- 1. Potato Lake (Spud Lake)
- 1.1. Nearby Trails
- 1.2. Nearby Camping
- 1.3. Activities
- 2. Lake Hope
- 2.1. Nearby Trails
- 2.2. Nearby Camping
- 2.3. Activities
- 3. Navajo Lake
- 3.1. Nearby Trails
- 3.2. Nearby Camping
- 3.3. Activities
- 4. Highland Mary Lakes
- 4.1. Nearby Trails
- 4.2. Nearby Camping
- 4.3. Activities
- 5. Emerald Lake (Pine River)
- 5.1. Nearby Trails
- 5.2. Nearby Camping
- 5.3. Activities
- 6. Lime Mesa: Dollar, Ruby and Emerald Lakes
- 6.1. Nearby Trails
- 6.2. Nearby Camping
- 6.3. Activities
- 7. Columbine Lake
- 7.1. Nearby Trails
- 7.2. Nearby Camping
- 7.3. Activities
- 8. Get Lost in the Beauty of an Alpine Lake
7 Must-See Alpine Lakes Near Durango
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Colorado is famous for its striking mountainous landscapes that fill most with a sense of wonder. Avid adventurers travel to this state for unprecedented views and, of course, thrilling pursuits such as skiing and snowboarding. These grand peaks are also well known for their immaculately pristine alpine lakes. Snow and glacial melt create these picturesque bodies of water, and they only exist at high altitudes or at the base of a tall mountain. Hike nearly any mountain path in Colorado and you’ll discover a stunning alpine lake with its brilliant turquoise hues. The peaks around the city of Durango contain some of the most stunning alpine lakes in the area. Enter into a state of peace, breathe some fresh mountain air and be amazed by these seven must-see alpine lakes near Durango.
1. Potato Lake (Spud Lake)
Less than 30 miles from Durango is the shimmering blue Potato Lake. This alpine lake is located off of Lime Creek Road and requires a short hike that ends at the base of Potato Hill; an ideal trip for the whole family! Here you’ll have incredible views of Engineer, Needle and Spud mountains which offer a dramatic backdrop. This forested sanctuary is an amazing place to relax, fish, enjoy the views and explore nearby mountain trails. To reach the lake, take Spud Lake Trail which is a 3.1-mile loop, or just 1-mile to the lake from the trailhead, with an elevation gain of 415 ft.
There are plenty of trails near Spud Lake that provide you with amazing mountain views. Here are three hikes that are a short drive from Potato Hill:
- West Lime Creek Trail. A 5.2-mile out and back trail that leads you down a babbling creek and past a few waterfalls.
- Andrews Lake Trail. An easy 0.8-mile loop that takes you around a gorgeous lake.
- Cascade Creek Trail. A 11.7-mile out and back trail that offers some spectacular waterfalls.
Dispersed, backcountry camping is available near Spud Lake. There are also many free primitive campsites along Lime Creek Road, like the Lime Creek campground.
Hiking, fishing and birdwatching are the top activities that can be enjoyed around Spud Lake. This area is secluded in nature, which makes for a perfect time to observe the wildlife. You’ll discover that hawks, grosbeaks, kinglets and warblers call this place home. Anglers will find opportunities to catch native cutthroat and brook trout.
2. Lake Hope
Located in the Uncompahgre National Forest, high in the mountains, is the heavenly Lake Hope. The icy blue waters are surrounded by towering red cliffs and vibrant green spruce-fir forests and meadows. As it is surrounded by a deserted mining town, it’s a perfect destination for history buffs, photographers or anybody looking for an ice bath! Because of the elevation change, this beautiful hike will literally take your breath away.
Lake Hope Trail is a steep 6-mile, out and back hike with an elevation gain of 1,515 feet. At the top you’ll reach a clear, almost dream-like lake and have a clear panoramic view of the Wilson Range and the towering peaks in the Lizard Head Wilderness. There’s no doubt you’ll find some peace of mind at this little haven in the mountains.
You’ll encounter many trails in the surrounding area that will lead to other alpine lakes that are equally as magical as Lake Hope.
Ice Lakes Basin Trail. A popular spot for locals and tourists alike. This is a 8.3-mile loop that will challenge your hiking skills as it is a steep, but ever-so-rewarding trail, leading to a series of glowing alpine lakes with waterfalls all around.
Cross Mountain Trail. A short drive south you’ll find this 7.1-mile, out and back hike that provides some outstanding views.
There are plenty of campgrounds to be found off of Highway-145. Cayton Campground is a few miles south of Lake Hope and offers a great area for fishing. They have different sites for tent or RV camping with a cost of $25-$35 per night. Priest Lake Campground is the closest site to the Lake Hope Trailhead and is a free, first-come-first-served site that is abundant with hiking trails.
Many enjoy activities such as hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding on the nearby trails. You can also enjoy the wildlife and the chance to see bears, moose, deer, elk and marmots. If you’re really feeling spontaneous you can take a dip in the glacial-fed waters as well!
3. Navajo Lake
Navajo Lake is tucked deep away in the San Juan National Forest, nestled between three gargantuan peaks. The hike is long and arduous, but if you’re looking for some solitude and the rewarding view of an alpine lake, this may be the one for you. The hike is a 10-mile, out and back trail with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet.
There are two access points to the lake, one from the Navajo Lake Trailhead in the south, and one from the Kilpacker Trail which shares the last 2-miles to the lake. The Navajo Trail is the shorter route and offers amazing scenery with fields of wildflowers and surprising waterfalls. This is a perfect adventure for a day-hike or an overnight backpacking experience where you can camp in the forest near the lake.
- Kilpacker Basin Trail. This trail connects to Navajo Lake Trail and is a 7.1-mile, out and back trek. You can take a short hike along this trail, or go all the way to Navajo Lake from here.
