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Colorado may be best known for the soaring rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but this Western state is home to a variety of beautiful lakes as well. From emerald alpine pools surrounded by forest to large reservoirs situated near urban centers, the Centennial State’s bodies of water offer opportunities for rest and reflection in nature as well as plenty of outdoor recreation. Here’s a look at some of the top lakes in Colorado.
Grand Lake – set in a north-central Colorado town of the same name – is the state’s largest and deepest natural lake, spanning more than 500 acres and reaching depths of nearly 400 feet. Originally called Spirit Lake, this body of water has long been a sacred place for the Ute tribe. In the winter, the lake is popular among ice fishing enthusiasts, as well as visitors looking to enjoy the Winter Carnival, the Pond Hockey Classic and a variety of cold weather sports. The summer months bring boating, fishing, swimming, kayaking, canoeing or simply strolling the waterfront with an ice cream. Wooden sidewalks give the small town an Old West vibe, and Grand Lake makes an excellent home base for exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, which surrounds the lake on three sides. Consider overnighting in a cabin at Grand Lake Lodge.
Tucked into the mountains in Colorado’s stunning Rocky Mountain National Park, Emerald Lake is accessible via a 4-mile out-and-back hike from the Bear Lake trailhead. This alpine lake sits at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, and you actually pass by two other pristine bodies of water – Nymph Lake and Dream Lake – along the Emerald Lake Trail. For such a popular hiking area, the National Park Service advises setting out for your trek early in the day to avoid crowds, especially on summer and fall weekends. The closest campgrounds to the trailhead are Moraine Park and Glacier Basin on the east side of the national park.
The 700-acre Boulder Reservoir, located about 5 miles northeast of downtown Boulder, provides not only drinking water for the area but also loads of recreation opportunities for travelers and locals alike. Throughout the warmer months, you’ll spot all sorts of different watercraft on the lake: windsurfers, power boats, pontoons, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats and rowboats. Rentals are available from Rocky Mountain Paddleboard, but to bring your own watercraft you’ll need to secure a boat permit in advance. Swimming is permitted in a designated area of Boulder Reservoir with lifeguards on duty. Moderately priced hotels abound around Boulder, home to the University of Colorado Boulder. If you’re interested in an upscale getaway, check out the spacious guest rooms at St Julien Hotel & Spa.
Cherry Creek Reservoir
Cherry Creek Reservoir is situated in Cherry Creek State Park, less than 15 miles southeast of downtown Denver. Boating is a popular activity on the 880-acre reservoir from April to November as long as you follow Colorado boating regulations. Also in the summer visitors can swim in a designated, roped-off area, but note lifeguards are not on duty here (nor on any Colorado state park beaches). Hiking, birding and biking are other popular outdoor activities, and this unique state park has a model airplane area called Suhaka Field, where enthusiasts (even beginners) gather to fly their planes. The Cherry Creek Campground has full hookups for RVs and basic tent sites you can reserve year-round. Otherwise, moderately priced hotels can be found in Aurora, such as the DoubleTree by Hilton Denver – Aurora.
The 1.2-mile hike up to Hanging Lake may be steep and rocky, but this National Natural Landmark – set 50 miles north of Aspen – is absolutely worth the time and effort to experience firsthand. The verdant green lake is located on a cliff, and water from Bridal Veil Falls gently cascades into the pristine pool. Because the lake is so protected – no fishing, dogs, drones or bodily contact with the water is allowed – hikers must make a timed reservation and pay for a permit in the peak season. Plan for at least three hours traversing this trail, but you’re asked not to spend extra time in the area before or after your hike. Note that all visitors must drive and park at the trailhead so you have immediate transportation in the event of unsafe conditions. The trail begins at the Hanging Lake Rest Area on the Colorado River just off I-70. About 10 miles away, a nifty place to stay is the historic Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, which dates back to 1893.
If your travels take you to northwest Colorado, the 900-acre Elkhead Reservoir offers a scenic spot to rest for an alfresco lunch or quiet overnight. Since Elkhead Reservoir State Park isn’t located close to a major urban center, you’ll likely find few crowds at this artificial lake near the small town of Craig. Picnic sites are open for day use, and leashed dogs are welcome in the park (though not in the water). Boating can take place here between May and September; other recreational activities around the reservoir range from jet skiing to horseback riding to hunting. Two small campgrounds in the state park – Pronghorn and Bear’s Ears – provide RV and tent campsites, some of which are close to the lakeshore. A handful of moderately priced hotels in Craig near the junction of highways 40 and 13 includes the Best Western Plus Deer Park Hotel and Suites.
Dillon Reservoir – sometimes called Lake Dillon – is in Summit County, Colorado, near the ski areas of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin and Keystone. In the winter, when the more than 3,200-acre reservoir freezes over, the town of Dillon maintains “Lake Loops,” a multi-use track for walking, cross-country skiing, skate skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking. In the summer, the vast lake is a popular spot for stand-up paddleboarding as well as boating. Multiple campgrounds here can give you a more rustic stay, or nearby hotels can be found in Silverthorne, including Hampton Inn & Suites Silverthorne.
The Maroon Bells are breathtaking twin peaks near Aspen that are touted as the most photographed place in Colorado. These jagged mountains, named for their shape and color, are perched above pretty Maroon Lake, which visitors can traipse around on trails of varying difficulty that lead you past a beaver lodge, meadow and more. To visit the Maroon Bells Scenic Area, about 10 miles from downtown Aspen, you’ll need a reservation, whether you take a public shuttle or your own car. Be sure to stay on the proper paths, and don’t try to approach or feed wildlife. Campsites can be found at the Silver Bar, Silver Bell and Silver Queen campgrounds along Maroon Creek Road – and visitors with a campground reservation don’t need to obtain a separate one for parking. Otherwise, stay in high-end Aspen, a renowned ski destination, where one of the more reasonably priced hotels is Mountain Chalet Aspen.
