in the soil. Also, the mineral content and pH of the water must remain stable to support growth of these plants and, thus, maintenance of the fen. It’s extremely fragile and easily damaged; humans, livestock, and pets are asked to stay off of it to protect this fragile ecosystem.

To safely reach the lake shore, you have to either walk around to the opposite shore, which is not a fen, or follow the metal boardwalk. We took the boardwalk and were able to look down and actually see the edge of the fen protruding into the lake.

The edge of the fen

I’m really glad there was a sign at the lake explaining all of this, because neither of us knew exactly what a fen was, and we certainly didn’t know how extremely fragile they are. As more and more people venture into the outdoors, education on how to protect our wild places is becoming so critically important.

There’s a big movement on social media right now to stop geotagging places in order to keep them secret and deter people from visiting. I do understand that desire; it’s disheartening to see places getting overrun and damaged by people who aren’t educated on outdoor ethics. But it would also be hypocritical of me to not share when so many of the places I’ve visited are places I’ve learned about from social media. Plus, the entire purpose of this blog is to share my outdoor adventures. With this in mind, I’ve been trying to strike a balance – sharing where I go but also including some education within each post to help people learn how to protect these places and understand why it’s so important to do so.

So to anyone reading this who decides to visit Strawberry Lake – or any other fen – one day: before you go, please take a moment to learn about these fragile features and why it’s so important to avoid stepping on them. It’s going to take a collective effort to protect our wild places while allowing them to remain open and accessible to all who want to visit.


The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the trail is located along Grand County Road 6; it’s on the right, unmarked, about 7.5 miles (12 km) up from the main highway
  • Fees and passes: because this trail is located within the ANRA, there is $5/day per car entrance fee; there are various other local and federal pass options as well, if this is an area you plan to frequent (see more info here)
  • Hiking: Strawberry Lake is 3.7 miles (6 km) round-trip with 900 feet (275 m) of elevation gain, most of which is in the first mile (1.6 km) of the hike
  • Where to stay: there are established campgrounds in ANRA and camping is allowed in designated sites only (more info here); the nearby towns of Granby and Grand Lake offer various other lodging options
  • Other: as mentioned above, please please please stay off the fen surrounding the lake, and please keep your dogs, livestock, and any other member of your hiking party off of it as well

22 thoughts on “Colorado Day Hikes: Strawberry Lake”

  1. I think I’ve only been aware of fens in northeastern coastal areas and possibly in the flambeaus of northeast Wisconsin (not sure on the latter though). I had no idea they existed except in really wet places! Thanks for the info!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh. I’ve never heard of them anywhere else. Apparently they’re in Ireland too, as I learned from some other comments. They must be more common than we realize!

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  2. What a pristine lake! It’s the unmarked trails which are the lesser-known and the most stunning of them all! I’ve also considered the ramifications of geotagging “hidden” paradises on social media, but I think it’s more important to share the beauty with others, so that they can also enjoy it when they go, as you wrote. To each their own!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice that you saw wildflowers. I slogged up that steep trail in June one year and it was just rocks and fallen trees! I did the same thing…picked something short and “easy” after a long hike. Ha! And that delicate shore kept me from exploring at the lake, bummer. Wasn’t my favorite hike, but nice that there is something to learn at the top. I would have liked it much better during wildflower season in July. Nice write up!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not always a fan of trails that are unmarked as I have such a terrible sense of direction. The fallen trees everywhere would have just confused me even more and would have me second guessing whether I was even on the right path. Glad you made it to the end (and back again).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Strawberry Lake is such a scenic place! In Ireland, the fens are known as the forgotten fossil fuel, and many people can’t even imagine what the long winter nights would be like without it. Harvesting peat to burn for electricity still is the backbone of the local economy, but at the same time it destroys rare birds, butterflies and plants. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva

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    1. Oh, well you’ve just answered my question from the previous comment about how peat is used. I had no clue it could be burned! Hopefully Ireland can strike a balance between keeping people warm and protecting the fen ecosystems.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes exactly. The peat is harvested over large areas, one thin layer at a time to be dried more easily and then its combustion produces electrical power.

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  6. Okay Diana, you have set the stage. Since you had such a good experience at Strawberry Lake, after COVID, you have to repeat the handstand – this time at Strawberry Lake in the Strawberry Mountains of eastern Oregon in Grant County – a very nice, relatively short hike and great place to camp. My dad and I used to fish there when I was in my teens. Your Oregon roots should beckon you!! Happy Thanksgiving. Don

    Liked by 1 person

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