Colorado, Colorado Hikes

Colorado Day Hikes: Shelf Lake

My Colorado readers can verify this: no matter where you are in the state, there’s always that one person who somehow manages to make it up a terribly rough dirt road in their low clearance car. Trailhead parking lots will inevitably be filled with trucks and SUVs… and a Toyota sedan.

The very first thing we did when we moved to Colorado was purchase a Subaru… mainly so we didn’t have to attempt to maneuver my Corolla up these kinds of roads. And also because Pat’s old car wouldn’t have made it to Denver in one piece. Nearly three years in, we’re still pleased with our decision. Though there are a handful of roads in the state that are too rough to navigate even with a Forester, we’ve so far been able to get everywhere we’ve wanted to go without issue. This hike was one such example.

The Shelf Lake trailhead is located about 3 miles (4.8 km) up Route 119 off Guanella Pass. The Guanella Pass Scenic Byway travels from Georgetown to Grant and is the starting point for many popular hikes. While the byway is paved, Route 119 to Shelf Lake is very much not. It’s a reasonably rough dirt road and there were multiple sections in which we definitely needed the clearance.

(And yes, there was in fact a Toyota sedan at the trailhead when we arrived. I have no idea how they made it up there.)

Anyway. Enough about cars and dirt roads. Let’s talk about Shelf Lake.

This hike can perhaps best be summed up in segments. The first half mile was rather meh as the trail roughly paralleled the road through a pine forest. Not that forests are ugly. There just wasn’t anything to differentiate this section from any other Colorado trail.

The second half mile, on the other hand, definitely stands out! This section was bright and colorful as the trail climbed through a plethora of yellow aspens. Peak fall foliage in the Colorado Rockies is usually mid-to-late September, making that the optimal time of year for this hike.

Mile two was also rather meh, once again just a fairly standard trail through a pine forest.

It was in the third mile that we crossed into the subalpine/alpine boundary zone, in which willows are the main plant. Willows in autumn, while not as vibrant as aspens, also turn yellow.

And then there’s the final half mile, which I think is best described as “ugh.” Oftentimes when climbing a mountain, you encounter a false summit – you know, that high point that looks like it’s the top, and then you get there and realize it’s not. Well in this instance it was a false lake. Which is not a real thing. But it should be. From the trail, it seemed very obvious where the lake was. Except it wasn’t there. It was actually up and over the ridge to the left… which meant we had to climb up and over the ridge to the left.

Where we thought the lake was (obvious low spot on the right) vs. where the lake actually was (up and over the slope on the left)

Shelf Lake itself was really pretty! I was pleasantly surprised when we crested that final hill, huffing and puffing, and were greeted with deep blue water.

Shelf Lake

Unfortunately, it was absurdly windy up there… windy enough that one gust stopped me in my tracks. And it was a cold wind. There was no shelter to speak of, so we donned our wind jackets and attempted to tough it out and enjoy the scenery we’d worked hard to reach. We only lasted about four minutes. We even had to forgo our traditional ‘yay we made it to our destination’ pouches of fruit snacks; even if our fingers had been nimble enough to open them, the wind almost certainly would have blown the entire thing right out of our hands.

In summary, I’m not entirely sure of my opinion of this hike. The lake was definitely pretty, as were the aspens, which helped counteract the less exciting sections of trail. But I was also just feeling kind of sluggish all day and my motivation level was pretty low. I had to really dig deep to convince myself to make it up the last section. So I’m not sure I can give this one a proper assessment. But hopefully my photos give you a general idea of what we saw and help you make up your mind as to whether you’ll put this hike onto your to-do list!

Views from the drive: Guanella Pass Scenic Byway
Views from the drive: Route 119

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the trailhead is located about 3 miles (4.8 km) up Forest Service road FS 119
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: approximately 7 miles (11.3 km) and 2000 feet (610 m) of elevation gain
  • Camping: there are a few established campgrounds along Guanella Pass Scenic Byway, including one right at the turnoff to the trailhead, and there are a bunch of labeled dispersed campsites along FS 119; beware that any type of camping in this area must be at a marked location
  • Other: the trailhead for this hike has been recently relocated… the old one was a little further up the road, and some outdated sources might still give you directions to it, but it’s been closed and the path is blocked

23 thoughts on “Colorado Day Hikes: Shelf Lake”

  1. Like you and most people in Colorado, I too have a Forester … a turbo with crawl mode even! My husband uses my old Forester still kicking at almost 200,000 miles and it has climbed some gnarly jeep roads. We have a jeep now and you are right … sometimes we get to our destination and wonder how the heck a regular car got there! This looks like a fun destination and hike. The Guanella Pass Scenic Byway is more my speed! Great post and photos Diana!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guanella Pass is worth the drive on its own… we’ve done it in summer and fall, and fall is more colorful but the summer views and wildflowers are pretty spectacular as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I chuckled at the mention of unsuitable cars found in hiking parking lots. It happens here in Canada as well. In winter I think it must have involved some serious white knuckling of the steering wheel. This looks like a gorgeous hike. I can certainly relate to a cold wind at the top and If I never saw a false summit again I would be a happy hiker.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had 2 Subarus and love them. First a Forester and now a Crosstrek.
    False lake, huh? I’ve never come across one of those, but I’ll be on the lookout the next time I’m hiking in CO. False summits are bad enough, we don’t also need false lakes! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Diana,

    your doing a great job on the pics. In I show some of the areas in central Arizona near Montazumas Castle. keep up the good work.


  5. The yellows of fall are so pretty. We don’t have aspens in our local area and I always get quite envious when I see them in other hiking blog posts. I like your intro about the one low clearance car that always makes it up the access road. I’ve had the same experience many times and can never understand how they did when we struggled terribly with our high clearance vehicle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I always have to wonder if they just scraped up the bottom of their car and didn’t care. Then again, when I was a kid my parents had low clearance cars and my dad somehow maneuvered them up some sketchy roads… so I guess we were *that person* 😂


  6. The golden aspens are so beautiful. Reading about how there’s always some car that somehow makes it down some rough road gave me a good chuckle. I’ve seen this way too often before and always wondered what those people were thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Loving all the yellow during your hike! I’d like to think that one needs to put up with a lot of “meh” in the beginning of the hike to then be stunned with the rewards at the end…at least, that’s how I feel when I hike! The path looks gorgeous, and I’d be keen on checking out that part of Colorado someday. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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