Shadow Mountain Lake
This high-elevation reservoir is connected to Grand Lake via a narrow strip of water at the town of Grand Lake’s Point Park. Anglers – with a Colorado fishing license – head to Shadow Mountain Lake’s more than 1,300 surface acres to fish for brown trout, rainbow trout and salmon. Boating is a popular summer activity as well: Two public launches on the lake (also called Shadow Mountain Reservoir) allow for power boating and jet skiing, as well as nonmotorized sports like sailing, kayaking and canoeing. Camp at one of the nearly 80 nonelectric sites at Green Ridge Campground on the south edge of the lake, or book a stay at Black Bear Lodge just steps from the lake’s shoreline.
Less than 10 miles from downtown Fort Collins, Horsetooth Reservoir was originally created as part of the Colorado-Big Thompson Project to divert water for drinking and irrigation from the Western Slope to towns along the Front Range. Its name derives from a Native American legend about the unique rock formation towering over the water. Today the 6.5-mile reservoir serves as a popular recreation spot for Colorado State University students and local residents who want to enjoy a respite from the city – especially in the summer months. Lake-based activities include fishing, boating, swimming, paddleboarding and even scuba diving; miles of trails also offer opportunities to hike, mountain bike, horseback ride and rock climb. Camping at the reservoir includes boat-in campsites right on the water, as well as electric and full hookup sites, plus a few cabins. In Fort Collins’ historic Old Town district, The Elizabeth Hotel, Autograph Collection provides luxury accommodations.
Chatfield Reservoir is nestled in the foothills less than 25 miles south of downtown Denver in Chatfield State Park. More than 26 miles of multi-use trails weave their way along the reservoir and through the state park. The hard-surface and natural trails are open year-round for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter as well as hiking and biking in the warm weather months. The lake has a Power Zone for motorized boats, and the No Wake Zones are especially gentle for fishing, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. There’s a swimming beach on the west side of the lake, an off-leash area for dogs (which requires a daily pass), a model airplane field and even hot air ballooning. The state park has nearly 200 campsites, and one nearby hotel is the Courtyard by Marriott Denver Southwest/Littleton.
Blue Mesa Reservoir
The largest reservoir fully contained within Colorado’s borders is Blue Mesa Reservoir in the south-central part of the state. Formed by the damming of the Gunnison River, the lake is 20 miles long with nearly 100 miles of shoreline. Anglers come from miles around to try their hand at fishing for elusive kokanee salmon at Blue Mesa, which is part of the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Fed by snowmelt rivers and streams, the reservoir is usually a bit too chilly to comfortably swim in for an extended period of time; those seeking recreation can still enjoy activities like boating (with a permit), water skiing and windsurfing but are advised to wear wetsuits and watch out for hazardously strong winds. Camping can be found at Elk Creek Campground, which has more than 150 sites and is open year-round.
If you’re looking for a challenging hike near Aspen, put the American Lake Trail on your list. This 3-mile one-way trek winds through aspen groves and spruce forest as well as meadows that burst with wildflowers in July and August. Hikers will be rewarded with a quiet lake at more than 11,300 feet in elevation that makes an ideal place to fully embrace Colorado’s high-altitude mountain views. Pack your tent and camping gear if you’d like to overnight in this serene spot, as camping is allowed within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area, but not within 100 feet of the lake. You can also toss a fishing line in American Lake.
Lake Granby, a few miles northeast of the town of Granby, is Colorado’s third-largest body of water at more than 7,200 surface acres. With its 40 miles of shoreline, Lake Granby is another sister lake of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake, created by the Granby Dam in 1950. Fishing for trout and kokanee salmon is a popular activity here, and there are three boat launches for putting in your motorized or nonmotorized watercraft, from power boats to kayaks. In winter, the area’s extensive snowmobile trails draw visitors. Sunset Point Campground has first-come, first-served campsites on the lake’s shores.
Estes Park can be a very busy mountain town in the summer months, as a main gateway to majestic Rocky Mountain National Park. So you may encounter crowds when recreating on 185-acre Lake Estes, which is found on the outskirts of town. From May to September, rent pontoons, kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and other watercraft at Lake Estes Marina. You can stroll around this small lake year-round on a 3.75-mile, relatively flat trail. For a memorable overnight, stay at Estes Park’s The Stanley Hotel, an iconic mountain property that inspired the setting for Stephen King’s novel “The Shining.”
Lake San Cristobal
The natural alpine Lake San Cristobal is found in the San Juan Mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet. Trout live in the chilly waters, and you can fish from the shoreline where public access is allowed (just don’t forget to purchase a fishing license). While boating or picnicking at the lake, you may spot elk or moose. Lake San Cristobal is about 5 miles from Lake City, whose accommodation options include The North Face Lodge. You can also pull up your RV or pitch a tent at the lakefront Wupperman Campground.
Near Leadville, Colorado, Twin Lakes is the name of both a tiny town and a pair of high-altitude glacial lakes where you can boat, kayak, canoe or paddleboard in the shadow of surrounding mountain peaks. Take a narrated boat tour to learn about the historic resort of Interlaken, where wealthy Colorado mining tycoons once spent their summers. Stay at The Twin Lakes Inn & Saloon, which has been welcoming guests since 1879 and sits at the base of Mount Elbert, Colorado’s tallest peak.