Few natural spectacles in this world rival a gleaming high-alpine lake surrounded by sharp mountain peaks under a bluebird sky. Somehow, everything just seems right when you behold that scene—and in Summit County, there is no shortage of places where you can. It would take months and an ample supply of hiking boots to visit all of this county’s lakes: large and small, green and blue, tucked away and smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. While their exact number depends on your definition of “lake” (beaver ponds don’t count), by any measure Summit is home to dozens of high-alpine pools and reservoirs spread across four mountain ranges (the Gore, Tenmile, Williams Fork, and Front). These oases anchor the watershed, shelter fish and other wildlife, and every now and then warm up just enough that you can take the plunge yourself—without going into shock.
Best for Fishing: Upper Mohawk Lake
No one tracks how many people visit each lake around Summit County, but if they did, you can bet one of the most popular (if not the most popular) would be Lower Mohawk Lake. Accessed via the Spruce Creek Trail in Blue River, a few miles south of Breckenridge, Lower Mohawk is the sparkling shallow pool at the top of Continental Falls, just beneath 13,164-foot Mt. Helen. However, as local fly fishermen know, Lower Mohawk is just an appetizer for the valley’s main course: Mohawk Lake itself, commonly referred to as Upper Mohawk.
Unlike Lower Mohawk, which averages two to three feet in depth, Upper Mohawk gives fish room to grow and hide. You’ll find mostly cutthroat trout in its deep blue waters, their generally modest size befitting their home at 12,100 feet. But while 10 inches is a decent catch, I’ve heard of cutties growing to 14 inches in this lake. I’ve also been chased off the mountain by a vicious thunderstorm that came out of nowhere from the west, washing over the toothy summit of 13,950-foot Pacific Peak and turning a pristine fishing day into a full-blown gale. So heed the weather forecast, and head up in the morning if possible. And be sure to buy a fishing license and carry it with you.
Also try Chihuahua Lake, which can be accessed from Peru Creek Road between Keystone and Montezuma, isn’t easy to reach but offers a stunning turquoise fishing hole under a towering cirque on the Continental Divide. Be prepared for a challenging but gorgeous hike up the Chihuahua basin on the western flank of Grays and Torreys, two fourteeners on Summit’s eastern edge. /// As for Mohawk lakes, the route to Lower Crystal Lake begins at the Spruce Creek trailhead, but instead of heading up the trail bear right on Crystal Creek Road, and follow it to a glistening pool under Father Dyer and Crystal peaks. You can camp at a crumbling old cabin or make it a day trip. /// The Gore Range Trail spans 50 miles in its entirety, but you have to hike just five of those miles to reach Lost Lake from Copper Mountain. Cast from the north bank of the quaint, green-hued hole, and observe the rugged splendor of the southern Tenmile Range in the distance.
Best for Day Hikes: Rainbow Lakes
If your objective is not necessarily to get after it but to find a quintessential mountain lake where everyone—from your four-year-old to your mother-in-law to your husky Husky—will appreciate the beauty without annihilating their lungs or legs, Rainbow is your place. Because it is located just 1.5 miles from Frisco Main Street, and because dogs are welcome, and because the relatively flat trail (only 254 feet of elevation gain) meanders through a pleasant-surprise aspen grove, you tend to encounter people by the dozen on a weekend day at Rainbow. No matter.
There’s usually plenty of space around the lake’s edge to have a picnic to yourself, and if your dog enjoys chasing sticks in water, she won’t mind if you picnic all afternoon. You don’t have to start at dawn for a Rainbow excursion, either; let the summer air warm up and the flowers emerge before you head out. Keep your eyes peeled for edible berries along the trail, particularly mini strawberries and raspberries. And bring bug spray.
The reason the Gore Range is usually empty, despite its proximity to Denver and spectacular skyline, is because it takes much of a day to get anywhere cool. Boulder Lake, one of the most easily accessed destinations in the range, is an exception. Park at the Rock Creek trailhead seven miles north of Silverthorne, and set out for the Gore Range Trail junction. There, head north to the grass-rimmed lake, 2.85 miles one way in total. Fuel up, snap a few photos with the basin headwall in the background, and return the way you came.
There may not be a signature lake in McCullough Gulch, which collects snowmelt from the giant north face of 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, but there are nine significant pools in the drainage, including a handful just under Fletcher Peak near a field of wildflowers. Bring some meat and cheese to the trailhead at south end of Blue River, and make a day out of it—like a pub crawl, but a lake crawl. /// And if you’re feeling really hardy, scramble up the headwall on the northwest corner of McCullough Gulch toward Pacific Peak. Just below a subridge, you will find Pacific Tarn, reputed to be the highest lake in North America at 13,400 feet. It’s not good for much more than novelty, and it doesn’t melt out until July some years, but for the frisky among us it offers a polar-bear plunge unlike anywhere else in the world.
