Chicago Lakes
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
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    Distance: 9.2 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  6 1/2 hours

    : 1,750 ft. gain/loss
       Chicago Lakes Trailhead (start): 10,650 ft.
       lowest point: 10,320 ft.
       Lower Chicago Lake: 11,420 ft.
       Upper Chicago Lake: 11,740 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and easy to follow. Includes a mile of road walking and 0.1 mile of scrambling over boulders.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of the trail are usually covered with snow from November through mid-July.

    Vicinity: Near Idaho Springs

    Chicago LakesChicago Lakes


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    The downside of the Chicago Lakes hike is that in includes a mile of monotonous road walking followed by another mile through the scorched remains of an old forest fire. Fortunately, the fire stopped short of the lakes themselves, and it is the last mile of the trail that really makes the hike worthwhile. The Chicago Lakes are extraordinarily scenic. The first lake is tucked away in the back of a steep glacial valley with thousand-foot granite cliffs plunging down to its eastern shore. The second lake rests 400 yards further south above a 300-foot wall of broken cliffs and steep grassy slopes.

    In my opinion this hike is not worthwhile unless you plan to go all the way to the upper lake. The lower lake is very attractive, but its scenic rewards are just not sufficient to justify two hours of walking on a road and through a burned area. The rugged beauty of the upper lake and the awesome view looking down onto the lower lake from above are the real prizes of the hike. The lakes are especially pretty in late morning, before the wind picks up but after the sun is high enough to clear the surrounding cliffs.

    From the parking lot a well groomed trail heads west along the southern shore of Echo Lake. When the path reaches the west side of the lake it seems to split into several smaller divergent trails, but the correct one is clearly marked by a wooden sign. The trail climbs up over a low ridge and then turns south along the eastern side of the Chicago Creek Valley. At first the path descends slowly toward the bottom of the valley, then it enters a series of switchbacks that take it down more quickly. Finally, 0.8 mile after leaving Echo Lake the trail levels out on valley floor, and shortly afterward it runs into the Chicago Creek Road.

    The Chicago Creek Road was built by the Forest Service and the city of Idaho Springs in order to provide access to Chicago Creek Reservoir. This reservoir has long been a major source of water for Idaho Springs, and when the Mount Evans Wilderness Area was created in 1980 its boundaries were deliberately drawn to exclude the reservoir. The route follows Chicago Creek Road up the canyon for the next 1.0 mile, past the Chicago Creek Reservoir and on to the wilderness boundary. Ideally this hike would begin at the wilderness boundary where the Chicago Creek Road ends, but unfortunately the road is closed to private vehicles so there is really no way to avoid the road walk.

    You will probably feel a sense of relief when you leave the road and begin walking into the Mount Evans Wilderness Area, but prepare yourself for further disappointment. The trail enters the burned area almost immediately after crossing the wilderness boundary, and for the next 1.3 miles it meanders through the skeletal remains of a wasted forest.

    Finally, at an elevation of about 11,300 feet, the trail climbs out of the burned area, and 15 minutes later you will see the first lake in a large bowl below the left side of the path. The land around the lake is very marshy, and for that reason the trail stays 150 feet above the water as it passes its west side. There is a spur trail that cuts down through the willows to the lake shore below, but the mud and the underbrush deter many people from using it.

    The second lake is 320 higher than the first one, and once the trail reaches the southern side of the lower lake it begins climbing up the steep moraine that separates them. For the most part the trail is easy to follow, but at one point it seems to disappear into a pile of house-size boulders. Just continue straight up through the rocky maze and after a short while the trail will reappear.

    Finally the path reaches the top of the moraine and dips back down over the grassy tundra to the shore of the upper lake. This lake is almost entirely surrounded by thousand-foot granite cliffs, and the scene looking south across the lake into the back of the basin is very dramatic. Also, before you leave the area be sure to walk back to the edge of the cliffs east of the trail for a look down at Chicago Creek and the lower lake. It is a panorama you will not soon forget.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Chicago Lakes area
    we recommend:
    Idaho Springs, Georgetown  (Trails Illustrated, map #104)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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