Off the beaten path and awfully beautiful, the American Lakes hike has just made my all-time favorite hikes list. And I had no intention of doing it at all until the day before. I was having a screw-everyone-and-everything-I’m-getting-the-f@ck-ou-of-town day last Friday. It made for an awesome Saturday in which I was completely without obligation to another human being’s wants or needs. I threw some gear in the car, drove to Cameron Pass, set up a tent by myself in the rain, and read an American history book with my headlamp until I passed out at 9pm. Yes, sometimes I do silly things with friends, dangerous things, things that involve late nights and lots of drinking, but I also like going to bed early and reading american history books. Don’t judge, you have lame hobbies, too.
In any case, when I woke up the next morning, it was quiet, sunny, and cool. The rain had stopped. And in the light of the mid-morning, I could see bright green grass and tons of wildflowers covered in dew just outside. I suddenly did not hate everyone or think everything was stupid.
I have done plenty of great hikes, but not many of them can you begin mid-morning and still spend most of the day in blissful solitude. Once you get up to the lakes, you will see people (mostly fishing), but it is by no means crowded. Let me put it this way, you will see enough people to get the scoop on where the moose are and whether or not the fish are biting, but you will not be standing around waiting for hikers to pass.
The 5.5 mile round trip hike begins on a 4X4 trail in a heavily wooded area and will open up to sprawling meadows by the time you near the lakes. The whole area will be covered in yellow, red, blue and white wildflowers.
You can make this hike easy or hard. The basic trail up and back is easy and will only take an afternoon (3-5 hours), but you can choose to add in a jaunt up Mt. Richthofen, or Mt. Lulu if you want. I spent the whole day in the park and did American Lakes, Lulu, and a short way into Rocky Mountain National Park.
If you do hike Mt. Richthofen or Lulu, you’ll see so many peaks, you could probably kill an afternoon up there with a guidebook identifying all of them. The 2pm turn-around applies to these 12,000′ and 10,000′ peaks. By that time Saturday, the clouds had moved in and thunder was rolling just on the other side of the crags. The trail up Lulu is not really clearly marked because it’s talus and easy to navigate, but it will take you longer to get down than you think, and don’t assume you won’t come down the wrong side and spend some time looking for the cairns. Be smart.
To make a day of it, you can also cross over and also do the Lake Agnes trail or go over Thunder Pass and get into the multitude of trails available in Rocky Mountain National Park. Once you crest Thunder Pass, you are no longer standing in a meadow, but suddenly overlooking all of rocky Mountain National. On a clear day you can see forever. The whole area is just unbelievably beautiful.
And now for the details. At the kiosk where you will pay for day fee, there are easy to read maps (above) with all the trails. Easy peasy. If there isn’t a map there, better hope you brought along a guide book. The State Parks site doesn’t have it easily accessible on the web (idiots); you get re-directed to an annoying to use 3rd party site with a million pop-ups .
The trail head is also stupid easy to drive to. From Ft. Collins, follow 287 to west CO-14, bout 2 miles after you go over Cameron Pass look to make a left onto the dirt road marked for American Lakes/Lake Agnes. Less than a mile in you will get to the kiosk and will need to make the appropriate payments in exact change.
Here’s the up-to-date fees for 2012: $7 day pass expiring at noon the next day. $16/night for campsites (course, you can always pitch a tent in the uncrowded parking lot for free). $3 to walk in.
I hear the campsites are hard to get. One of the hikers I talked to reserved theirs back in February when the campsites were already almost booked-up for the whole summer.
I’m not listing the fee for towing in 4-wheelers or snowmobiles because I hate seeing them in the parks. If you need an engine to enjoy nature, you can go look up the fees yourself.