Great Lakes: Best For Backpacking

For overnight camping, these are the lakes that make the trip worth it. Take a tent and extra food, because you won't ever want to go home.

By Devon O'Neil Photography by Zach Mahone June 1, 2016 Published in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Lake Constantine, a crescent of turquoise wedged between two long, rugged ridgelines. 

Image: Zach Mahone

Gore Lake

The only time I camped at Gore Lake, I traveled on foot over Red Buffalo Pass from Frisco. It was the first backpacking trip my wife and I did together, and I had estimated that our 10-mile, 5,000-vertical-foot hike with 35-pound packs would take us three and a half hours. Six hours and two downpours later, we crested the final of many hills that day and laid eyes on Gore Lake. It was worth every soggy step.

The best way to get to Gore Lake is actually from the Gore Creek trailhead in East Vail. As you ascend, keep this in mind: more than 40 years ago, there was a proposal to route Interstate 70 through Gore Creek. It doesn’t take a naturalist to see why that would have been tragic.

About four miles into the hike, bear left and head north up the hefty final ascent to your destination at 11,400 feet. It will feel like you’re almost there three or four times before you finally are. But the moment you behold the lake—and the trio of 13,000-foot peaks above it—you may be changed forever.

Lake Constantine

It can seem like the sunlight and clouds are playing tricks on your mind when you first behold Lake Constantine in the Sawatch Range. Is the water really turquoise? You blink and rub your eyes to make sure. You look again. It really is turquoise.

Constantine, a crescent wedged between two long, rugged ridgelines, has a walled-in feel to it. You’re up there—at 11,371 feet—but thanks to the relatively gentle elevation profile of the trail, you don’t have to work quite as hard to get there, even with a heavy pack. From Halfmoon Campground at the end of Tigiwon Road just south of Minturn, you follow the Fall Creek Trail for four miles and climb 1,000 feet, which qualifies as mild in this section of our guide. An assortment of pristine campsites dots the lake’s perimeter. From there, the trail continues toward Fall Creek Pass and eventually the Seven Sisters Lakes, a chain of heavenly alpine pools that’s worth a trip itself.

Upper Piney Lake

In any rugged mountain range, a few destinations carry elevated appeal. Upper Piney Lake is one of those places in the Gore. Last September, I packed my tent, a few bratwursts, and a bottle of bourbon and joined my brother and a friend for the nine-mile hike from Piney River Ranch to Upper Piney. We planned the trip to coincide with peak foliage season, which in that drainage has a way of making you feel like you’re looking through a rainbow-tinted kaleidoscope.

We plodded through the leaf-peeping throngs for a few miles until suddenly the trail turned empty. For the next two hours, we had the majestic basin to ourselves, meandering through meadows and under giant rock pinnacles along the creek until we reached the lake. It appeared that no one had been there for days. We pitched our tents and started a fire in an old pit, then sipped bourbon and chowed down on sausage until the full moon rose over the ridge high above.

Sometime that evening, my friend, Jeff, realized he’d lost his motorcycle key. He painstakingly searched around the tents, then continued searching the next morning on his way back down the trail, all to no avail. Lucky for him (and, well, kind of miraculously), a Good Samaritan had found the key and left it on his fuel tank in the parking lot with a note that read, “I think this belongs to you.”



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