Burro Bridge Campground is a few miles south of Navajo Lake Trailhead and has 14 well-maintained sites. Most are for tent camping, but they also have a few spots for RV camping as well. This is an ideal basecamp for anybody looking to explore the Lizard Head Wilderness. There are also plenty of backcountry sites for backpackers who want to camp close to the lake.
Navajo Lake runs off into the West Dolores River where you can find some awesome fishing opportunities. Largemouth Bass, Northern Pike and Walleye are just a few species to be found here. Other activities include hiking, backpacking, mountain biking and rock climbing.
4. Highland Mary Lakes
Located in the Weminuche Wilderness are the Highland Mary Lakes, a series of seven alpine lakes that are positioned at over 12,000 ft above sea level. This is a 5-mile, out and back hike that offers expansive views of the glistening lakes and rolling alpine tundra. The hike is relatively easy for those with experience but may be difficult for anyone who’s not used to being in high elevations. This is one of the more popular areas during the summer, so if you are looking to be “one” with nature, you might be out of luck.
Whitehead Peak Trail #647 and the Continental Divide Trail are connecting trails from Highland Mary Lakes.
- The Continental Divide Trail. This trail extends from the Canadian border all the way to Mexico. The section near the Highland Mary Lakes leads to another scenic body of water known as Verde Lake.
- Whitehead Trail. This trail provides a link between the two areas and leads through paths of wildflowers and rushing rivers.
Most sites that are near Highland Mary Lakes will be off of Highway 550. Molas Lake Campground offers plenty of amenities, campsites and astonishing views. If you’d like to be closer to the lakes you can camp within the Weminuche Wilderness as long as you are not on the lake shore and are 100 feet away from any water source.
This location is a great place to relax and do some fishing. You’ll find rainbow trout, cutthroat, and brook trout within the lakes. Just remember that this is an alpine lake, so it will be frozen for most of the year. It's best to arrive in the summertime for fishing.
5. Emerald Lake (Pine River)
Emerald Lake is a large, majestic lake hidden within the Weminuche Wilderness. The surrounding area offers peaceful scenery of alpine greenery and crystal clear waters. The trail begins just 15 miles northwest of Durango, at the Pine River Trailhead near Vallecito Reservoir. From here it’s about a 10-mile hike to the lake, making this a 20-mile round trip!
This is an ideal lake to explore if you’re looking for a complete day immersed in nature, undisturbed by the commotion of everyday life. Most people will pack their bags and turn this hike into an overnight backpacking adventure, which is also a great idea, as long as you’re properly prepared for such an excursion.
The Weminuche Wilderness has some spectacular trails that anyone can enjoy, anything from a short 1-mile hike, or the longer 10-mile hike to Emerald Lake.
- Vallecito Creek Trail. This hike is located near to Bayfield, CO and features a soothing creek with a jaw dropping waterfall.
Backcountry camping is welcomed near the lake, but there won’t be any amenities. There’s also the Pine River Campground where the trailhead to the lake begins. They have six campsites that can accommodate tents or small RVs. Here you’ll have great views of the Pine River Valley and access to all the nearby trails leading to pristine lakes.
Fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking and photography are all terrific activities to enjoy in this region. Emerald Lake is also a great location to practice meditation.
6. Lime Mesa: Dollar, Ruby and Emerald Lakes
A long drive up Missionary Ridge and a steep hike on Lime Mesa will transport you to an amazing scene of glistening alpine lakes, astonishing mountain views and heights that make you feel as though you can touch the clouds. The first lake you’ll encounter is Dollar Lake, which is a 4-mile hike from the trailhead through alpine meadows of spruce groves. If you want to keep trekking upwards you’ll eventually reach Overlook Point, and from there, Ruby and Emerald Lakes. All in all, this is a 15-mile out and back trail with 4,271 feet of elevation gain, so take it slow if you’re not used to being in high elevations.
From Overlook Point you can gain access to trails that will lead to other lakes nearby, like Pear Lake and Webb Lake.
The closest established campground to Lime Mesa is Junction Creek Campground located near Durango, CO. They have open RV spots, a volleyball court, restrooms and plenty of room for setting up a tent.
One of the best activities here is photography. The views are incredible and you’ll want to record these moments of pure joy. You can also find a plethora of trails for hiking and mountain biking.
7. Columbine Lake
Columbine Lake is a stunning turquoise alpine lake with otherworldly views. The hike is a steep 8.3-mile, out and back trek with an elevation gain of over 2,900 feet. On your way to the lake you’ll be greeted by dancing wildflowers, dense pine forests, fresh clean air and maybe even a mountain goat. This lake is not well known so you might have a chance for some time alone in the high mountains.
If you have the time and energy, you could take a trip to Columbine Pass. The pass is located on the ridge to the northwest of the lake. Here you’ll have sight of the Bridal Veil Basin and Mt. Sneffels.
You can find established campgrounds along Million Dollar Highway. For a unique experience you could check out The Opus Hut, which provides mountain lodging with exceptional amenities.
Photography, hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are all activities to be enjoyed in this gorgeous region of Colorado. If you’re traveling in the winter, there are a lot of great opportunities for skiing and snowboarding here, as well.
Get Lost in the Beauty of an Alpine Lake
These stunning alpine lakes near Durango are just a few of many, many more in the mountains of Colorado. Before your trip make sure to check the weather report as lightning storms happen quickly in high elevations. Be sure to drink plenty of water and take it slow if you aren’t used to high elevation hiking. If you are planning to go backcountry camping then check out this Wilderness Camping Guide for all the details you’ll need to know. Also, if you’d like to fish you can purchase a license online through the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website. Tie up your hiking boots, get lost in the beauty of an alpine lake and find yourself!
Featured image by Sheila Sund.