Pitkin Lake
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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    Distance: 9.4 miles (round trip)

    Walking time: 6 3/4 hours
    : 2,980 ft. gain/loss
       Pitkin Creek Trailhead (start):8440 ft.
       Pitkin Lake: 11,420 ft.

    Trail: The trail is will maintained and easy to follow, but it is very steep in places-especially for the first 0.5 mile.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The upper part of the trail is covered with snow most years from early July through mid November.

    Vicinity: Near Vail

    PitkinLakePitkin Lake


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    Located on the southern flank of the Gore Mountains, this trail is typical of hiking trails in the area. The route takes you up into a steep, heavily glaciated valley, through a series of hanging valleys with stunning scenery, and finally ends at a small lake nestled against the steep ridge in the center of the range. Although not all of the valleys have lakes in them, this same basic pattern is repeated again and again by trails in the Gore Range. With a few exceptions, the trails all dead-end high in the long glaciated valleys because there is no practical way out.

    The Gore Range is one of the most rugged mountain ranges in Colorado. Surprisingly it does not contain any fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, but it does offer some prominent thirteeners. Pitkin Lake Basin, at the end of the trail, is nicely framed by two thirteen-thousand-foot peaks: West Partner (13,041 ft.) on the left and East Partner (13,057 ft.) on the right. East Partner is frequently climbed by walking up its south ridge, which begins on the east side of the lake.

    The path starts by following the east side of Pitkin Creek, then after just 100 feet it crosses a small footbridge and continues up the west side of the streambed. There are several condominiums nearby, and for the first hundred feet you will almost feel as though you are walking through someoneís backyard. Also I-70 is only a stoneís throw from the trailhead and the road noise is overwhelming. But be patient; these signs of civilization will be gone soon enough.

    For the first 0.5 mile the trail is very steep, but in about 15 minutes the trail reaches a plateau and levels out in a verdant meadow of grass and wildflowers. I-70 also disappears from sight and sound at this point, and you can begin enjoying the sounds of nature again. By the time the trail reaches the plateau it has already crossed into the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area, so take heart in the knowledge that this part of the forest will never be developed.

    For the first 45 minutes of the hike the trail stays well above the west side of Pitkin Creek, then 1.5 miles from the trailhead the trail comes back to the stream, only to veer away again. Soon you will see a waterfall off to your right in the streambed of Pitkin Creek. The trail offers a fine view of the fall, although it never approaches closer than about 250 yards. When you see the fall you are a little more than half way to the lake.

    Beyond the waterfall the grade increases again as the trail resumes its climb up the valley. It gains another 400 feet of elevation before reaching the next a bench, where you must cross a boulder field at the bottom of an old avalanche chute. Avalanches must be common in this canyon in the winter; notice the long vertical open areas on the opposite side of the valley where previous slides have knocked down the trees.

    At 3.3 miles from the trailhead the path turns right and passes within 200 feet of the bottom of the second waterfall. This is also a flat area with some good campsites nearby, but for me the noise of the fall is a bit too intense to consider stopping. The trail crosses Pitkin Creek just below the waterfall, then stays on the east side of the drainage for the remainder of the climb.

    The last 1.3 miles of the hike are frustrating because of the false summits. From the second waterfall you will climb a succession of three more benches, and each time you will probably swear that the lake must be just above you. But the third time you will be correct.

    Pitkin Lake is a small lake, about 600 feet in diameter and almost perfectly round. It is surrounded on three sides by ridges, with thirteen-thousand-foot peaks on both the right and left. The lake is well above timberline so donít look for trees, but if you are there in August you wonít be disappointed by the alpine wildflowers. The area is very pristine. Also, look for the native trout that spawn in the shallow water on the south side of the lake at the outlet in late summer.

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

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Pitkin Lake area
    we recommend:
    Vail. Frisco, Dillon (Trails Illustrated, map #108)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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