Colorado, Colorado Hikes

Colorado Day Hikes: Hartenstein Lake

I’m not going to sugar coat it: this was not an overly enjoyable hike.

It was a combination of factors. The snow conditions were terrible; it was soft and squishy and slippery, and at times it felt like we were walking on sand in our snowshoes. We also hadn’t been at such high elevation in a few weeks, so we might have lost some of our acclimation. And I don’t know what happened to my stamina, but it apparently didn’t make it to the trailhead with me. It was just brutal. Even on the slightest of uphills, my quads were burning and my lungs couldn’t seem to bring in enough oxygen.

The only saving grace was the scenery.

Our hike began at Denny Creek Trailhead, located a few miles up the east side of Cottonwood Pass outside Buena Vista. In the winter, the road is only plowed to this point so finding the trailhead is simple. In the summer, look for a large, signed pullout on the north side of the road. The trail begins with a set of stairs up from the parking lot, and it remains steep for the first bit as it zigzags through the trees. This is a popular trail for backcountry skiers, so it was packed down and easy to follow. This remained the case for the first 1.3 miles (2.1 km) to the junction, where we turned left on the Browns Pass Trail, following signs for Hartenstein Lake.

It was at this point that the snow got soft and slippery and annoying. Perhaps the worst part was that the conditions weren’t uniform. Sometimes we’d slip sideways, sometimes we’d sink in, and sometimes we’d stay right on top… and we never knew which it would be until we took a step. By the time we reached the second trail junction, once again keeping left toward the lake, we were sinking in and slipping around even more.

At least we started to get some views
Mount Yale
Mount Princeton (just left of center)
Turner Peak (I think)

But we stubbornly persevered. At this point, the trail was visible only as a set of ski tracks. We did our best to avoid walking in them, but when the trail is narrow and squeezed in between trees, there’s not really another option. As we approached the lake, the ski tracks veered off in the wrong direction so we made our own way through the forest and toward the lake.

Approaching Hartenstein Lake

Eventually, the trees parted and we found ourselves looking across the snow-covered Hartenstein Lake. Behind us, the enormous façades of 14ers Mount Princeton and Mount Yale were visible as well. The sun was shining and it wasn’t terribly windy, so at least we were able to sit and enjoy the view for a while.

Hartenstein Lake (I promise, it’s under all that snow somewhere)

And thankfully, the entire hike back – save for one small section – was downhill. It took us more than two hours to hike the 3.1 miles (5 km) to the lake but just over an hour to get back to the car.  

View of Mount Princeton on the hike back

All in all, not my favorite hike ever. But we did it. Now it was time for pizza and a weekend soaking in the natural mineral waters of Mount Princeton Hot Springs!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: this hike begins at the Denny Creek Trailhead, located 12 miles (19 km) up Cottonwood Pass from Buena Vista
  • Fees and passes: none
  • Hiking: roundtrip distance is about 6 miles (9.6 km) with 1630 feet (500 m) elevation gain; moderate in the summer, fairly difficult in snowy conditions
  • Where to stay: this could be done as a day hike from Denver, though it would require a lot of driving. For easier access, stay in Buena Vista, Salida, or spend the night at campgrounds or legal dispersed campsites in the surrounding San Isabel National Forest
  • Other: the trail is popular amongst skiers in the winter; while hikers and snowshoers have the right of way, you should still keep an eye out for descending skiers and avoid walking in the ski tracks whenever possible. Also, be sure not to wander too far from the trail, as avalanche danger increases closer to the slopes. With that in mind, be very cautious if there are skiers on the slopes above you.

23 thoughts on “Colorado Day Hikes: Hartenstein Lake”

  1. The views are incredible! But man, the challenge of hiking in all of that loose snow is not an easy feat…worth it, though! And a nice beer (or hot drink, really) afterwards is just around the corner!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Its the tough hikes that are often the best. Your efforts were rewarded with great views, a great story to tell and perhaps a few laughs as you struggled to find good footing. Beautiful hike under trying conditions Diana. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing views! And worth the effort, for the reward of the hot springs? Being UK based, I don’t see conditions or terrain like this on my hikes. A much enjoyed post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not every hike can be enjoyable. I’ve had some hikes where I’m not feeling the greatest and I have to really work for it. It’s incredibly humbling. And as you said, at least the scenery was beautiful. Good call on getting pizza afterwards!

    Liked by 1 person

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