Summit Lake Park is a place of superlatives. The 150-acre park, part of the Denver Mountain Parks system, is the highest city park in North America and 12,830-foot-high Summit Lake is the 13th highest lake in the United States. This alpine lake sits nestled in a glacier-carved cirque below 14,264-foot Mount Evans and 13,842-foot Mount Spalding. Tall granite cliffs, grassy slopes, and rocky ridges surround the lake. The area, designated in 1965 as Colorado’s first National Natural Landmark, is considered an excellent example of alpine tundra in the United States, with numerous alpine plants growing among the boulders. Summit Lake Flats east of the lake is also one of the few permafrost areas outside of Alaska. The popular park, accessed by the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, is usually open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, although the road is often open to the lake until major snow closes it.
- Summit Lake Mountain Park is 60 miles west of Denver in the Front Range. The easiest access from Denver is to drive Interstate 70 to Idaho Springs and take Exit 240. Follow Colorado 103 for 15 miles to Echo Lake, the Colorado 5 another 15 miles to Summit Lake. Facilities at the park include a large parking area, restrooms, a stone shelter, and several trails with interpretative signs. A fee is charged by the City of Denver to maintain the park. Contact the Clear Creek Ranger District at 303-567-2901 for info and road conditions.
- The 0.25-mile Chicago Lakes Overlook Trail contours northeast from the parking area to an overlook on the east side of Summit Lake that looks down on the three Chicago Lakes in the cirque below. Interpretative signs at the overlook explain Colorado’s life zones and extreme mountain weather. Most of the easy trail is fenced so that hikers stay on it rather than tramp across the fragile alpine tundra and damage the fragile plants. The tiny plants are slow growing and must flower and go to seed in only a few weeks during the short summer.
- The Summit Lake area, as well on Mount Evans, is a great spot to see mountain wildlife. Mountain goats are often seen grazing in the meadows or clambering across rocky slabs. Marmots, a large squirrel, and pikas, related to rabbits, also live in talus and rock piles on the tundra meadows. Bring binoculars to get up close and not disturb the animals.
- Summit Lake is a perfect place to start a climb up Mount Evans. The route starts at 12,830-foot Summit Lake and gains only 2,000 feet of elevation up Evan’s West Ridge to the 14,264-foot summit. The route goes to the Chicago Lakes Overlook, then up Mount Spalding’s low-angle East Ridge to its 13,842-foot summit. Descend to the Spalding-Evans saddle and then follow Evans’ North and then West Ridge to the summit, which is often crowded with tourists who drove up. En route the route passes over 14,256-foot West Evans, an unranked 14er.
Recommended season(s): Year-round.
—Stewart M. Green