Chicago Lakes Trail: Hike Colorado’s Stunning Mt. Evans Wilderness

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Chicago Lakes Trail: Hike Colorado’s Stunning Mt. Evans Wilderness

 

Chicago Lakes Trail in Mount Evans Wilderness

Where: Mount Evans Wilderness, Colorado
Distance: 9.1 miles | 14.6 km
Elevation Gain: 2,142 feet | 652 meters
Time to Complete: 5-8 hours
Difficulty: Challenging to Difficult
Best Time to Hike: July to September
Park Fee: Free
Hiker Traffic:
Moderate
Cell Service:
Spotty
Noel’s Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Chicago Lakes Trail exemplifies everything I love in a Colorado day hike, even if its high-elevation ascents had me pouring sweat and gasping for air.

I guess it’s hard to complain about such challenges when the trail I was hiking lead to a crystal clear glacial lake at the base of a towering 14,000-foot mountain as a bald eagle circled the sky above.

The alpine meadows exploding with wildflowers, cascading mountain creeks, and adventures glissading down snowbanks with an old friend didn’t hurt either. It was a hell of a hike.

Ready to embark on a hike of your own along the Chicago Lakes Trail? Stay tuned. I’ll tell you what to pack, how to get to there, the down-low on backcountry camping, and I’ll share some details about my journey along the most scenic trail in Mount Evans Wilderness.

Preparing for Your Hike

Waterfall flowing over rocks in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado

Fresh glacial runoff is abundant along the Chicago Lakes Trail

 

When to Hike

The best months weather-wise to visit are July, August, and September when the winter snowfall has melted and uncovered the path. It is possible to hike the trail with snowshoes during ‘off-season’ months, but doing so will be a more grueling endeavor.

Don’t hesitate to strap on your snowshoes and give it a shot during the off months, as long as the forecast looks good and you’ve adequately prepared. There’s a decent chance you could have the trail entirely to yourself.

To view current trail conditions, visit the Chicago Lakes Trail’s AllTrails page for reviews and updates from fellow hikers.

What to Bring

The hike should at least five hours, so pack plenty of food (2,000+ calories) and bring a minimum of two liters of water. If you want to save weight, pack a water filter to purify water as you go to avoid carrying heavy water bottles.

Wear sturdy hiking boots, heavy-duty sunscreen, and bring a set of trekking poles to help your knees out during the constant ascents and descents.

Take altitude sickness pills if your body is not adjusted to high elevations and a pack rain jacket to protect against chilling alpine storms.

If you decide to camp in the Mount Evans Wilderness for one or more nights, check out my lightweight backpacking gear list and backpacking meal planning posts to prepare for your upcoming trip.

Trail Maps

A detailed map for the entire Chicago Lakes Trail is available to download on the free smartphone app, Maps.me. I’ve used Maps.me’s offline maps for every hiking, trekking, and backpacking adventure I’ve ever written about on this website. Maps.me’s trail maps system is incredibly helpful and accurate.

Getting to the Trailhead

Park your car here (not near the Echo Lake Lodge)

 

The trailhead is a bit tricky to find. While following the directions given by the AllTrails app, my friend, Beau, and I headed to the Echo Lake Campground. I parked my campervan in the where AllTrails said the trailhead would be, but we’d ended up at the Echo Lake Trailhead instead, which is an entirely different hike.

Don’t start your hike at the Echo Lake Campgrounds as AllTrails recommends. Instead, head to the parking lot on the west side of Echo Lake Park as shown on the map above.

Hiking the Chicago Lakes Trail

A man walks with a wooden stick down a hiking path near Chicago Creek

Hard to beat a sunny Colorado day in Mount Evans Wilderness

 

The Chicago Lakes Trail is a delight from start to finish. The trail begins near the scenic and touristy Echo Lake and winds its way past Idaho Springs Reservoir, and eventually up to an old, bumpy forest service road. After a short time on the road, the trail enters the real backcountry, and Mount Evans Wilderness starts to reveal its natural beauty.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this hike is not a walk-in-the-park. It’s a rather grueling commitment.

This 9.1-mile out-and-back gains 2,142 feet of elevation at a 10% grade, which rates it as a ‘challenging to difficult’ hike. The entire hike takes place above 10,000 feet in elevation, so hikers must acclimatize to high altitudes before starting the trail.

If you start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, take a break, and analyze your options going forward.

Blooming Wildflowers in Mount Evans Wilderness

Two pink Colorado wildflowers on a day hike near Denver

If you get the timing right, you’ll be surrounded by wildflowers

 

If you hike the Chicago Lakes Trail at the right time of year — typically mid-July to mid-August — the scenery will reward you with ample amounts of blossoming Colorado wildflowers, in nearly every direction you look. Red, yellow, green, white, pink, blue, purple — the full host of colors were on display for Beau and me.

