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One of the more popular destinations within Denver's Mountain Parks system is the trail leading to the Chicago Lakes. This Front Range trail centers around 14,240-foot Mount Evans, with a series of scenic alpine lakes set within a pristine mountain landscape. Located approximately 38 miles west of the metropolitan area, the Chicago Lakes Trail and two Mountain Parks at either end of the trail are within the Arapaho National Forest. The parks are under the shared jurisdiction of the Denver Parks Department and the US Forest Service; the trail and lakes are controlled by the US Forest Service.
One reason for the popularity of the area is that Mount Evans can be accessed by car for most of the way to the summit. The Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest road in North America, reaching an elevation of 14,130 feet. During summer the entire Byway is open to vehicle traffic and offers excellent scenic mountain views. The route is popular for bicyclists and hikers, although the last five miles is relatively steep. The two parks, Echo Lake Park and Summit Lake Park, are accessible by car and local favorites for picnicking and camping in the summer months. These amenities add to the pleasure of hiking to Chicago Lakes.
The Chicago Lakes themselves are accessed only on foot. Both are small, with the Upper Lake only a short distance uphill from Lower Chicago Lake. The lakes and several smaller ponds form the headwaters of Chicago Creek. Lower Chicago Lake is 3.5 miles from the trailhead at Echo Lake; the entire round-trip is 9.8 miles. The trailhead starts at 10,620 feet and climbs to 11,740 feet at Upper Chicago Lake. The first mile is considered easy, with much of the trail either relatively flat or heading downhill to Idaho Springs Reservoir. Beyond that point, the climb becomes more strenuous, with some sections steep and narrow.
A short spur trail leads to Lower Chicago Lake; the trail continues on to Upper Chicago Lake which overlooks it. Adventuresome hikers may continue past the lakes to the summit of Mount Evans or south to Summit Lake and Summit Lake Park. Idaho Springs Reservoir is a water source for the City of Idaho Springs and is not currently listed as open for fishing. Once past Idaho Springs Reservoir, explorers are in the Mount Evans Wilderness. Fly fishermen make the trek up the Chicago Lakes Trail to fish for cutthroat trout (valid Colorado fishing license required).
Dispersed camping is allowed near the Chicago Lakes Trail, and all entering the Mount Evans Wilderness need a self-issued permit available at the trailhead. Dogs are allowed on the trail if leashed. The portion of the trail leading to Idaho Springs Reservoir is a local favorite for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. A Forest Service campground near Echo Lake Mountain Park is available for primitive camping, with some sites suitable for RVs. No electricity is available, but there are vault toilets provided. Because the campground is small, reservations are recommended. A restaurant and souvenir shop are located at the park, along with picnic areas and scenic walking paths. It is here that the both Chicago Lakes Trail and Lincoln Lakes Trail begin.
Located at 10,600 feet, Echo Lake is a small, shallow natural lake formed when glacial fill dammed drainage in the area. It has a reputation as being excellent for rainbow trout fishing. The entire area offers many scenic views of the surrounding mountain peaks. In spring (which is often late in arriving at this altitude), wildflowers are abundant, particularly in the area burned over by fire several years ago.
Farther south along Mount Evans Road, Summit Lake hosts the Summit Lake Mountain Park. Although there isn't any camping here, the park is popular for picnics and nature viewing. The highest park in the Mountain Parks system, Summit Lake Park is at 12,840 feet and supports an alpine/tundra ecological system. The Summit Lake area is considered one of the best for viewing mountain goats. Spring doesn't arrive here until early July, and autumn ends the flowering season for most tundra wildflowers in mid-August. An underlying permafrost allows these rare plants to grow here, many of which are not otherwise seen outside of the Arctic Circle.These rare plants make the Chicago Lakes area of importance in studying alpine habitats in the lower 48 states. Numerous walking paths take visitors among the rare plants, and strict attention paid to staying on marked paths helps to avoid damage to them.
A wildlife viewing station is located at Summit Lake Park, staffed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife volunteers most weekends. Summit Lake Park was named a National Natural Landmark in 1965. As with the other high altitude lakes in the Chicago Lakes area, cutthroat and rainbow trout live in the cold waters of Summit Lake, which is the headwaters of Bear Creek. The season is short because the lake is only ice-free for the short summer season. The road remains open to Summit Lake Park until winter snows make it impassible. More athletic hikers often leave a vehicle at Echo Lake Park and another at Summit Lake Park, then hike the entire Chicago Lakes Trail. A small parking fee is charged, with fees paying for some of the Forest Service amenities.
No lodgings are located in this area of the Arapaho National Forest, but there are a number of choices outside the boundaries near Idaho Springs and along the main roads. This is a popular area in which to rent a housekeeping cabin for a week or two while enjoying some of the hikes and scenery in this breathtaking area. The largest town in Clear Creek County, Idaho Springs has a rich history of mining; it was the first place gold was discovered in Colorado, with a large amount of gold discovered along Chicago Creek. Several working mine tours are available locally, along with the opportunity to 'pan' for gold. Idaho Springs is named for the hot mineral springs in the area. A resort in town caters specifically to those wishing to enjoy the mineral springs, with caves and other geothermal springs available nearby. Idaho Springs has many preserved buildings and takes its pioneer mining history seriously with two museums and a number of mining-related attractions. Plenty of restaurants and unique shops keep visitors coming back. Hotels, bed & breakfasts and campgrounds assure all visitors of the ideal lodgings to suit their plans.
Clear Creek County offers all sorts of adventurous activities, from downhill skiing to whitewater rafting to horseback riding. Surrounding it all is the spectacular scenery of the Rocky Mountains which offers a different view from every vantage point. Several of the local creeks are famous for trout fishing, and nature viewing is always popular. Some of the more popular and less strenuous trails are often quite busy on warm summer weekends, so mid-week treks are preferable. Visitors to Chicago Lakes should be prepared for sudden storms; snow is possible any month of the year. The main requirements for visiting are good trail maps and decent hiking footwear. Fly fishing equipment and a fishing license are extras for the family anglers, along with binoculars and the all-important camera to capture your vacation for posterity. See you on the trail!
*No statistics are available for the lakes in the Chicago Lakes group.
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