Are you singing the Loch Lomond song in your head now? Me too. In fact, it was stuck in my head the rest of the day after doing this hike. It’s in my head again now as I’m writing this.
But despite the Scottish origin of the song, today’s hike is not located in Scotland. It’s right here in Colorado. Loch Lomond is a reservoir located in the mountains northeast of Idaho Springs. It’s a popular spot, although somewhat less so than other nearby hikes. I think this is because it’s what some people would describe as an unappealing hike. During much of the year, you’ll be sharing part of the path with some vehicles.
The trail to Loch Lomond doubles as a 4WD road… and when they say 4WD, they mean 4WD. (See photo below.) If you have a car that can handle this rocky mess, you can actually drive part or all the way to the lake, depending on the time of year and whether the gates are open. If you don’t have a car that can make the trek, you can simply drive the first quarter mile of the road, park at the first gate, and walk from there.
Speaking of parking areas… the 4WD road is also called Steuart Road and is marked by a sign pointing you to “Loch Lomen.” (Whoever made the sign apparently wasn’t big on spelling.) Steuart Road is the only place you’re allowed to park. The roads up to this point are residential streets, and parking is not allowed under any circumstances. I’ve heard they’re extremely strict about this. If there’s not any parking left along Steuart Road, you’ll have to find a different hike for the day. Pat and I did this hike in November so we had no issues finding a space.
The road is a steady climb amongst the trees, through which we caught periodic glimpses of the snowy mountains to the south and west. Eventually the road curves and we had our first view of where we were headed. By this point we’d already reached the second gate, meaning we were more than halfway there. The one-way distance for this hike is only 2.3 miles (3.7 km) with an elevation gain of 900 feet (275 m), less if you can park higher up the road. Not super challenging.
Loch Lomond itself sits pretty close to tree line; as we approached, the trees became progressively smaller and the views progressively more expansive. The final section of trail is more of a wide open area of dirt and rock. Dispersed camping is allowed here and it’s clear that many people drive all the way to the lake in the summer. Some of them were even kind enough to bring along their spray paint and graffiti all over a giant boulder, so that was a nice addition to the scenery.
In November, however, there were no campers to be seen. There weren’t even very many hikers. Social distancing at its finest!
The only other people at the lake were fisherman. Apparently this is an excellent spot for ice fishing. I don’t know anything about ice fishing, and it was fun to watch them drill through the ice and get set up. We chatted with a couple of them for a few minutes and learned some fun facts. Did you know that 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) of ice is enough to safely support a human? On this particular day, the ice was 11 inches (28 cm) thick… enough to support a car! I was shocked by both of these numbers. I didn’t realize so little ice could be so strong. Armed with this newfound knowledge, we put on our microspikes and stepped out onto the lake.
While most people don’t go beyond Loch Lomond, we planned to take the high road (see what I did there?). At the far end of the lake, a waterfall tumbles down a rocky hillside. Atop that hill is a hanging valley with three more lakes. To reach them, simply follow the waterfall.
It wasn’t an easy climb – first we blazed a zigzag path up the hillside and over to the waterfall. (Had there been more snow, this would have been a dangerous route due to the potential for avalanches; this is best attempted when little to no snow is present.) Next, we had to do some mild bouldering. Our final obstacle was crossing the upper reaches of the icy creek, a task made more challenging by the fact that the snow made it difficult to tell what was creek and what was solid ground. But we took our time and safely navigated our way through. It probably wasn’t the easiest route, but it worked.
(After the fact, one of the fishermen told us that there’s an alternate route that curves up and around to the left. I could vaguely see it, but I’m not actually sure it would have been much easier.)
The first of the three lakes – Reynolds Lake – is also a reservoir. A vague path then leads to Steuart Lake. From here, we followed the inlet stream back to Ohman Lake. Both Steuart and Ohman are natural lakes. All three were frozen solid, and the snow on Steuart Lake had accumulated in some whimsical windblown patterns.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached this upper area it had started to snow. We were keeping a very close eye on the clouds, as weather in Colorado can change in an instant. We figured it was about a 50/50 chance that it would be blazing sun or blizzarding in ten minutes’ time. I wish we could have spent more time up there, but safety always comes first and the clouds were now obscuring the top of the ridge above us. So we retraced our steps and began the climb back down the waterfall.
As it turned out, it was neither sunny nor blizzarding ten minutes later. But it was snowing more heavily, and by the time we made it back to Loch Lomond and looked up, there wasn’t much to see.
The sun returned as we headed back to the car, but it was so windy up high that it was still snowing on us. Only in Colorado would we go from sun to snow to simultaneous sun and snow in a four hour window. I love winter hiking, but we’re definitely always at the whim of the unpredictable mountain weather.
And that pretty well sums up Loch Lomond. It was a good shoulder season hike, and a relatively short distance to see four frozen alpine lakes in one day!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: located on Steuart Road in the town of Alice, CO
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: reaching Loch Lomond is a maximum of 4.6 miles (7.4 km) round trip with only 900 feet (275 m) of elevation gain; less if you are able to drive past the first gate. Add about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round trip and 400 feet (120 m) of elevation to reach the upper lakes
- Where to stay: this is a one hour drive from the Denver metro area; for overnight stays closer to Loch Lomond, dispersed camping or backpacking along the road/trail are good options
- Other: as I mentioned above, this truly is a road for high-clearance 4WD vehicles only; be prepared for ruts, rocks, and also snow and ice in the offseason. Also beware that one or both gates are closed for much of the year. There is only a short window in which you can drive all the way to the lake.