Distance: About 7 miles RT to lower lake, 8 miles RT to upper lake, depending on the book/web site you read
Elevation Gain: Trail gains 200 feet, then drops 400 feet, then gains 1,400 feet to the upper lake
Trailhead: (at Echo Lake campground) trash cans and bathrooms Fee: None
Dog rules: Allowed, but must be leashed
A co-worker, anchor Ana Mejia told me her favorite place in Colorado is the Chicago Lakes area. It took me about a year to get to this hike and I am glad I did.
The Chicago Lakes sit in a valley below Summit Lake in the Mount Evans wilderness area. The hike actually starts at Echo Lake which is right on the Mount Evans Highway. The drive from Idaho Springs is on a twisty, mountain road. But within a few miles of leaving town, the views are beautiful. There are two 14ers here, Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt. Plus there are several 13ers and a lot of wilderness. The forest in this area is lush and green, there are very few dead trees.
As you drive up the Mount Evans Highway there are mile markers to tell you how far you've driven. Between mile marker 12 and 13 is Echo Lake. There is parking for the lake along the side of the road, there's also an unsigned turnoff to another parking area. That's where my hiking books say to park for the trailhead.
We drove to the Mount Evans Road entrance at about mile marker 14. The girl at the fee station told us to park just a few yards back and the trail started on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. She seemed so confident, we figured why not. We parked across from the campground entrance sign. It said "trailhead parking, no camping" so we figured we were in the right spot. We got our gear and walked across the road. Just a few yards up from the metal gate used to close the road in the winter, we found the sign that said "Chicago Lks. Trail No. 52". So off we went.
The trail winds around Echo Lake, but not on the shoreline. You'll occasionally see views of the lake through the trees. It's about a half mile to the sign that says "Echo Lake" one way, "Chicago Lakes" the other. We headed for the Chicago Lakes trail. (One warning, watch the signs carefully, we saw two men who said they took a wrong turn and ended up hiking the road to Summit Lake, then hiking down the trail to Chicago Lakes. Yikes!)
This is where the Chicago Lakes trail gets interesting. You'll climb about 200 feet in elevation, then drop down about 400 feet to Chicago Creek. The trail follows a shelf along the hillside. While there's a major drop-off on the side, there is also a beautiful view of the valley ahead. Make sure you stop and take a few pictures where the trees open up. We enjoyed guessing where we were going from here. One hint... there are 2 mountain ranges. The farthest includes Mt Evans and Mt Bierstadt. The next closest ridge has Mount Warren and Mt Spalding. Look below that ridge. The bowl below the peaks holds Upper Chicago Lake. (As you hike the shelf trail, you may hear voices below, that's Camp Schwader in the valley.)
The hike down to Chicago Creek is pretty easy, but it's steady. You'll know you're near the bottom when you hear the rushing water. There's a creek crossing on a couple wooden planks. Hike a few more yards and you'll come to a road.
The road is maintenance road for the Idaho Springs Reservoir. According to the Forest Service, residents of Idaho Springs can use the road by stopping by City Hall for the combination or a key. Too bad others can't use the road, it would cut nearly 2 miles off this hike and the crazy elevation gain, drop and elevation gain again. If you like to fish, this lake is apparently stocked with cutthroat trust, but the reservoir is catch and release. (We actually came across hikers who thought the reservoir was the first Chicago Lake.)
Before you start up the road, turn around and look where you'll have to turn to get back on the Chicago Lakes trail. Then it's time to hike up the road. The road is the trail for about the next 0.75 miles or so. You'll pass next to the Idaho Springs Reservoir, then two cabins before the Chicago Lakes trail becomes single track again. There is a sign at this junction with permit forms, even for day hikers. When we arrived, the box was out of permits.
Catch your breath here, because the trail is about to start climbing. The trail climbs a couple hundred feet, then evens out, then climbs again, then evens out. You'll be doing this for the next 1.5 miles. While it can be tough at times, the scenery is great. We found lots of wildflowers and beautiful views. A wildfire burned 400 acres in this area in 1978. With so many trees gone, you get amazing views of the peaks around the valley.
At about 3.5 miles into the hike, you get your first view of Lower Chicago Lake. The trail is actually above the lake, so you'll have to hike down on one of the many social trails in the area to reach the shoreline. We saw lots of hikers with fishing poles. One Web site said Chicago Lakes are stocked with trout by the Division of Wildlife.
Instead of hiking down to the lower lake, we decided to hike to the upper lake first, then visit the lower lake on the way back down. The hike to the upper lake is about a half mile and the elevation change is another 400 feet or so. At the lower lake, we saw a cascade falling from the upper lake with a trail next to it on the right. It turns out that wasn't the main trail. The main trail winds through some overgrown vegetation, lots of flowers, over a few bogs and through a neat section of very large boulders (some the size of homes). Then the trail climbs on the far right side of the valley. We hiked up past a snowfield and on the rise, we found Upper Chicago Lake. This is a treat. The views here are beautiful. Some articles I read talked about the wind up here. Yes, it was windy, but we found a spot behind a rock to get out of the breeze a bit. It is strange to hear so many voices at the lake and see so few people. It turns out the voices are coming from the ridge another 1,000 feet up. That ridge holds Summit Lake. Many drivers up there take the short walk to look down on the Chicago Lakes basin. (If you have two cars, consider leaving a car at Echo Lake and taking one to Summit Lake, then hiking back down to the Chicago Lakes and on to Echo Lake.)
When we left the upper lake, we didn't just turn around and go back the way we came. We headed for the cascade between the two lakes. It was worth the time to hike over here. The cascade was pretty and I spotted two people having their lunch next to the water. Good choice. We took some photos here and headed down a goat/social trail back to the main trail.
The hike down was tough for me. My feet were burning from the elevation gain and my legs were a bit tired, so we decided to forgo visiting the first lake and just enjoyed the view from the trail. I enjoyed the views on the way up so much, that it was a bit disappointing on the way down to have those views behind your back. I also knew that I needed to save some energy, because there's a big 400 foot climb to get back to the trailhead.
One good thing about the end of this hike? The Echo Lake Lodge is known for its pie.
I did this hike on the recommendation of a co-worker. I'd love to hear your hiking trail suggestions. I also welcome your comments and questions. Just email me, email@example.com.
Directions: From Denver, take I-70 West to Idaho Springs. Take exit 240/Highway 103, the Mount Evans Road. It's about 12.5 miles to the Echo Lake parking area and about 14 miles to the turnoff for Mount Evans and the parking area we used.