There are an incredible number of natural lakes to explore in Colorado’s designated wilderness areas. Organized by ease of access, here are five of my favorite wilderness lake destinations in Eagle County to put on your list.
A popular destination for locals and tourists, Piney Lake is located on the edge of Colorado’s Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area. It’s the only destination listed that can be directly accessed by car via a Forest Service road 11 miles north of Vail. Once at the free parking area just outside Piney River Ranch, you can explore the ranch, go for a paddle, fly fish or just soak up the breath-taking alpine scenery. For those looking to extend their time in the Piney River Valley, the trail to Piney River Falls and Marugg Creek, as well as a number of other backcountry destinations, are accessible via the Piney River Trail on the north side of the lake.
Lost Lake is an easy 3.75 mile trek along a ridge in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area located south of the Piney River Valley. Trailhead parking for the Lost Lake Trail is found on the same forest road that takes you to Piney Lake. Dominated by lodgepole pine trees that have succumb to mountain pine beetle infestation, visual impacts of heavy logging are seen for the first third of the Lost Lake Trail. With a gain of only 531 feet in elevation, exploration of the thick conifer forest isn’t hindered by a technical trail, but rather a gentle ascent to the spring-fed lake. A perfect spot for lunch at 10,158 feet of elevation, Lost Lake is encircled by dense forests of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir right up to the lake’s edge, creating a beautiful wilderness refuge.
Wilderness seclusion is yours in exchange for a mere 2.5 miles of moderate exertion from the trailhead parking area to Whitney Lake. Located 4 miles off US Highway 6 along an old stagecoach road in Colorado’s Homestake Valley, Whitney Lake sits at 10,956 feet in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. With a gain of 1,836 feet from the valley floor, the Whitney Lake Trail takes explorers through fragrant wildflower and sagebrush meadows, mature aspen and lodgepole pine forests, over Whitney Creek (perfect for refilling your water bottles), into a sacred mature spruce forest draped with Old Man’s Beard, until finally the lake’s in front of you, sparkling in the sun.
Sojourners looking for more of a challenge in the Homestake Valley can find it on a beautiful trek into preserved wilderness to the Missouri Lakes. Perched at 11,550 feet deep in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness Area are 14 lakes in a lush green basin below 11,986 foot Missouri Pass. In exchange for wilderness relief, you’ll need to drive more than 10 miles up rough road to the trailhead and travel another 4 miles by your own power, gaining 1,430 feet of elevation.
If your main goal is to experience deep wilderness, the trails on the northeast edge of Eagle County’s Gore Creek Valley are hard to beat. But the price for this wilderness experience is the most challenging on this list. Located in the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area, Booth Lake is found six miles up a lung buster of a trail that gains 3,080 feet of elevation.“The final climb to the lake is relentless” describes local author and historian Mary Ellen Gilliland. A sparkling alpine tarn that sits at 11,480 above the sea, Booth Lake repays its undaunted explorers with sublime wilderness refuge deep in the Gore Range Mountains.
When planning your trip to Eagle County be sure to get the latest edition of “The Vail Hiker” by Mary Ellen Gilliland for detailed information about each of these wilderness lake destinations and close to fifty more hikes.