It’s quite inspiring as a native Coloradoan to realize that people from all over the globe venture to our state to find the natural beauty that is sprinkled throughout the Rocky Mountains. Our state holds a plethora of enticing outdoor activities and views, so when I want to get away and find somewhere new to explore right in my own backyard, I usually do not have to travel very far. An hour or so drive can get you a good many places in the Colorado wilderness, and Arapaho National Park holds many fine places to adventure. By taking I-70 to the last exit for Idaho Springs-exit 240-you can lose yourself on a long, winding highway called CO-103, the highest paved highway in North America. Eventually this road leads up to Mt. Evans, a 14er that is worth the trying hike if it’s still early in the morning. However, just before the turnoff where you have to pay a fee to take the road up towards the Mt. Evans trail head, there is a small sign off to the right-just before the toll station-that reads Chicago Lakes Trail. Now I won’t go into too much detail, because I do not want to ruin the surprises that lay waiting all along this wondrous pathway, but with all this rain we have been accumulating, the green hue in the golden sun is magnificent.
Dropping around 1000 vertical feet, the trail begins in a thickly wooded area juxtaposing Echo Lake, which is right off the highway. The trail then bends around Echo Lake for about half a mile, and veers off in its own direction. At this point you wonder why the trail takes you down instead of up, as trails usually do. I simply figured we would venture down several switchbacks until we reached a lake that lay at the bottom of the valley. Being wrong about things most of the time, I realized the trail was only taking us to the creek which we would then loosely follow up a meandering road to the first lake, called Idaho Springs reservoir. On the ascension to this first lake, the trail follows the dirt road for about a mile. Once you pass a couple small cabins and some no trespassing signs, you find yourself at yet another sign that said Chicago Lakes Trail. Coming to terms with the fact that the decline you made and the road you followed were only a tease to what was to come, excitement will grow in your heart. You are finally out in the wild.
The first Chicago Lake is almost 2 miles up the trail, but well worth the gorgeous landscape blanketed in green growth and painted with wildflowers. A prevailing cliff smiles with a golden tint off to the left, and the rolling hills trail off to the right. Along the way, stepping stones reveal pathways across ice-cold glacial creeks. One minute may be spent ducking under trees and shrubs while the next opens up to a vast view of the grassy knolls and tree-laden earth. Looking back reveals only trees propped against a blue sky backdrop, and the feeling of separation from civilization sets in as clouds drift whimsically across the mountainous horizon. At a certain point, the peak of Mt. Evans seems to crawl up out of the earth itself and loom threateningly in the distance. If it gets to be late afternoon, dark clouds will congregate around its summit as if to ask where they should downpour next. Not to worry, however, as long as you give yourself ample time in the day, or plan on camping along the trail, rain should not be a terrible problem if you plan accordingly.
Triumph comes in waves as you witness gorgeous feature after gorgeous feature, refreshed at each stop that takes you loftily over running water, until you finally reach the first Chicago Lake. This in itself is enough of a hike for one day, but for the more adventurous spirits there is one more Chicago Lake, the Summit Lake, and even a trail that leads to the peak of Mt. Evans. If you are going to attempt to take this backside trail all the way to the summit of Mt. Evans, I suggest coming in the day before, camping somewhere up by the first or second lake, and rising early in the morning to walk out your door to a mystic morning sunrise and an epic morning hike. Bring your fishing pole and wade the creek or sit lazily in the summer sun as you cast out into one of the lakes. Finally, there is so much to explore in the Mt. Evans wilderness area that if you love the outdoors, you could backpack for weeks and still leave many areas untouched. Oh and by the way, don’t forget how good that Tommyknocker beer is going to taste-the brewery is just on the other side of exit 240-when you get back to I-70. This really is as good as it gets…