While it may be tempting, picking wildflowers is illegal and can harm the ecosystem. Years ago, I found this out the hard way as I was picking wildflowers for my girlfriend when a fellow hiker stopped to scold me. Oops. Lesson learned. Haven’t touched a wildflower since.

Bald Eagles, Marmots, & More

A bald eagle soars against a muted blue sky near the Idaho Springs Reservoir

Looking majestic while looking for lunch

A marmot sits on a lichen covered rock on a hiking trail near Mount Evans

Marmots: Half squirrel, half beaver?

 

If your hike goes anything like mine, you’ll witness plenty of wildlife. Keep your eyes open for pikas and squirrels as they scurry about the forest floor at lower elevations. Listen for the bark (more of a squeak if you ask me) of marmots as you climb higher in altitude. Religiously check the skies for birds of prey soaring above.

If you get lucky as Beau and I did, you might spot a bald eagle patrolling the crisp Colorado skies, staring down at the earth below, and hunting for its next meal.

Mount Evans Wilderness isn’t known to have a strong bear presence, but if you’re wary, bring bear spray, wear a bear bell, odor-proof your food, or hike in groups. Check out Backpacker Magazine’s article on bear safety to learn more.

Arriving at the Base of Mount Evans

A mountain lake with a backdrop of Mount Evans on the Chicago Lakes hike in Pike National Forest

Like living in a Colorado postcard

 

After a few solid hours of hiking, snacking, and gawking at the glory surrounding us, Lower Chicago Lake appeared on the left side of our peripheral vision. The lake was beautiful, but there was no trail leading to it, so we continued until we reached Upper Chicago Lake.

There, we found incredible views of a tranquil, glass-like lake flanked by the massive granite behemoths that are Mount Evans, Mount Warren, and Mount Spalding. What a gorgeous sight. Words can’t do the landscape justice.

We dropped our bags and soaked in the area surrounding Upper Chicago Lake. To the east was a large waterfall with grand, sweeping views of Lower Chicago Lake. In the distance, the Chicago Lakes Trail snaked up steep rocky terrain towards Summit Lake, which rests at 13,002 feet. We’d heard the trail was socked in by snow, so it would have to wait for another day. We were okay with that.

Glissading Down Snowbanks

A man glissades down a snow bank with trekking poles in his hands

Glissading: a fast, foolish, and entertaining descent

 

After ogling Upper Chicago Lake and Mount Evans for an appropriate amount of time, Beau and I turned around and began walking back towards the trailhead. Within 15 minutes, we came across a softening snowbank that piqued Beau’s interest. He had an idea.

“We should glissade down this snowbank,” he said.

I looked at him with a blank stare.

“Let’s slide down the snow on our feet like we’re skiing.”

I shrugged my shoulders and agreed.

A man in mid air glissading down a snowbank as his dog follows closely behind on the Chicago Lakes hike in Colorado

Glissading is a little reckless — proceed at your own risk

 

Beau and his dog, Levi, went first. About halfway down the slope, Beau lost control, his straw hat lifting into the air as he skidded to a bumpy stop at the bottom. I took a less aggressive approach than Beau, spraying up snow as I worked my way down the snowbank at a slower speed.

We giggled like children and hiked back up to the top for one more round.

Accidental Off-Trail Mishaps

A man up to  his shoulders in bushes as he bushwhacks his way through the forest

Bushwhacking in its truest form

 

Let me start by saying that hiking off-trail can be destructive to delicate ecosystems, and it was never our intention to wander astray.

We’d been poking around a side trail, foraging (unsuccessfully) for wild mushrooms when we got lost. The small trail we were on eventually faded away, and we suddenly found ourselves neck-deep in shrubs. We shoved our way through the bushes for a few minutes until I finally pulled out my phone to see where we were.

Damn. We’d wandered really far off course.

I pointed us back in the right direction, and we trudged our way through the thick shrubbery as sharp branches scraped our skin and tore at our clothing. After about 15 minutes of maddening bushwhacking, we arrived back at the main trail, shared a chuckle and an eye roll, and started hiking on flat ground once again.

The remainder of the hike back towards the parking lot was sunny and uneventful, the exact type of finish we needed.

Moral of the story: Pay attention while hiking side trails. Don’t end up lost and engulfed in a thicket of dense bushes as Beau and I did.

Backcountry Camping in Mount Evans Wilderness

Meadows, forest, and mountains open for dispersed camping along the Chicago Lakes hike

Out here, the world is your campground

 

While Beau and I chose only to day hike, opportunities for dispersed backcountry camping within Mount Evans Wilderness are plentiful and free. You don’t need a permit to camp.

