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Echo Lake is one of the Denver metro area's most popular Mountain Parks. Located only an hour west of Denver, Echo Lake Park is the only sub-alpine park in the Mountain Park system. Its focal point is 24-acre Echo Lake, only a quarter of a mile up the path from the parking lot. Shallow Echo Lake is stocked yearly with rainbow trout and is a favorite spot for fly fishermen enjoying a short, warm-weather hike. Because the 10,600-foot elevation is cooler than lower elevations, it can be a welcome relief from the heat on a hot summer day-and downright chilly when the sun isn't shining!
Most visitors to Echo Lake arrive via the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, considered the highest paved road in North America. The road is only open during the warmer months along its full length which ends at 14,130 feet near Summit Lake Park. A quarter-mile trail from the end of the road reaches the summit of Mt. Evans and offers fantastic views over thousands of acres of peaks and wilderness within Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. Many visitors opt to stop at Echo Lake Park and take the short walk to lovely Echo Lake. Surrounded by subalpine, bristlecone and limber pine, the little lake is filled by snow melt and natural precipitation and has no permanent outlet. A walking path around the lake is a relatively easy three-quarter-mile hike and offers beautiful views of Mt. Evans reflected in the lake's surface. The wetland at the east end of the lake provides shelter for small wildlife and birds.
A small primitive campground at Echo Lake Park is operated by the Forest Service. Because the campground will only accommodate up to eleven RVs and seven tents, reservations are recommended. The campground is officially open from June through August. Vault toilets and hand-pumped drinking water offer the few amenities, along with picnic tables, grills, campfire rings and firewood. The campground is past Echo Lake near the 1920's-built Echo Lake Lodge, a seasonal 'Visitor's Center' facility that offers a restaurant and souvenirs. The parking lot at the west end of Echo Lake features a stone picnic shelter built around 1930.
Exploration within the 616-acre Echo Lake Park is available, with the parking lot the beginning point for several more extensive hiking trails in the area. The Chicago Lakes Trail starts here, with the trail leading to the summit of Mt. Evans connecting to it. Other trails beginning at Echo Lake include the Lincoln Lakes Trail and the trail leading to Summit Lake Park. Self-issued permits are required of those planning an extended hike into Mt. Evans Wilderness Area. Many of these trails begin easily, leading to more difficult sections as the elevation increases. Cycling fans often pedal the distance between Echo Lake Park and Summit Lake Park early in the season-after the Mount Evans Scenic Byway has been plowed free of snow and before it is opened to cars. This is a ride for the physically fit, because the 3500-foot gain in elevation is difficult in this high altitude.
Mount Evans Scenic Byway reaches the tree line about three miles south of Echo Lake Park, with the rest of the journey surrounded by alpine tundra. The boundary between the two zones holds the Walter Pesman Alpine Garden containing most of the area's ancient bristlecone pines. A moderately difficult alpine trail offers the best views of these magnificent ancient survivors and a complete picture of the harsh environment they thrive in. Nearer Summit Lake Park, fields of tiny alpine flowers bloom in the short summer between July and mid-August. Numerous walking paths allow visitors to see the rare blooms up close, as long as they don't step off the marked trails which can damage the fragile environment. The summit of Mt. Evans holds the University of Denver's Meyer-Womble Observatory, until late 2000 the earth's highest. The upper reaches of the Byway are one of the best places to observe native mountain goats. No visitor to Echo Lake Park can miss the last 14 miles of the scenic byway and call their visit complete.
Although Echo Lake Park belongs to the Denver Mountain Parks system, many visitors will enjoy a side trip to the old mining town of Idaho Springs, where the Mount Evans Scenic Byway begins. Although there is little in the way of gold mining continuing today, remnants of the gold miners' heyday remain in the buildings, attractions and history of the area. Tourists can still pan for gold at both the Phoenix Gold Mine and the Argo Gold Mine and Mill. Now a commercial resort, historic Indian Hot Springs is still open to visitors, and includes natural hot mineral baths and spa treatments. A variety of lodgings are available in and around Idaho Springs, with a number of resort-style options to pamper weary trekkers when they return from a day or two of hiking the trails at Echo Lake.
Opportunities for year-round outdoor recreation abound in the Idaho Springs area: whitewater rafting, horseback riding, cross-country and downhill skiing, mountaineering and ATV riding. Idaho Springs is a location geared toward outdoor adventure, filled with scenic vistas and an invigorating mountain atmosphere. If staying at a local campground or guest ranch doesn't suit you long-term, a few properties are usually available for sale on the outskirts of the national forests and the extensive Mountain Park system. So come and visit beautiful Echo Lake, drive the scenic byways, and enjoy the many adventures awaiting at Idaho Springs.
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