Mileage: 6.4 miles round trip
Altitude: 11,060 feet at lake
Elevation gain: 980 feet
To get there: Head north on Highway 40 north out of Fraser. Turn right (east) onto County Road 83. When the road forks, go left onto County Road 84 (NFSR 129). Travel 11 miles to the Junco Lake TH parking area. Don’t forget to stop at the fee station on the road to the trailhead. $5 per vehicle for a one-day pass.
The hike to Columbine Lake is beautiful in all its summer green, but some of the leaves were already starting to change and I know I want to come back in the fall. The willows, grasses, and gray rock formations are reminiscent of those above Black Lake, on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. My hike to (and above) Black Lake last October is probably one of my all-time favorites because of the orange grasses and deep red willows. Despite my usual opposition to hiking to the same place twice, I am already anxious to see what Columbine Lake looks like in a couple months.
The trail feels pretty leisurely to me, even with a couple steep spots and some areas of trail comprised of loose rocks and gravel. It’s just what I need to relax after my first week at a new job. Families and couples and dogs and groups of friends are strung around the lake on the perfect picnicking rocks. I decide to take a dip when I see two kids swimming in the lake, yelling up at their parents about how warm the water is. Trying to beat the cloud that is inching toward the sun, I strip down to my unmentionables and wade out in the really, really shallow lake. As I walk the muck and mud on the bottom clouds up around me. In order to submerge myself in Columbine Lake, I would have to lie down on this slimy carpet. No thanks! I squat and splash water over my head and arms, getting that cool, refreshed feeling that only comes from swimming in cold water (those kids were wrong…the water was not warm). Even as the sun warms me back on the rocks I am still covered in goose bumps.
“That’s one thing Yellowstone has that we’ll never have here. Warm water,” I tell Alex. My few dips in the frigid waters of Colorado’s high mountain lakes compared to my many swims while working in Yellowstone have proved this point to me.
A craggy rock ridgeline backs Columbine Lake, leading up to the pointy peak of Mt. Neva that drops to a friendlier ridge on its other side. There is boulder field on the hillside and a tundra meadow just beyond the tree line. It’s my favorite kind of meadow: lush and green with narrow streams of water running through it and big rocks scattered. These types of high altitude meadows, like the one right below Chasm Lake in RMNP, always make me feel like I have stepped into some fictional, mystical, fairytale land where I expect to see gnomes and fairies any minute. But there are no gnomes and fairies here…there aren’t even people up above Columbine Lake. We take the switch-backing trail up the side of the hill until it is close to the area on top of the ridge that we were heading for. Here, we break off and scramble up a short, steep slope of sliding gravel. The ridge we are on bridges the Continental Divide (high behind us) with the 11,000 (ish) foot “foothills” in front of it. We have views of the shallow, rolling valley between them, and the ski runs on the taller mountains at Winter Park. Standing up on the ridgeline and looking out into the nooks and crannies of Indian Peaks Wilderness and all the surrounding mountains, I am reminded that there are seemingly endless places to see here. And my favorite type of places too. Places where only our own feet can take us!
Hiking details from USDA Forest Service.