This beautiful alpine lake is perfect for day hiking, fishing or even a one night backpacking trip. While there are some steep sections of trail, if you start early and take your time, you’ll get to Columbine Lake with hardly any trouble at all.
Columbine Lake Trail specs:
Length: 3.4 miles one way
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Elevation: 987 feet up to the lake
Best time of year: Spring for wildflowers, summer for warm sunny days, fall for fall colors
Dogs: On leash only
Permits: Day use fee required, and permits required for overnight camping (this process has proven to be a giant PIA since the new COVID-19 procedures…. So consider yourself warned. Plan overnight hikes many weeks in advance.)
Pro tip: avoid going here on a summer weekend or holiday. The parking area, trail and lake get very crowded during peak travel times. Don’t let lots of cars deter you though, even when the lot is fairly full, there are plenty of rocks and hangout spots around the lake to spread out once you’re up there.
Planning a hike to Columbine Lake
I would plan to spend a good half day or full day on this trail and exploring around Columbine Lake.
If you’re going for a day hike, be sure to pack the 10 essentials plus any luxury items you may want for the day, like a hammock, book, picnic lunch, fishing poles or ultralight chair. Luxury items + lots of sun protection and bug spray are highly recommended 😉
If you have a permit to stay overnight, be sure to pack all your essential overnight backpacking gear, including layers and a warm sleep system – gets cold at night above 11,000 feet even in the heat of the summer! There are no fires permitted at the lake, this area is typically at high risk for forest fires.
From US-40 near Tabernash, CO, turn onto Highway 83, then after ¼ mile turn left onto USFS 129/CR 84 and follow it for about 11 miles until you find the Junco Lake Trailhead on the left hand side. This is the start of the trail to Columbine Lake.
Just a heads up – this dirt road is wash-boarded pretty badly and is very rocky along with pretty nasty holes in certain spots. 4WD and high(er) clearance vehicles would make for a less stressful ride.
Columbine Lake Trail Review
This is a well maintained and well-trafficked trail, mostly in the trees but several spots do open up to large meadows. There are lots of wildflowers to spot in the Spring and early Summer. Keep an eye out for some old log cabins early on the trail, on the right hand side if you’re headed to the lake.
At about 4.5 miles the trail does split, it is clearly marked, but keep an eye out to make sure you stay headed towards your destination.
Most of the trail gradually climbs uphill but does get steeper the closer you get to the lake. Take your time and enjoy the streams, waterfalls and smaller ponds along the way.
If you’re staying overnight, especially in the spring or early summer, make sure to press your hand into the ground wherever you’re thinking about setting up camp – there is a lot of boggy/wet ground up there that I imagine would not be fun to sleep on. It didn’t take us long, but did take some searching to find a flat-ish spot to set up our tents that wasn’t also in a marsh!
All in all, this trip is definitely worth the $5 day use or overnight permit fee. Or if you’re a local, consider getting the Annual ANRA pass. I’ve already been a handful of times both for day hikes and an overnight backpacking trip and I’m sure will be returning again.