Colorado’s Three Lakes Loop Trail

The sunrises on the mountains surrounding the Lost Lake Slough.
A timelapse of the sunrise over Lost Lake Slough.

There are few trails in the world that are as short as Colorado’s Three Lakes Loop trail and yet packed with so much stunning scenic beauty. The level of difficulty (easy) is unheard of too in Colorado. If you aren’t well versed at hiking in the Rocky Mountains than you may not know that the usual hiking trail, especially a loop trail, will send you crawling up the side of 12,000′ pass multiple times.

The Three Lakes Loop trail is a tame 3-mile loop with only 575′ of elevation gain and stunning views of the Rocky Mountain landscape. The loop will take you by three remote lakes and a small waterfall all while meandering through the evergreen forest and Aspen groves. If timed right for the short-lived autumn color change than this stunning landscape explodes in hues of yellow and red.

A drone really helps to take in the landscape of the Three Lakes Loop.

Stats:

  • Distance: 3-mile loop
  • Starting Elevation: 9,612′
  • Max Elevation: 9,981′
  • Total Elevation Gain: 575′
  • Difficulty Level: Easy (For Colorado… moderate if not acclimated to the altitude)
  • Highlights: 3 sub-alpine lakes, stunning mountainous views, a small waterfall

Getting to the trailhead:

CO 12 can get a little muddy after an early snow.

Getting to the trail head can be a bit of a challenge. The trail is found in one of the most remote spots in Colorado. You will first need to make your way to Crested Butte, Colorado and then head up and over Keibler Pass on CO road 12. This will lead you through one of the most dense Aspen forest in the country. See my Colorado’s Best Autumn Road Trip guide for more details about when to arrive to see the fall colors.

From Crested Butte

About 16-miles after leaving Crested Butte you will come to an area on the dirt road with an opening in the trees. On the right, there is a nice area for dispersed camping and on the left is a small road. This is supposedly CO road 706, although I don’t recall ever having seen a road sign here. Take the left turn and the road will climb for about 3 miles to the Lost Lake Slough campground and day use areas.

A birds-eye-view of the Lost Lake Slough.
Drone shot of the Lost Lake Slough. The campground is in the trees on the left side.

Lost Lake Slough campground

The campground is on the left and it does cost money to overnight here. It is a stunning place to camp and I can’t recommend it enough. Jennifer and I stayed here in a tent one extremely cold September night and awoke to about 6 inches of fresh snow covering the entire landscape. The cold was unpleasant, but the scenery made it one of the most memorable and enjoyable camping experiences we have ever had.

Lost Lake Slough Day Use Area

The parking area for the Three Lakes Loop hike.
The day use parking area for the Three Lakes Loop hike.

The day use area is on the right which leads uphill to a small picnic area on the right and behind a row of trees a rather large parking area. Park here and set out on your Three Lake Loop adventure.

Hiking the Loop:

A map of the Three Lakes Loop Trail. Don’t miss the tiny trail out to the Hidden Overlook.

This is of course a loop trail so you could hike it in either direction. Jennifer and I have done it twice and both times for some reason we went clockwise… creatures of habit I guess.

Lost Lake Slough

The first of the three lakes.
Early morning on the Lost Lake Slough.

From the day use area, we headed back on the road towards the entrance. We took a right turn on the road into the camping area. Using the road as the main trail we took every opportunity to explore the Lost Lake Slough shore line as the road skirts the north side of the lake. The first time we were here we stayed on a campsite between the lake and the road. It was a really nice spot.

The Middle Creek drainage from Lost Lake Slough.

As the road reaches the north-eastern edge of the lake the trail located on the right side. The trail skirts the eastern edge of the lake for a short distance before heading east away from the lake to cross over the middle creek drainage.

After crossing over the drainage the path leads back to the southwest towards the lake as it climbs up the hill-side on some long switchbacks. The next mile is where the full 580′ of elevation that this short loop gains is undertaken. This trail tops out at just under 10,000′ so if you aren’t use to this type of altitude don’t underestimate this 580′.

Dollar Lake Spur

Dollar Lake is the second lake on the Three Lake Loop trail.
Get on the trail early to get amazing reflections of the surrounding peaks in Dollar Lake.

A directional sign on the Three Lakes Loop trail.
The Three Lakes Loop trail is well signed.

At 1.1-miles from the lake, the trail encounters the spur to Dollar Lake. The spur is only 0.1 miles, but it does continue to climb until it tops the ridge with a short descent down to the lake itself. We feel like this is so remote it is a hidden gem. This is my favorite of the three lakes.

The Hidden Overlook

An overlook of Colorado's massive Aspen Forest.
The hidden overlook of Afley Peak and Colorado’s largest colorful Aspen Forest.

Just before reaching Dollar Lake and very close to the where the trail tops the ridge there is a thin trail that leads off to the left side. This spur leads to some of the best overlooks of the aspen covered valley and Afley Peak.

Back on the Main Three Lakes Loop Trail

We then returned to the intersection on the main loop and continued clockwise. Shortly the trail crosses over a steep somewhat exposed area of the trail that has sweeping views of the Lost Lake Slough with Marcellina Mountain rising in the distance. Enjoy the views, but watch your footing as a slip here would result with a long slide back to the bottom.

No drone needed for this view. The Three Lakes Loop trail opens up with clear views of Lost Lake Slough and Marcellina Mountain.

The Small Waterfall

A small waterfall found on the Three Lakes Loop trail.
I would imagine the waterfall is more impressive in the early summer during the melt. By the autumn it is a trickle trying to freeze.

0.7 miles after the spur for Dollar Lake we found the small spur to the waterfall. The sign here says that it is 0.1 mile spur as well, but the two spurs feel vastly different. The spur to the falls is nearly flat. The small trickling waterfall is nice but not even close to the best found in Colorado, still it is worth the 0.1 mile spur for sure.

Descending towards Lost Lake

After returning to the junction we again continued clockwise. The trail here leads through pine forest spotted with small Aspen clusters on its way to the Lost Lake.

After another quarter-mile, the trail arrives at the shore of Lost Lake. This seems to be a popular fishing spot as both times Jennifer and I have been here there were multiple anglers trying their luck.

The snowy shoreline of Colorado's Lost Lake.
Lost Lake has a lot of timber on the outlet side of the lake. This seems to be a great spot to fish.

Finishing the Three Lakes Loop

The runoff of Lost Lake on the Three Lake Loop trail.
The outlet stream from Lost Lake.

Once we had seen the lake we continued on the trail which leaves the lake near the lake’s creek outlet. The trail descends from the Lost Lake at a gradual even pace for another 0.7 miles back to the day use parking area. This section of trail starts and ends in Aspen trees, but in between it is mostly an evergreen forest. There is one confusing spot where the trail splits unexpectedly. It seems that both paths lead back to the same trail, but take the quick descent to the right as it seems to be a little less confusing.

Tips:

  • I recommend the autumn. The Aspens paint their branches in yellow and red hues as well as the trail.

    Although this is an easy Colorado trail it is located at a high elevation. If you aren’t acclimated it could be difficult. Drink lots of water and take it slow. No need to rush it is a short trail.

  • Best time to visit is in the autumn during the Aspen color change.
  • Dress in layers
  • Carry Bear Spray

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