Best for Boating: Dillon Resevoir
You still can’t swim in Dillon Reservoir (at least not legally), but if there is an alpine body of water in America with more watercraft opportunities than the tentacled, 3,300-acre “Lake Dillon,” I’d like to live next to it. The reservoir was completed in 1963 to provide Denver with water—the reason we’re not allowed to swim in it, 55-degree water temps being another deterrent. In building the Dillon Dam above Silverthorne, state officials flooded the old town of Dillon, which now sits 250 feet below the surface. Another way of looking at it: When you are cruising along on a fine summer day in your sailboat, you are skimming above history.
Sailing, kayaking, canoeing, rowing, stand-up paddleboarding, or just trolling off the back of a pontoon party boat—everything is an option on Dillon, which houses the highest yacht club in the world (9,017 feet) and a summerful of regattas, most notably the world-famous Dillon Open in early August. You can rent powerboats and sailboats from the Dillon (townofdillon.com) and Frisco Bay (townoffrisco.com) marinas; prices generally range from $65 for two hours in a small fishing boat up to $230 for a 25-foot pontoon (barbecue grill included). A two-hour SUP rental in Frisco costs $35, and there may be no better way to see the lake and explore various islands than that.
It’s amazing what a 1,500-foot drop in altitude will do for water temperatures and sandy toes. This is the often-overlooked beauty of Green Mountain Reservoir, 26 miles north on Highway 9 from Silverthorne. The water temperature cracks 60 degrees, and by the time August rolls around it can be downright comfortable to swim and lounge by the lake in just your trunks or a bikini. Jet-skiing and waterskiing are popular pastimes at Green Mountain, which also offers lakefront camping at Cow Creek North and South campgrounds on the east side of the reservoir ($13 per night, first-come, first-served). On the west side, the Heeney Marina rents fishing boats and pontoons during daylight hours (heeneymarina.com), and be sure to bring your fishing rod: the reservoir is famous for its kokanee salmon and beefy lake trout—up to 24 pounds.
Best for Camping: Gore Range
To have just one of the lakes that are strewn about the Gore Range like paint splatter on a canvas would make a range indisputably world-class. The Gore’s tremendous bounty of them compels those who know its ins and outs to spend as much time as possible there each summer and fall. Think of the Gore’s lakes as a mountain version of Hawaii’s surf spots: another lurks around each roll in the tundra, under each alpine cirque, up and down each drainage. And thanks to lightweight backcountry camping gear that might as well have been built for the Gore, you can make any lake you desire your home for a night—or a week.
Upper Willow Lake, a sizable hike from either the Willowbrook or Rock Creek trailheads, delivers a princely combination of friendly camping terrain near the lake, a craggy western background to enhance sunsets, and surprisingly good fishing. Upper Boulder Lake is another hard-to-reach gem with quality campsites, and Upper Slate Lake is arguably the crown jewel of the Eagles Nest Wilderness when it comes to remote lakeside camping. You can’t get there without a 10-mile hike across basins and through vast aspen groves, so consider visiting in September if you like foliage.
A few tips for camping in the Gore: 1) Never leave home without extra water-purification tablets. Days run long and hard in this range, especially when trudging to and from the high-alpine lakes. I always drink more water than I expect. 2) Bring bug spray and legitimate rain gear. My wife and I once spent three straight days inside our tent at Upper Slate Lake during a merciless storm, with mosquitoes swarming by the hundreds inside the vestibule. 3) Once you’ve visited some of the well-known lakes, pick one on the map that doesn’t have a name and go. There’s no shortage of options, and it’ll always be worth it.
If you prefer a more civilized lakeside camping experience, check out the six Forest Service campgrounds around Dillon Reservoir. They’re affordable ($17 to $19 per night), each has sprawling views of the lake and surrounding peaks, and you can still zip into town for a burger and a beer if you don’t feel like cooking over a fire. (Make reservations by calling 877-444-6777 or visiting recreation.gov.) Our favorites among the six USFS campgrounds are Windy Point, Prospector, and Pine Cove. /// Although they aren’t as intense or elevated as some of their brethren in the northern Gore, the duo known as Wheeler Lakes on the southern tip of the range offers an open meadow to pitch your tent and a unique, majestic perspective on the western Tenmile Range, 2.9 miles from Copper Mountain on the Gore Range Trail.