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One of Colorado's favorite high-altitude recreational destinations is Turquoise Lake. Located five miles west of vacation playground Leadville, 780-acre Turquoise Lake offers plenty of opportunity for avid outdoors fans to enjoy woods, water and wide mountain vistas. As part of the Frying Pan-Arkansas Project developed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation, visitors have plenty of access to the water and surrounding Mount Massive Wilderness Area's 30,540 acres with numerous campgrounds where they can temporarily stake their claim.
At nearly 10,000 feet elevation, Turquoise Lake appears to have originally been a natural lake formed along Lake Fork Creek. With a great deal of mining activity in the area, Turquoise Lake was likely first dammed late in the 19th century and named for the rare turquoise deposits found nearby. The effort to provide plentiful water for the growing population of the Front Range gave birth to massive water projects to move water from the west side of the Rocky Mountains to the east. The Frying Pan-Arkansas Project is one of the largest and most complicated of the water reclamation projects, second only to the Colorado-Big Thompson Project. The reservoir stores water that is funneled to Twin Lakes a few miles south. Completion of the current Sugar Loaf Dam in 1968, along with the addition of a berm along the east end of the new reservoir, raised water levels and dislodged some long-established cottage resorts. The Bureau of Reclamation then established recreational opportunities for eager visitors. In cooperation with the US Forest Service as part of the San Isabel National Forest, eight campgrounds were developed within Turquoise Lake Recreation Area around the east end of the lake.
The campgrounds hold a total of 300 campsites and enough amenities to make a stay enjoyable if not modern. Potable water is available and picnic tables, vault toilets and campground hosts are provided. Nearly all campsites are wooded, and many have access to Turquoise Lake. Due to the high altitude and chilly summer nights, swimming is hardly an option, although a few hardy souls do engage in water skiing while wearing insulating wetsuits. Instead, sunny and sometimes hot summer days are enjoyed in hiking the many trails in the area and viewing the wildlife. The woods hold mule deer, elk, porcupine and the occasional bear along with a variety of smaller mammals.
Trail guides are available near the trail heads at Molly Creek Campground with a favorite short walk being the 1.2-mile Turquoise Lake Nature Trail. The Nature Trail intersects the longer 6.4-mile Turquoise Lake Trail that travels along the shoreline from the dam to the May Queen Campground. More strenuous, the Lake Fork Creek Trail climbs to the northwest to Timberline Lake a bit over 2 miles. Trails leading into higher elevations explore above the timberline, leading to alpine plant patches and permanent snowfields. Marmot and pica are sometimes seen on these high elevation hikes. Mountain biking is also a popular activity near Turquoise Lake with several challenging designated mountain bike trails. A half-marathon is held here annually, and other races skirt parts of Turquoise Lake throughout the summer
Fishing is one of the biggest sports at Turquoise Lake with a large population of lake trout, although most are not of massive size. The mackinaw or lake trout are joined by brook trout and rainbow trout, providing plenty of targets for the eager angler. A fishing site at the dam allows for easy shore fishing, and the Matchless Boat Ramp on the east side of the lake accommodates larger boats. All boats must be inspected to prevent invasive species contamination before launch. Although all facilities are closed in winter, the lake itself is a popular spot for ice fishing. Water levels vary greatly during the year, with snowmelt-caused high water receding as much as 65 feet by the end of summer.
There aren't any lakefront homes along the shoreline. Non-campers may want to make visiting Turquoise Lake a day trip from nearby Leadville where there are other lodging options. A popular mountain vacation spot, Leadville is home to many guest ranches, resort cabins, bed & breakfasts and quaint inns. The highest-elevation incorporated city in Colorado, Leadville has a long and colorful history as a mining boom town. Hear about Leadville's colorful past and its equally colorful former residents. A full 70 blocks of downtown Leadville enclose a historic district holding such famed landmarks as the Tabor Opera House. Another favorite stop in Leadville is the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. Plenty of local artisans have wares available for purchase in the area, and restaurants and cafes are plentiful. A popular activity is a ride on the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad, particularly scenic for a fall tour of the mountains glowing with autumn colors. Near the city, a major downhill ski area offers winter sports at their best. Or, take a dogsled tour, go horseback trekking or whitewater rafting. There is always something happening in Leadville, with specialty festivals and celebrations going on year round.
Every visitor to the Turquoise Lake area should take a mine tour. There are several mines open to the public, and most come with a knowledgeable tour guide who will fill in all of the history of the mines and their influence on the American economy. Learning about the mines will help explain some of the current problems local residents face regarding mine clean-up and water protection. The area around Turquoise Lake lies within the Sugarloaf Mining District. Only a short distance from the Continental Divide, the rugged peaks hold within them many valuable minerals that were mined here in the 1800s. Gold deposits didn't last long, but silver created a boom that created Leadville and riddled the area with tunnels. Along with natural faults, the tunnels created other cracks in the bedrock which allow water to percolate into the abandoned mine tunnels. This water eventually escapes the mines and is often heavily polluted when it joins the watershed. The evidence of what can happen when this trapped water is suddenly released was shown recently in the huge spill that polluted the Animas River in 2015, flowing through four states.
Local watershed groups have worked diligently to attempt clean-ups of mine tailings in the path of watercourses and to encourage wetland growth to help filter water escaping from the mines. Unfortunately, some groups claim acting to protect the environment has put them personally liable for damages under a flawed Clean Water Act. Many of the groups have ceased operations because of legal fears. A concern connected more directly to Turquoise Lake was recently found when a study tracing water movement from the lake found the tracer chemicals used in the study to be present in the wetlands outside of leaking mines in the area. The concern is that higher water levels may be allowing the lake's water to enter the mine tunnels through natural and artificial fractures. The question of whether to limit the amount of water allowed to collect in the reservoir is under study, with possible ramifications to the amount of water available to the Front Range in the future.
In the present, Turquoise Lake is an ideal high-altitude recreation site, one where the mackinaw trout are eager to be caught and the pristine air invigorates every adventure out-of-doors.
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