Gates down at Mount Evans Highway, but nearby trail grants greater escape

Two anglers fish the Upper Chicago Lake at 11,800 feet as the sun begins to sink below the mountains. Photo Credit: Christian Murdock, The Gazette

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY • We started from Echo Lake, which was packed with vehicles even on this Wednesday afternoon. People were taking their selfies for Instagram. A food truck was slinging tacos. The lodge was back in business, selling souvenirs.

The main attraction, however, was closed. COVID-19 will keep motorized traffic off Mount Evans Highway this summer.

So in the coming weeks and months it’s easy to imagine more people doing what we came to do. We came for the path that starts behind the lodge, an escape route from the bustle. Hidden but not exactly.

Chicago Lakes Trail is immensely popular, a favorite among Denverites and frequently mentioned on those lists of Colorado’s best hikes.

Perhaps North America’s highest paved road has kept some distracted. But make no mistake: the self-powered journey on this trail grants the greater getaway to alpine majesty, free of exhaust fumes and crowds at the top.

At its busiest, social distancing is indeed hard to achieve on the 14,264-foot summit of Evans. Meanwhile, the uppermost Chicago Lake spans the tundra near 11,800 feet, overlooking the lower, emerald lake and the glacier-carved valley protected by castle-like granite. Here we were greeted by far more marmots than people. Such is the case in true wilderness.

But perhaps it doesn’t exist here, true wilderness — “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” reads the post at the entry to Mount Evans Wilderness. This area is very trammeled.

Chicago Lakes has its regular day hikers. However frustratingly up and down the 4-mile trip can be, the destination always makes it worthwhile.

“Always,” said one regular we met, who seemed annoyed by his phone buzzing. “Don’t tell anyone. I’m still on the clock.”

We found fewer people the deeper we went. Phone signal would fade and it would feel more like the wilderness further described by that welcome post: “Wilderness offers a refuge from our fast-paced, highly-developed society — a place to reconnect with yourself and the land.”

It was a relief getting to that point, entering the embrace of the valley framed by Evans’ massif. The thin trail climbed away from the dirt road we’d been on for a mile, leading to the Idaho Springs Reservoir dam and a curious pair of cabins for rent. A circular series of stones was arranged in one backyard. A labyrinth, a sign explained, along with directions on how to walk in those circles and discover profound peace.

Chicago Lakes has inspired just that. One blogger reported being “expanded exponentially. I became as solid as the rocks, as serene as the lake, as enduring as the processes that produce such places. Sitting by Chicago Lakes makes one feel part of something much larger than insignificant human existence.”

Before the lakes, in the flat, butterfly meadows and then the steep, rocky hillsides, it’s impossible to miss the devastation: graveyards of trees, remains of a 1978 conflagration. And it’s impossible to miss the regeneration, nature’s wheel: summer’s lime-green aspen displays surrounding black timber, wildflowers popping red, purple and yellow in the foreground.

Some proud evergreens remain. We enjoyed their shade at the edge of the first lake before reaching the harsh, boulder-strewn approach to the lake above.

There we perched our tent. It would be cold at night, and the coyotes would howl with the wind, disrupting the waterfall melody.

But we would wake to birdsong. We’d watch the trout move along the shallows and feel the sun on our faces for a while.

Then it was time to go back. Down and then up, down and then up, until we got to a point where phones were buzzing again, cars roaming and business ensuing, and that place felt far away.

Details

The Chicago Lakes Trail starts at the Echo Lake Lodge. Going west on Interstate 70, exit for Idaho Springs and continue south on Colorado 103 up to Echo Lake.

To the upper Chicago Lake, expect about 4 1/2 miles and 1,750 feet of elevation gain. More information: https://bit.ly/3hgyVW6

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