Treeline hikes

Head to alpine lakes and wildflowers this month

Treeline hikes

Hike through wildflower-filled Albion Basin on Utah's Sunset Peak Trail.

Patrick Cone

Climb past the treeline in the intermountain West and you'll enter an alpine realm of snow-laden peaks, jewel-like pocket lakes, and summer wildflowers.

Of course, hiking at these altitudes does require more care than a walk through the woods. Weather is always a factor: Pack layers of clothes and rain gear that you can add or shuck as needed, and head out early in the day to avoid thunderstorms, which can appear with little warning. Stay on designated trails; the meadow wildflowers and sparse ridgeline vegetation you'll find near mountaintops are fragile and grow slowly because of the harsh environment and short growing season. And remember that high elevations make hiking more difficult than usual. Take your time and be alert for symptoms of altitude sickness (refer to the Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude for more information).

The following seven trails of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming are some of our favorites. All but one, Jefferson Lake, are rated difficult, but take the precautions above, and any strong hiker should be able to enjoy the sweeping views that you can find only high above the trees.

 

NEAR DENVER

Jefferson Lake

This well-used and well-loved lake lies in a big mountain-rimmed basin. On the surrounding slopes, the treeline flirts with vast meadows. The lake lies at 10,687 feet; the easy Jefferson Loop Trail around it offers stunning view after stunning view of high peaks on all sides.

DISTANCE: 1 1/2-mile loop

COST: $4 day-use fee per vehicle

FYI: Restrooms and picnic areas are at the lake.

WHERE: From Denver take U.S. 285 west. About 23 miles west of Bailey, turn right on County Rd. 35, then turn right on Forest Rd. 37 and follow signs 6 miles to the lake.

CONTACT: South Park Ranger District (719/836-2031)


NEAR GEORGETOWN, CO

Grizzly Peak

For a combination of above-the-treeline scenery and accessibility from Denver, the tough hike to Grizzly Peak can't be beat. Start climbing east from 11,990-foot Loveland Pass. At the top of the ridge, go right and follow a rough, undulating trail over two intermediary high points before you gain the 13,427-foot Grizzly Peak summit. You'll pass lichen-covered rocks and pockets of sturdy flowers. This is an unmarked trail in wild alpine country, but you'll have views of civilization ― the ski trails of Keystone and Breckenridge.

DISTANCE: 7 miles round trip

COST: Free

WHERE: From I-70 about 12 miles west of Georgetown, take exit 216; head west on U.S. 6 about 4 miles to parking.

CONTACT: Clear Creek Ranger District (303/567-3000)

 

NEAR OURAY, CO

Blue Lakes Trail

The trail zigzags up steep flower-dappled slopes of Yankee Boy Basin to Blue Lakes Pass and drops down equally steep switchbacks to a chain of lakes just south of Mt. Sneffels. Making it to the pass, at almost 13,000 feet, is an achievement; if you go down to the lakes, remember you have to climb back up. Or, if you have a four-wheel-drive, you can skip the hike and drive to the end of Campbird Road at the wide basin, where flowers blaze along Sneffels Creek and on surrounding mountainsides.

DISTANCE: 6 miles round trip to the lakes

COST: Free

WHERE: Take Ouray's Main St. south 1/2 mile and turn right on Campbird Rd. (County Rd. 361). You can easily negotiate the first 6 miles in a standard passenger car and start hiking from there; the last 2 miles require a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.

CONTACT: Ouray Ranger District (970/240-5300)


ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, CO

Chasm Lake

Leave early to hike the wide, well-used Longs Peak Trail, which snakes through the trees before breaking out into a broad, conifer-dotted basin. At 3 miles, the Chasm Lake Trail forks left past Peacock Pool, Columbine Falls, and the flanks of Mt. Lady Washington and Mt. Meeker. After one last short, steep section, Chasm Lake, which sits at 11,760 feet, suddenly comes into view, tucked below Longs Peak's imposing 2,000-foot east face.

DISTANCE: 8 1/2 miles round trip

COST: Free

WHERE: From Estes Park, take State 7 south 9 miles and turn right on Longs Peak Campground Rd. Go 1 mile to the trailhead parking area, which can fill by dawn on weekends.

CONTACT: Rocky Mountain National Park (970/586-1206)

 

NEAR SALT LAKE CITY

Sunset Peak Trail

This trail is perfect for an afternoon hike. Not only do you head into the mountains when most folks head home, but as the sun drops down toward the horizon, the view from the 10,648-foot summit can be spectacularly colorful. The trail rims wildflower-choked Albion Basin before climbing to Catherine Pass. From there it's 1/2 mile to the summit of Sunset Peak.

DISTANCE: 3 miles round trip

COST: Free

WHERE: From I-215 southeast of Salt Lake City, take exit 6 to State 210 and continue up Little Cottonwood Canyon 8 miles to Albion.

CONTACT: Public Lands Information Center (801/466-6411)


NEAR SALT LAKE CITY

White Pine Lake

Weaving a crooked path above Little Cottonwood Canyon, this trail to the high country towering over Salt Lake City teases you with early shade before you break through the treeline roughly 2 miles beyond the trailhead. Climbing from there to the 10,000-foot-elevation lake, you're surrounded by a granitic cathedral of peaks and chutes. Along with pocket bouquets of wildflowers, intriguing splatters of pea-soup green lichen dot many of the boulders above the treeline.

DISTANCE: 9 miles round trip

COST: Free

WHERE: From I-215 southeast of Salt Lake City, take State 210 up Little Cottonwood Canyon 5 1/2 miles to the White Pine/Red Pine trailhead.

CONTACT: Public Lands Information Center (801/466-6411)

 

NEAR EVANSTON, WY

Stillwater Trail

Winding past marshy meadows favored by browsing moose and through thick conifer forests, this trail runs up the north slope of the Uinta Mountains toward the High Uintas Wilderness Area. Four miles down the trail, follow the left fork up to Amethyst Lake, rimmed by soaring cliffs. Take your fishing pole to probe the lake for trout.

DISTANCE: 14 miles round trip

COST: $3 day use

FYI: Keep a safe distance from moose.

WHERE: From Evanston take State 150 (the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway) south 35 miles; turn east on Stillwater Rd. and drive 4 miles to Christmas Meadows Trailhead (where you can access Stillwater Trail).

CONTACT: Evanston Ranger District (307/789-3194)

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