I started a new job last August and I love it for many reasons, one of which is my coworkers. I work with wonderful people, including quite a few who like to hike… which means I now have some new hiking buddies! This past April, Pat and I spent a lovely spring Saturday hiking to Chicago Lakes with one of them.
Actually, while it was starting to feel like spring in Denver, it was still very much winter in the mountains. The trail was almost entirely snow-covered and there was quite a lot of slipping and post-holing (and a little bit of falling as well). But it was also a beautiful sunny day in the mountains, so we persevered and were rewarded for our efforts.
The Chicago Lakes are two alpine lakes nestled on the eastern slope of Mount Evans, one of Colorado’s 14ers. Pat and I had actually hiked to Chicago Lakes once before in summer conditions, but never in the snow. The hike begins at Echo Lake, which is an extremely popular and crowded place in the summer, but somewhat lesser used in the winter. We easily secured a parking space, put on our microspikes, and headed off.
The one annoying thing about this hike is that the first mile is downhill, meaning the final mile of the hike is uphill. That’s never a fun way to end. But for two lakes that are as pretty as Chicago Lakes, I’d say it’s probably worth the struggle.
After the downhill section, the hike continues on a wide dirt road. The land on either side of the road is private property, so be sure to stay on the road through this section. After reaching Idaho Springs Reservoir (which is a pretty destination on its own, if you’re looking for a shorter and less challenging hike), the road ends and the hike proceeds on the Chicago Lakes Trail and enters the Mount Evans Wilderness. From this point on, it’s a fairly steady uphill climb to Lower Chicago Lake.
We stopped for a snack at the lower lake and assessed our energy levels and the weather, making the decision to continue to the upper lake. We had some difficulty locating the trail, as various sets of footprints meandered off in the general direction of the upper lake but ultimately petered out. At one point, we (embarrassingly) started following the trail back down to the lower lake for a couple minutes before realizing we were heading in the complete wrong direction.
Eventually, we located the actual trail and began the steep snowy climb up to the upper lake. The snow was slippery and it was slow going. But we made it! If you’re able, I definitely recommend expending the time and effort to reach the upper lake. It’s my favorite of the two.
If we’d thought climbing up was challenging, descending was even worse. The sun was out and the temperature was warming, which made the snow soft and slick. But we took it slow and we all made it safely back to the lower lake and, ultimately, back to the trailhead.
As usual, I’ve had trouble deciding if Chicago Lakes is prettier in the summer or the winter. Here is the post from our summer hike a couple years back; I’ll let you all be the judge.
The Important Stuff
- Getting there: the trail begins at Echo Lake Park on Highway 103 at the base of Mount Evans; parking isn’t too terrible in the winter so arriving at the crack of dawn isn’t necessary
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: 10.1 miles (16.2 km) round trip with 1975 feet (602 m) elevation gain; moderate-to-difficult in winter conditions
- Where to stay: in the winter, this hike is probably best done as a day hike from areas in and around Denver or Clear Creek County
- Other: this is a relatively safe winter hike in terms of avalanche risk (low, except for one section between the lower and upper lakes), and there will probably always be at least a few other parties on the trail with you in case something happens; nevertheless, be prepared for deep snow, fierce winds, cold temperatures, and sudden changes in weather (which you won’t be able to see coming due to the surrounding mountains)