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.
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.
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!
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