Backcountry swimming holes: Five alpine lakes near the Vail Valley |

Backcountry swimming holes: Five alpine lakes near the Vail Valley

John O’Neill
Special to the Daily
The main lake at Missouri Lakes is made dark blue by its center depth. It's one of three lakes residing near 11,000 feet.
John O’Neill | Special to the Weekly |

Tucked away in the high alpine valleys of towering, treeless peaks are a number of lakes pooling pristine water from fresh snowmelt. While the lakes remain cold all summer, they are at their warmest temperatures right now, providing not only a turning point for a unique mountain hike but also a tolerable and refreshing reward for reaching them.

“A lot of people think hiking in Colorado means 14ers, but hiking to the lakes can provide a completely different wilderness experience with maybe a little less exertion than going out and bagging peaks,” said Jon Kedrowski, local mountaineer and author of “Sleeping on Summits” and, most recently, “Sleeping and Skiing on Summits.”

With these hikes, you spend more time in a forest and among wildflowers and meadows than you might on a signature Colorado 14er.

“The lake destinations are a way to experience another side to Colorado’s wilderness and are great for families or for backpacking,” Kedrowski said. “Right now, you can jump in the water and it isn’t completely frigid. On a warm day when the sun is shining, it can be really refreshing.”

Scattered across a topographical map of the local High Country are a number of blue dots interrupting the tightly drawn lines that signify steep peaks. Those are the lakes, and they’re everywhere. With help from Kedrowski, who also has Ph.D. in environmental geology, we rounded up five lakes whose fresh waters are matched in beauty by the hike to them.

Missouri Lakes

Hike: About 7 miles round-trip, 1,500 feet of elevation gain.

Lakes: One swimming hole near 10,000 feet, three lakes residing near 11,000 feet.

Getting there: Follow U.S. Highway 24 from Minturn past Red Cliff. Turn right onto Homestake Road. Follow Homestake Road for nearly 9 miles. Turn right onto Missouri Lakes road. Follow signs to trailhead.

The steep hike to Missouri Lakes is 6 miles round-trip and follows a creek that cascades over waterfalls and winds through notch-like miniature canyons. At the base of one waterfall, a mere half-mile into the hike, is a popular swimming hole among campers on Homestake Road, given its proximity to the trailhead. However, the treasured string of lakes lies farther up the trail.

After 2 miles of steep grade and just before treeline, where the upper lakes reside, the trail levels out to sprawling meadows of wildflowers and green marshlands. While the lower portions of the trail can feel confined and heavily trafficked, it is here in the meadow that the trail exposes an expanse of Colorado sky that induces feelings of seclusion.

Apart from the swimming hole, the first lake you’ll encounter is a shallow, shimmering turquoise lake. It might be tempting to stop. Don’t. Push on, and within 10 more minutes of hiking, you’ll arrive at the main lake, one made dark blue by its center depth.

There are accessible swim spots near the trail and a variety of rocks to cautiously jump from. There is another small lake in a boulder field on the other side of Missouri Pass, which requires expert-level hiking and scrambling skills.

Piles of snow remain in the shadows of the peaks surrounding the upper and lower lakes signifying just how frigid the water is. Use caution, knowing the water can be between 45 degrees and 50 degrees and can steal your breath and shock your body.

“I was just up there and the wildflowers were pretty phenomenal,” Kedrowski said. “I love all the little waterfalls and gorges you see on the hike up, and the water wasn’t super cold.”

Booth Lake

Hike: About 9 miles round trip, 3,000-plus feet of elevation gain.

Lake: One lake and one significant waterfall.

Getting there: Booth Creek can be found by exiting Interstate 70 at the East Vail exit and heading west on North Frontage Road for about 1 mile. Turn onto Booth Falls Road and proceed to the parking area.

Booth Lake is the ultimate reward for those who can tolerate a difficult, steep hike with robust elevation gain. The clear waters of this lake sit idly on a shelf at 11,500 feet and broach the edge of its surroundings peaks on one end and its steep spillway on the other.

Getting there is both a battle of physical strength but also mental fortitude — many are tempted to turn around when the trail passes Booth Falls, a set of falls with the largest drop being nearly 60 feet tall. In the spring, the falls roar. By now, the falls have been reduced in flow. The trail beyond the falls grows ever more quiet as traffic thins with the trees before approaching the lake.

When the lake is full, it allows an infinity-like situation with views over the valley, Vail Mountain and Mount of the Holy Cross. You can also literally peer over civilization from the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area where Booth Lake sits, over Vail and into Holy Cross Wilderness area, both protected wilderness.

Kedrowski was also recently at Booth Lake with friends who were visiting from out of town. He said he was able to jump in and hang out in the water for maybe 20 or 30 seconds.

