Colorado Lakes: Three Ways to Explore

When it comes to lakes, Colorado may not have the largest or the most, but the state can comfortably boast of having some of the loveliest high-altitude bodies of water in America. Some can be explored by car, while others require effort before their charms are revealed. With hundreds to choose from, the toughest part may be deciding where to begin. Here are three ways to enjoy Colorado’s lakes.

Hike to Three Alpine Lakes

Lake Isabelle

This popular two-mile hike in the Indian Peaks Wilderness begins with a gentle meander through stands of aspen and spruce, passing Long Lake before climbing toward the high peaks of the Continental Divide. As the trail rises above timberline, snowmelt streams tumble down hillsides carpeted with wildflowers in summer. After puffing up the last steep section, hikers are rewarded with a sparkling alpine lake set against a backdrop of 13,000-foot peaks. Stroll along the shoreline trail and choose the perfect picnic spot.

View of Lake Isabelle from the top of the Niwot Ridge Trail.

Herman Lake

The most challenging part of this 3.5-mile trail is the first 15 minutes, a steep uphill slog from the trailhead alongside Interstate 70. After half a mile, the route levels off and the highway hum from below fades away. As the forest thins, the path enters a park-like valley known for its summer flower displays. Following a stream up the drainage, the trail becomes steeper, and after one final push over a rocky ridge, it’s a short drop down to the lake. Nestled at the base of jagged 13,000 foot peaks, the shallow lake is clear enough to see the bottom.

Heart Lake

Half the fun of this remote southwestern Colorado lake is the scenic drive through the San Juan Mountains to the trailhead. The gravel road follows the Rio Grande for almost 17 miles, passing beaver dams and two reservoirs before arriving at Lost Trail Creek Trailhead. Beginning in a shaded forest of aspen, fir and spruce, much of this 3.5-mile trail is also a rugged all-terrain vehicle path. Occasional meadows offer sweeping views back down the valley toward distant peaks. Several stream crossings over log bridges keep things interesting. The route is lightly used, and you may have the trail to yourself. The last mile traverses a steep, wooded hill before dropping into Heart Lake basin. Sit quietly and watch clouds sail over the surrounding peaks, knowing you’re far from the world back home.

Paddle Lake Dillon

If the idea of gliding by kayak or canoe across a mountain lake sounds appealing, then Lake Dillon may be the perfect place to wet your paddle. Cast off from the marina dock, aim beyond the anchored sailboats, and you’re on your own, free to follow the breezes and your own whims.

Whether exploring the rocky shoreline and piney islands or poking around back bays where heron fish the shallows, take time to observe nature. Ospreys patrol overhead. Trout leap from the water and smack down with a splash.

Mornings are often still and perfect for paddling. Weather can change fast, especially on summer afternoons, and the marina won’t rent watercraft if the sky turns ominous. The season runs from around mid-May to mid-October.

Drive to Navajo Lake

If all of Navajo Lake was in Colorado, it would be the state’s largest body of water. Although two-thirds of the lake lies across the state line in New Mexico, that doesn’t faze Colorado boaters, fishermen, water skiers and wildlife watchers who come to enjoy this 35-mile-long reservoir. Just 45 minutes from Pagosa Springs, the surroundings feel far from city life.

Half the fun of getting to Heart Lake is the scenic drive to the trail head.

The route to Navajo Lake State Park passes through the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, where softly folded hills studded with juniper and pinyon lend a distinctly New Mexico look to the landscape. Western bluebirds dart from fence posts to snatch insects in mid air. Other than an occasional ranch nestled along the creek, the country is sparse and undeveloped.

Eventually the road meets up with the Piedra River and follows it to Navajo Lake. Just offshore from the campground, dozens of sailboats and pontoon boats bob at their moorings in the warm breeze. Water skiers cut white slashes across the blue water. Along the shoreline, hiking trails thread past gnarled pines and blooming yucca.

Far from bright city lights, the evening unveils a shimmering, star-filled sky. After a full day of water activities, families gather around camp tables for dinner in the cooling air. Deer come out to browse and crickets begin their serenade. Below the campground bluffs, the rhythmic slapping of waves along the beach drifts upward, perfect for lulling tired campers to sleep.

If You Go

No matter where you travel in Colorado, keep in mind a few common-sense guidelines. Don’t be fooled by morning blue skies. Weather in the Rockies changes fast, so be prepared for lightning, rain and sudden temperature drops. Carry food and water when hiking. Colorado is a high-altitude state with thinner air and intense sun, so know your health limits and pace yourself. Protect fragile surroundings by staying on trails. Keep dogs leashed. And don’t forget your camera!

Getting there:

Lake Isabelle
From Denver, take Interstate 25 north, exiting on U.S. 36 to Boulder. In town, turn west on Canyon Boulevard and continue up Boulder Canyon to Nederland. Take Colorado 72 (Peak to Peak Highway) north for 13 miles to Ward. At the north end of town turn left at the Forest Service sign for Brainard Lake. Take this road to Brainard Lake, then follow the signs to the Long Lake trailhead parking. If the lot is full, parking is allowed along the road.

Herman Lake
Take I-70 west from Denver approximately 45 minutes to exit 218, just before the Loveland Pass exit. (If you reach the Eisenhower Tunnel, you have gone too far.) Make an immediate right off the exit and backtrack a short distance into the parking lot on the north side of I-70.

Heart Lake
Travel southwest from Creede on Colorado 149 (toward Gunnison) for 20.1 miles, to the intersection of Highway 149 and Forest Road #520 (Rio Grande Reservoir/Upper Rio Grande Road), then approximately 16.5 miles on Road #520 to the Lost Trail Creek Trailhead.

Lake Dillon
Dillon Lake is approximately 70 miles west of Denver on I-70. Turn off at exit 205 toward Frisco. For more information and rental rates, call 970-668-4334 or visit