The Valley's Greatest Lakes

Where to swim, paddle and relax in the high country.

By Devon O'Neil Photography by Zach Mahone June 13, 2016

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Monty, Piney Lake's resident moose often forages on the banks of this picturesque spot in the Gore Range.

Image: Zach Mahone

Sylvan Lake

There’s a reason (actually, many reasons) why Colorado Parks and Wildlife calls Sylvan Lake “Colorado’s most beautiful state park.” Located 15 miles south of Eagle via Brush Creek Road—where ranches, cows, and crumbling pioneer-era farm equipment and homestead cabins evoke a stuck-in-time western feel—the 42-acre lake offers a plethora of recreation options, most of which I’d classify as “adventure light.” And while the lake and surrounding grounds provide an excellent place to spend a day with the family, considering the park’s 46 campsites, nine cabins, and three yurts, an overnight stay is called for to maximize your visit.

If you have young children, Sylvan Lake is your utopia. When you walk into the visitors center to check in (a day-use permit costs $7 per vehicle), recent wildlife sightings are listed on a whiteboard. The park loans kids fishing poles for free and rents canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats for $25 per four-hour period. You can also bring your own vessels, of course, provided the boats have no motor or, at most, a small trolling engine.

Public amenities include lakefront picnic tables and a 1.5-mile trail around the lake’s perimeter, not to mention the surroundings, highlighted by Mt. Thomas and the Red Table mountains to the south. Overnight options fill up fast, but you can reserve campsites ($18 per night) or cabins ($70 to $170 per night) up to six months before your trip by calling 303-470-1144 or e-mailing [email protected].

Nottingham Lake

Local triathletes know Nottingham Lake as their training grounds. It’s one of the only swimmable lakes in the region, both legally (in the designated swimming area) and due to its (somewhat) tolerable water temperatures, which range from 60 to 68 degrees in the summer. Hanging on the beach is always a nice option, especially for kids, and the Avon Recreation Department typically offers open-water swims twice a week for $5, with lifeguards and buoys to support the training experience (avon.org).

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Nottingham Lake.

Image: Zach Mahone

Beyond that, you can fish (state license required) and propel a boat or stand-up paddleboard. The lake sits in the middle of a park that includes a disc golf course; tennis, volleyball, and basketball courts; two athletic fields; and a new performance pavilion that’s center stage for an ever-expanding variety of outdoor festivals and concerts.

Piney Lake

If you’ve driven to the terminus of the seemingly never-ending, bumpy, switch-backing dirt road to Piney Lake, you know why people endure it in droves every summer. Put simply, Piney may be the most beautiful lake in Colorado (after all, it graces our cover)—water glistening like a disco ball in a valley that is almost entirely covered by quaking aspens, with the jagged Gore Range skyline staring you in the face.

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Piney Lake.

Image: Zach Mahone

Trails abound in the area—including one that leads to 13,580-foot Mt. Powell, the highest peak in the Gore—but as for the lake itself, it is best experienced by boat. Rent canoes and stand-up paddleboards from Piney River Ranch (pineyriverranch.com) for $30/hour, and if you forgot your rod and reel, you can rent those too (don’t forget to buy a fishing license). If you prefer to wade and cast flies, there is no shortage of shoreline holes to explore.


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