“Booth Lake is definitely more vertical,” Kedrowski said. “People hike to the falls, of course, but then you have to go an extra few miles. There is pretty scenery up there with the water, a little island in the middle of the lake and then the views.”

Piney Lake

Hike: This one is accessible by driving. Upper Piney Lake is a 14-mile hike.

Lakes: Two: Piney Lake accessible by driving and Upper Piney Lake by hiking.

Getting there: Follow Red Standstone Road in West Vail until it turns to dirt. Follow the dirt road and signage to the lake without diverting onto other road systems.

Piney Lake provides the alpine experience of a beautiful mountain lake to anyone who may not be able to make the hike to other such locations. Located just below 10,000 feet, the lake sits within the forest, attracting a myriad of wildlife. Moose sightings are commonplace.

The lake extends back to the base of the Gore Range and offers a majestic wilderness feel. However, you’re not far from luxury — Piney Lake is also the site of Piney River Ranch, a private ranch that offers lodging and a restaurant open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can also trade in your swimming trunks for a canoe and paddle, your hiking shoes for horseback and enjoy the lake and surrounding mountains with ease.

Upper Piney Lake is a more daunting task, at 7 miles each direction. The trail begins at Piney Lake and continues for 3 miles through meadows and forest to a picturesque waterfall. The 4 miles beyond the falls grow more difficult, as the trail is not maintained and can be difficult to follow. Pay close attention and you’ll be rewarded with the opportunity to take a refreshing dip in Upper Piney Lake.

Lake Charles

and Mystic Island Lake

Hike: 8 miles for Lake Charles round-trip, 11 miles for Mystic Island Lake round-trip (2,160 feet of gain).

Lakes: Two: Lake Charles and Mystic Island Lake.

Getting there: The trailhead resides near the Fulford Cave Campground. Follow Brush Creek Road for 10 miles and then turn left onto East Brush Creek Road. Drive 6 miles and there will be a parking lot just past the Fulford Cave campground.

Like the temperature and color of Mystic Island Like, the setting will rob you of your breath. The hike begins downvalley near Eagle with a relatively moderate grade before ramping up just before reaching Lake Charles, the lake for which the trail is named.

Lake Charles is, in its own right, beautiful. The slightly lower elevation provides lush surroundings, with green grass and a pine forest running right up to the water’s edge. From the tail end of the lake, you can see another valley stretching farther back into the wilderness. This is the way to Mystic Island Lake.

The valley between the lakes is a marshland-type area that funnels you through the drainage of Mystic Island Lake. It can be wet and slippery but maintains a gradual gradient.

The arrival at Mystic Island Lake is awe-inspiring — this lake is surrounded on three sides in a dramatic, amphitheater-like fashion. The lake water is a dark blue and a reflection of Fool’s Peak — one of the surrounding mountains peaks — paints itself across the glass-like surface, ruffled only by the ripples of wind or someone brave enough to dive in.

“The color of all these lakes can be a little different,” Kedrowski said. “Some of them are near the outflow of glaciers or permanent snow. Some lakes are just pooling water that melted closer to spring. All that can change the color of the water.”

Lake Constantine

Hike: 8 miles round-trip with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Lakes: Three: Lake Constantine with trails leaving Lake Constantine for Upper and Lower Tuhare Lakes

Getting there: Drive out of Minturn toward Leadville for approximately 4 miles. Turn right on to Tigawon Road. Follow this dirt road for roughly 8 miles to the Fall Creek trailhead.

The Cross Creek drainage has a different geological feel than most other local hikes, making the journey to Lake Constantine as beautiful as the lake itself. The difference is in the rock — while most local hikes feature jagged, unfriendly rock, this area in the Holy Cross Wilderness is speckled with large slabs of marble-like smooth rock.

“The general term for it is granite batholith,” Kedrowski said. “Years ago, there was lava below the surface. That whole lava body solidified and got lifted up and the granite rock was formed. The lakes and the rock were finally formed as glaciers retreated.”

This is even different than, say, Booth Lake or Upper Piney Lake, which are located closer to the Gore Range. The rock there can be described as granite feldspar. This rock has a higher amount of quartz, making it rougher in character.

“A lot of it has to do with the speed at which the magma cooled,” Kedrowski said. “The hike into Lake Constantine along Cross Creek is a great unique hike.”

The trail itself is moderate, with only a little more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain in the 4 or so miles to the lake. It winds through dense forest broken up by the smooth rock and, eventually, a meadow that borders the lake surrounded by a thin veil of trees.

Just above the waterline, a pronounced treeline gives way to rolling mounds of the smooth rock striped with green grass. Over these rolling mounds are Upper and Lower Tuhare Lakes, which can be reached by hiking another mile.

“Lake Constantine is a little more elongated, which is a product of being set up in a glacial gorge,” Kedrowski said. “It provides a really good solitude experience. I’d recommend backpacking up there. Set up camp and spend a few days hiking around the area.”

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