What could be more idyllic, more Colorado, than spending a day or weekend at a lake? Smooth glassy water reflecting the peaks, fish jumping, birds chirping; you’ll understand why John Denver sang about “the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.”
From natural, frigid alpine lakes to slightly-less-frigid valley reservoirs to a couple of places where you can even swim comfortably, Colorado has some 4,000 bodies of water to choose from. With that in mind, we’ve put together some great destinations to add to your summer travel itinerary.
Lakes for motor boating
Blue Mesa, in the center of the state between Gunnison and Montrose, is a boater’s paradise. It’s also the largest lake in Colorado, at 14 square miles. As the name implies, the waters are crystal blue and deep enough for large boats. Secluded canyons abound where you can drop anchor and enjoy a cold dip or just the peace and quiet. And the fishing is spectacular – the reservoir is home to the largest kokanee salmon fishery in the country.
The reservoir is in Curecanti National Recreation Area. There are 10 campgrounds to choose from and several beaches where camping is allowed.
Lake Granby in northern Colorado is another popular boating spot and covers 7,000 acres. There are numerous boat launches and commercial marinas where you can rent a boat, as well as several campgrounds.
Colorado’s second-largest natural lake is down south, adjacent to Lake City. Lake San Cristobal offers stunning views of the San Juan Mountains. There’s a marina and the Wupperman Campground along its shores.
Lakes for quiet boating
If you’d rather enjoy a quiet day in a canoe or kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard, there are many lakes where only non-motorized craft are allowed.
O’Haver Lake, in a stunning valley off Poncha Pass, is a perfect place to enjoy some quiet flatwater. And there’s even a campground where you can pitch a tent near the water, a rare thing in Colorado. Reservations are highly recommended for a campsite.
Cottonwood Lake, west of Buena Vista and a few miles south of the top of Cottonwood Pass, is a lovely and quiet boating location – 40 acres and no motors allowed. There’s also a large campground along the lake and plenty of free dispersed camping in the area.
Big Meadows Reservoir is a short distance from the town of South Fork in southern Colorado. It is surrounded by spruce-covered hills. The lake can seem busy along the shore but head out in a boat and you’ll find solitude. There’s a campground along the shoreline.
Lakeside trails for mountain biking
Twin Lakes, created by water diversions through the Continental Divide (part of the massive Fryingpan-Arkansas Project), is known for its gorgeous vistas. Mount Elbert, Colorado’s tallest peak, towers over the area. There’s also a great intermediate mountain bike trail that rings the reservoir, nearly 15 miles of singletrack with little elevation gain. There are several campgrounds in the area, as well as free dispersed camping on the east side of the lake.
Rampart Reservoir is near Woodland Park, part of Colorado Springs’ water system. The 14-mile loop trail around the lake offers a great singletrack ride, with 1,000 feet of uphill required. Start at the Rainbow Gulch trailhead for free parking, as you’ll have to pay at the lots closer to the water. There’s camping around the lake and plenty of dispersed camping along Rampart Range Road.
Lakes for swimming
Most of Colorado’s lakes are fed by snowmelt and too cold for most swimmers. Pueblo Reservoir is an exception. The 4,600-acre lake is at a low elevation in Colorado’s banana belt, which makes it comfortable for swimming on hot summer days. You can take a dip at the Rock Canyon swim beach, or better yet find a swimming hole somewhere along its 60 miles of shoreline. Those with boats will enjoy finding a secluded cove for a swim.
There’s a $10-per-vehicle fee to enter Lake Pueblo State Park (which surrounds the reservoir) and camping costs $28-$36 a night. (If you’ve paid for vehicle registration this year, you already may have access to all state parks through the Keep Colorado Wild pass.)
Closer to Denver, Chatfield Reservoir is at a low enough elevation for comfortable swimming. The swim beach in Chatfield State Park is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The daily park entrance fee is $10 per vehicle. There are some 200 campsites near the lake ($28-$41 a night).
Lakes for fishing
Colorado’s waters are an angler’s paradise, abundant and stocked, so narrowing your choices to just a few is difficult. Practically any lake on this list, or any list of lakes, will make for a great fishing trip.
Here are a few lakes to try within an easy day trip of the Front Range:
Eleven Mile State Park is located around a large reservoir and scenic river canyon in Park County and is known for an outstanding fishery.
Grand Lake, adjacent to the town that bears the same name, has excellent fishing and stunning mountain views to match.
Dillon Reservoir in Summit County has 26 miles of shoreline, enough to find your own fishing spot, and spectacular views of mountains that make up ski country.
Hike to these great lakes
You might have noticed that most of the lakes listed here are man-made reservoirs. That’s because most natural lakes have no roads to them, so you’ll need to lace up your boots and hike into the wilderness. Some visits require multi-day slogs through the mountains, while others can be enjoyed as a day hike. I’m sharing some of my favorite day hikes.
Most of Colorado’s glaciers are long gone, but a few small ones remain, remnants of the forces that shaped the Rockies. This 8.4-mile hike in Rocky Mountain National Park takes you up steep, rugged canyons. You can find snow here year-round on the dwindling glacier.
In the shadow of 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels – perhaps Colorado’s prettiest mountain – are three clear-blue lakes reachable by a moderate hike. It’s 3 miles to the first lake, and 3 more miles if you want to visit all three lakes, each offering vastly different views. You’ll wish you’d brought a tent to stay the night. (Take the hint, friends.)
North Brush Lakes
Many of the lakes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains require long approaches. Not so for this pretty lake outside the town of Westcliffe, thanks to a forest road leading to the edge of the wilderness. It’s 4 miles to the lower lake (the prettier of the two) and a half-mile to the upper lake.
Rainbow Lakes to Slide Lakes
Deep in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness – Walden is the closest town, and it’s not that close – this hike lets you explore three pretty lakes. It’s 3.5 miles to Rainbow Lake, a worthy destination if you’re only up for a short day hike. Another 3 miles takes you to the upper and lower Slide lakes, both of which offer amazing backcountry camping.
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