You can access 18 super-dated pages of trail maps within Mount Evans Wilderness from the forest department website or visit the Mount Evans Wilderness AllTrails page to get more info on hiking and camping within the area. 

If you decide to backcountry camp along the Chicago Lakes Trail or beyond, get adequately prepared ahead of time. Scout out potential camping destinations, research the route, study a forecast, start early, pack enough food, and bring a backpack full of quality, lightweight gear.

Rules and Regulations

A sign at a trailhead that reads "Mount Evans Chicago Lakes Trail"

A sign at the Chicago Lakes hike trailhead that reads "MOUNT EVANS WILDERNESS ARAPAHO AND PIKE NATIONAL FORESTS"

There are some important rules and regulations to keep in mind when hiking the Chicago Lakes Trail and camping in Mount Evans Wilderness. Right-click the trailhead signs to view a full-sized image in a new window, or read my summary of the rules below.

  • Dogs must be leashed at all times
  • Group size is limited to 15 or less
  • Bikes, hang gliders, and motorized equipment are prohibited on the trail
  • Campfires are prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, or trails
  • Camping is prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, and developed trails
  • Do not shortcut switchbacks

Leave No Trace

For our entire hike, Beau and I enjoyed a trash-free trail as we enjoyed the sweeping scenery around us. The hikers along Chicago Lakes Trail have taken care of the land, and it was nice to see.

Pack out everything you bring with you, clean up after your pet, and do your part to leave the trail untainted for the rest of the world to enjoy.

For more information on leaving no trace, visit LNT.org.

Final Thoughts

Upper Chicago Lake with sprawling forest, meadows, and cloudy skies in the background

The Chicago Lakes Trail is an adventure worth taking

 

The Chicago Lakes Trail just raised the bar for all my future Colorado day hikes. The awe-inspiring backcountry within Mount Evans Wilderness at times seemed too beautiful to be real.

A bald eagle soaring gracefully through the heavens above? Glassy alpine lakes reflecting a crystal-clear image of towering granite peaks in the background? Sprawling meadows glowing with blooming Colorado wildflowers?

Scenes like this are supposed to play out in movies, not real life. But play out they did, and I was there with an old friend to watch it all unfold.

So, get out on the Chicago Lakes Trail and witness the beauty for yourself. Glissade recklessly down a snowbank, wander off on a side trail or two, and do your best to keep your jaw from hitting the trail.

Give it a shot. It worked for me.

Plan Your Next Trip: Travel Tips & Resources

Book Your Flight

Find cheap flights to Colorado by searching with Skyscanner or Momondo. Both sites pull fares from a huge network of airlines to help you find an affordable flight every time.

Book Accommodation

Use Booking.com — my go-to booking website — to reserve hotels and hostels in Colorado. Search Hostelworld to browse a gigantic database of affordable hostel options. Book with Airbnb to rent apartments, houses, or rooms from locals.

Rent a Car

Search RentalCars.com to compare prices among hundreds of car rental brands. Use Turo to rent cars, trucks, campervans, (and more) from locals.

Protect Your Trip

Travel is unpredictable. Use World Nomads to insure your trip against illness, theft, injury, and cancellation. They’re widely trusted among backpackers and travelers worldwide.

Hike & Travel Better

Browse through my 9.8 lb ultralight backpacking gear list or learn how to meal plan for multi-day backpacking trips. Check out my travel resources page to see exactly what tools, websites, apps, and gear I use to move about the world.

Have you ever hiked the Chicago Lakes Trail? What’s your favorite Colorado lake hike? Have you ever tried glissading? Send me some feedback with a comment below!


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2 Comments

  1. These pictures are gorgeous, and holy awesome upgrading your website since the last time that I was on. It looks FABULOUS. I love the layout and how you integrated such helpful information into each post.

    My husband and I were just saying how we can take flights from Asheville to Colorado now. I rarely get to see the mountains and hiking has been rough in FL with the heat; we are excited to hike more now that the weather will be better (and maybe a few less poisonous snakes…sorta…ehhhh). I’d love to go here and will be looking back at your posts for ideas!

    1. Hey, thanks! I’m glad you appreciate all the hard work I’ve been putting in. The learning never ends in the travel blogging universe.

      You two would love hiking in the Colorado mountains! With a clear forecast, hiking the alpine forests up above 10,000 feet is glorious. The air here is dry, so you need not worry about humidity add to your misery if it’s sweltering out. Rattlesnakes exist here, but they’re rare to come across. Let me know if you ever plan a visit to CO and I’ll give you some ideas that aren’t on the blog!

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