Family-Friendly Lake Hikes In Colorado

Ease the stress of deciding which trail to take using Joanna’s list of the top seven hikes to enjoy as a family.

Explore
By Joanna Lee
Explore Ambassador

Colorado offers endless opportunities to hike, explore and study wildlife. Ease the stress of deciding which trail to take using Joanna’s list of the top seven hikes to enjoy as a family.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

Brainard Lake Recreation Area is one of my favorite places to hike in Colorado. It has absolutely stunning views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness mountains that are unique in appearance — they are jagged and dramatic. The views surrounding you feature seven mountains over 13,000 feet with greater than 30% of the land being above treeline. In addition to stunning views, the recreation area is home to many colorful and beautiful lakes. It is also home to a variety of wildlife, particularly moose, which you are likely to see while hiking. The hikes are a variety of lengths and difficulty, giving an option for everyone.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)
  • Brainard Lake – There is no hiking required for this lake. In the summer there is a large parking lot just a short walk from the lake. It is a beautiful place to relax, have a picnic and spend the day as a family.
  • Lake Isabelle – While this trail is slightly longer — 5.5 miles and 500 feet of elevation gain — it is relatively flat and absolutely worth the extra distance. It features two lakes, Long Lake and Lake Isabelle, and has absolutely breathtaking views at the end (shown above).
  • Blue Lakes – This route features three lakes along the route: Mitchell Lake, Blue Lake and Little Blue Lake. It is 6.6 miles with 1,400 feet of elevation gain and gets above the treeline. It is considered a more challenging hike if you choose to add on Little Blue Lake, which entails some scrambling over large rocks.
  • Mitchell Lake – A short and flat hike from the main parking lot, 1.8 miles and 200 feet of elevation gain, this lake is just the start of the beauty of this area. It is surrounded by greenery and wildflowers and still gets stunning views of the nearby peaks.
  • Long Lake – This is another short and flat hike option from a different trailhead, with 1.8 miles and 90 feet of elevation gain. This hike is mostly in the trees until you reach the lake, where the views open up to show the beautiful mountains.

In the summer you do need a reservation to enter the recreation area and park at the trailheads for all of the above hikes. Reservations can be made online at Recreation.gov. In the winter the main road through the park is closed to vehicles. There is a winter parking lot that adds approximately 2.5 miles each way to all of the above distances, in which you hike along the snow-covered road. The lakes freeze over during winter and spring, but it is a very popular place to snowshoe and cross-country ski. The snow-covered peaks certainly make the extra effort worth it.

Crater Lake

Located in Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, Crater Lake provides iconic views of Colorado. This hike is 3.5 miles and 700 feet of elevation gain and is mostly in a tunnel of beautiful aspen trees that will be bright green during the summer and glowing yellow in the fall. The views from the lake show off the Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, which are two of Colorado’s highest peaks sitting at 14,163 feet and 14,022 feet. They are unique in their pyramid-shaped appearance and their maroon coloring.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

To do this hike, you will need a reservation for the shuttle that takes you from Aspen Highlands Ski Resort to the trailhead. You will reserve a specific time when you make your booking, and it is important that you arrive for that time. If you want to save on costs, you can park outside of the Highlands and take a bus to the shuttle stop. The shuttle is dog-friendly. Information about reservations and planning can be found at the U.S. Forest Service’s website

Herman Gulch

Located only an hour from Denver, this very popular trail is busy for a reason. It will be the most difficult hike on this list and also likely one of the busiest, but I promise it is worth it. You do not need a reservation, but I would recommend starting early. The hike starts from a large parking lot on the side of I-70, which fills early and quickly, especially on the weekends. It is 7.2 miles with 1,800 feet of gradual elevation gain through a mixture of heavily wooded trail and open meadows with mountain views. The last portion of the trail opens up above the treeline to 360-degree views of the surrounding peaks. The lake marks the end of the trail that is in a basin of mountains over 13,000 feet.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

The best time to do this trail is in the summer. It is known for its vast meadows of colorful wildflowers, including the Colorado state flower, the Rocky Mountain columbine (pictured). As mentioned above, this hike is better suited to a weekday outing or a very early start due to the trail’s popularity. Finally, be aware that in the winter this is a much different hike. There will be large accumulations of snow, avalanche risk and dangerous water crossings.

