Chicago Lakes | Mount Evans Wilderness & Arapaho National Forest
Idaho Springs, CO | 06/03/21 | 10.04 miles | 1,862′ gain
Mid-June typically marks my transition from low-elevation winter hikes to high-elevation summer hikes. There’s usually still a bit of snow to contend with, but this spring was pretty dry and early June was already looking good to venture up high. So Tori and I set out to attempt one of our bucket-list hikes: Chicago Lakes.
We were the second car at the Echo Lake Trailhead at 7:30am. The other car looked like it’d been there all night. (It would have been a cold night camping!) We followed the network of trails through the picnic area and around the western shore of Echo Lake. Finally we found the Chicago Lakes Trail sign and we were on our way.
From Echo Lake, the Chicago Lakes Trail switchbacks down about 400′ to Chicago Creek. There were some awesome views in this section before we plunged into the forest.
Right after the creek crossing, the trail connected with a road and followed that past a number of private cabins to Idaho Springs Reservoir. Numerous signs warned users to stay on the road as it passed through private property.
Up until this point, we’d had a dry trail, but we now saw our first glimpse of snow, slush, and mud as we skirted around Idaho Springs Reservoir. Past the reservoir we were back on single-track and heading further up into the basin. We left private property and entered the Mount Evans Wilderness.
As we climbed higher, the views of the mountains surrounding the basin became even more spectacular. While we did have a bit of snow to contend with on the trail, I think this is an awesome time of year for this hike as the snow on the surrounding peaks made them even more beautiful.
We ran into the backpackers below Lower Chicago Lake. They were heading back to the trailhead and mentioned that they couldn’t find the trail to the upper lake. That was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to hear.
I’d read reports that people had made it to the upper lake this year, so I was hoping that we would get lucky and be able to make it up there safely. But when the snow on the trail got deeper and multiple sets of footprints went in different directions, it became more complicated. We followed the most likely track which ended up being extremely wrong, leading us to an area full of giant boulders with snowy willows in between. We used our map to head toward the trail and did eventually get back on track, but not before a lot of awkward scrambling over boulders, swimming through willows, and at one point even crawling through an icy tunnel. It was…an adventure.
Once back on the trail, we could clearly see the crux of this hike, the headwall. It was covered in snow and looked pretty steep, so I was a little worried. But as we neared, we could clearly see a solid track and it began to look more doable.
And just like that, once at the top of the headwall we had reached Upper Chicago Lake. Aside from the backpackers, we hadn’t seen a single person so far and we had the lake to ourselves. It was so beautiful and peaceful.
We hoped to see a herd of bighorn sheep (we’d seen a ton of their tracks) but none appeared for us. Eventually it was time to head back down, and that is when we began to see people. But how lucky were we that we had so much time to enjoy this beautiful place all by ourselves?
The descent was straightforward and we had no more route-finding blunders. It was much easier to see where to go on the way down and we cruised along past all of the lakes. The snow and mud around Idaho Springs Reservoir was much sloppier now, and even though we were careful, I still managed to get a wet foot. The 400′ climb back up to Echo Lake was painful after such a long hike, but we soon made it back to the now extremely busy trailhead. This was a hike to remember and I’m so glad that I was able to make it to the Chicago Lakes!
I would like to acknowledge that the Chicago Lakes Trail is on the ancestral land of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) and Cheyenne.