3 Must-Visit High Alpine Lakes in Vail

The long and winding trail alongside Vail's Piney Lake.
The long and winding trail alongside Vail's Piney Lake. Kirsten Dobroth
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Winter in Vail is unforgettable, but a visit to the hills around this quintessential resort town in the heart of Colorado’s Gore Range during the warmer months is pure magic. Hiking options abound throughout the hills surrounding Vail, but it’s the high alpine lakes hidden in the upper reaches of the Gore that make for some of the most rewarding of adventures. Here's a sampling of some of Vail's best mountain lakes that offer different accessibility and experiences for anyone ready to take the plunge.

1. Piney Lake

Vail's Piney Lake is a super scenic high alpine gem in the Gore Mountains.
    Kirsten Dobroth
Vail's Piney Lake is a super scenic high alpine gem in the Gore Mountains. Kirsten Dobroth

A must while in town, Piney Lake has long been a favorite for visitors and locals looking to quietly relax by the high alpine lake, or experience a bit of adventure in the heart of the Gore Range.

The road to Piney Lake, in particular, is accessible via a dirt road throughout the summer months, and is a favorite among snowmobilers, snowshoers, and backcountry travelers in the winter. Camping sites are a frequent sight along the dirt road, with primitive pull offs offering easily accessible spots to pitch a tent for the night.

For those needing a bit of inspiration—or equipment—to enjoy all that Piney Lake has to offer, Piney River Ranch is open from mid-June to the beginning of October annually, and offers everything from canoe rentals to guided horseback rides throughout the area’s mountainous terrain.

Piney Lake is just as welcoming to visitors looking to independently take in the views and recreation around the area as well, and hiking trails abound, with the Upper Piney Trail being a popular option. The trail takes hikers 7 miles each way, and offers some pristine access into the surrounding wilderness area. Hikers looking for a more strenuous excursion can continue on Upper Piney Trail to Knee Knocker Pass, or push for a summit of Mt. Powell, a 13er that boasts the highest elevation of any of the peaks in the Gore Range.

Access : Travel 11 miles via the dirt road from Red Sandstone Road following signs to Piney Lake. Four-wheel drive is recommended, but not a must.

2. Booth Lake

A sunny day at Vail's Booth Lake.
    Kirsten Dobroth
A sunny day at Vail's Booth Lake. Kirsten Dobroth

Another Vail area classic, Booth Lake is accessible via a 4.1 mile one-way trek and over 3,000 feet of elevation gain on Booth Creek Trail. Worth the sweat, the lake is ringed by peaks of the Gore Range, and offers an icy reprieve for those brave enough to take a dip. The trail grants a bit of scenery for hikers not quite ready to conquer the trail in its entirety as well, as Booth Falls is a popular turnaround point on the trail, and offers visitors a popular vista to take in the 60 foot waterfall.

Access : From exit 180 off of I-70, head west on the North Frontage Road. After passing Vail Mountain School, turn right onto Booth Falls Road. The trailhead is located at the end of this road.

3. Gore Lake

Swimming with the besties at Gore Lake.
    James Dziezynski
Swimming with the besties at Gore Lake. James Dziezynski

Pressed up against the Gore Range deep in East Vail, Gore Lake is a wilderness experience that takes hikers on a 6-mile trek to the high alpine gem via 2,700 feet of climbing. Gore Creek Trail is the lake’s only access point, and offers exceptional views of Vail’s signature Gore Creek and the East Vail chutes as it winds through pine and aspen forest. The view from the lake is magnificent, and is a welcome spot to take in the scenery, or for late night star gazing.

Access : From exit 180 on I-70, head east on Bighorn Road for 2.5 miles, following the road under the overpass until the trailhead appears on the left. Once on the trail, hikers soon encounter a marked fork. Head right to Gore Creek Trail.

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