Silver Dollar Lake

Also located just over an hour from Denver, this hike will give you a great workout without being too long. You do not need a reservation for this hike, but it does get busy on the weekends, particularly in the summer months. From Guanella Pass you will drive on a loose gravel road for about half a mile to reach the small trailhead parking lot. If this parking lot is full, there is additional parking on Guanella Pass, which will add about 1 mile to the distance. This trail is 4.1 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It starts as a heavily wooded trail with a few creek crossings. It is also known for its stunningly colorful and diverse wildflowers in the summer months. Once above the treeline, you get expansive views of the surrounding mountains and a view of the first lake below you, Naylor Lake. You continue on a well-marked trail to Silver Dollar Lake, a beautiful alpine lake. If you are feeling great at this point, you can add on an additional lake, Murray Lake. This includes a steep climb, further above the treeline, to another breathtaking lake with 360-degree mountain views. 

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

In the winter this area is popular for snowshoeing. The gravel road is not maintained, so you are required to park on Guanella Pass, at the winter closure gate. There is plenty of snow accumulation in this area, but it will likely be a packed-down trail until the treeline, where you look down onto Naylor Lake. After this point, it will be less traveled due to the steep surrounding slopes causing avalanche risk.

Saint Mary’s Glacier

A quick drive from Denver and a unique appearance of a snowfield in the summer months makes this a popular family hike. This hike does not require reservations but does have a small designated parking area with a $5 fee. A weekday is preferable for this hike also due to its popularity. It is 2.4 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It starts off a little steep and rocky, giving you a great workout. But, it is less than a mile to reach the lake where the views begin. I highly recommend continuing up the trail past the lake to reach the lookout point above the glacier — a great place for a family photo!

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

While the name indicates Saint Mary’s Glacier is a glacier, it is actually a semipermanent snowfield. They may sound the same but they are actually very different in terms of their effect on the landscape. A glacier is defined as “a slowly moving mass or river of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains,” which is how much of Colorado’s geography was formed. A semipermanent snow field does not entail any movement, therefore not altering the landscape of the area. Either way, there is snow in this area for most of the year.

Emerald Lake

Located in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), this hike is a must-do no matter the time of year. It is a beautiful trek featuring four lakes: Bear Lake, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. Being part of a national park, the trails are very well-marked and well-maintained. The lakes are surrounded by views of intense and rugged mountains. To see all four lakes, the trip is 3.2 miles with 700 feet of elevation gain. In the summer there will be expansive meadows of green grass as well as plentiful wildflowers. In the winter, you will likely need snowshoes or microspikes, but the lake and the mountains covered in snow and ice will leave you in awe. 

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

No dogs are allowed on this hike or any trail in RMNP, and dogs are only allowed in very limited areas of the park, including paved roads and established campgrounds and picnic areas. You do need a reservation, year-round, to enter RMNP. Information about reservations can be found at NPS.gov

Lost Lake

This hike is only about one hour from Denver and even closer to Boulder. It is 4 miles with 830 feet of elevation gain. It starts fairly easy for about half a mile until you cross a beautiful, fast-moving creek, before the climbing begins. It is very common to see moose on this trail, so keep your eyes peeled into the trees. Lost Lake has absolutely stunning views and is the perfect place for a lunchtime picnic. If you are feeling more adventurous, you can also backpack in and camp in one of the designated campsites around the lake, no reservations needed.

(Photo: Joanna Lee)

No reservations are needed to park at the trailhead. However, the parking is very limited and fills up quickly on summer weekends. An alternative to avoid a tough parking situation is to take the free shuttle to the trailhead from Nederland High School. The shuttle takes about 10 minutes and runs every 15 minutes Friday through Sunday and on holidays from May to October. Dogs are allowed on the shuttle. There are multiple trailheads served by this shuttle; you will exit at Hessie Trailhead for Lost Lake. More information about the shuttle can be found here

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