text and photography by Ryan Stikeleather
Fall. Autumn. Harvest. Football. Everyone has a reason to celebrate the autumn season. While Colorado is lucky to actually have all four seasons: Harbinger of Flowers (spring), Sweaty Heat (summer), Ooohh and Aaaahh (autumn), Super-fun-time (winter)…autumn is definitely one of the best. Not only do the temperatures become tolerable again, but we are rewarded—for surviving the summer heat—with the most beautiful display of colors. And, one of the best ways to enjoy these colors is on a hike.
Just The Facts
- Trail: Three Lakes Trail #843
- Difficulty: Super easy
- Elevation Gain: 600 ft
- Distance: 3 mi. (loop)
- Trail Use: Hiking, Equestrian, Mountain Biking
- Trail Condition: Maintained, and clearly marked
- Bring Your Dog: Yes
- Access: Summer and Fall (Great spot for fall leaves)
- Trail Map: http://www.fs.usda.gov
- Entrance fee FREE
Come For The Colors, Stay For The Hike
Every year, thousands of tourist and locals, get into their fleece jackets, equip their binoculars and totally disregard traffic laws just to spend hours traveling over mountain passes, eager to view the best examples of fall color: Quaking Aspen.
While the Aspen isn’t the official state tree of Colorado (that would be the Colorado Blue Spruce) the two work together perfectly to showcase fall in the Rockies. The deep, dark hues of evergreens (Spruce, Fir and Pine) allow the yellow, orange and, on rare occasions, red Aspen leaves to glow even brighter. While the wide vistas of punchy autumn colors are great from the front seat of your car, the true enchantment happens on a trail.
Kebler Pass (just outside of Crested Butte, CO) offers a gateway to this outdoor charm. And, if you're looking for a quick trek while taking in all the views, Three Lakes Trail is a great option.
Three Lakes Trail #843 is accessed from the Lost Lake Campground and it's busy spot. The campground's popularity stems from it being a destination for fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding, camping, and—if that wasn’t enough—gets you a stones throw away from prominent views of East Beckwith Mountain. So, you should probably check it out.
Which Way Is Which
Ok. Yes, I use “bang for your buck” all the time, but it just works so well for this hike. Lakes (check), Waterfalls (check), epic views (um…check), it’s got it all and you don’t have to spend an entire day to complete it.
The only part of the hike that is a little confusing is where do I start? Since the hike is a loop, I had the choice to start from the east or west side of Lost Lake Slough. The east side of the lake offers the standard trailhead descriptions and markers, while the west side is kind of a treasure hunt. The west side trailhead starts just to the right of the designated parking area for fishing, and only provides a small sign on a post. This is where I started. I don’t have a good reason to start from one place over the other, I just happened to pick this one.
Lost And Lost Again
Passing right by the edge of Lost Lake Slough, the trail doesn’t waste any time, and plunges you into the shadows of tall Douglas Fir trees. I enjoyed the moderate climb up along the hillside, which follows a sweeping curve before reaching Middle Creek. The creek flows from the first lake on the hike, Lost Lake. Yes, there are two lakes named Lost Lake. I don’t know who was in charge of lake naming that day, but that’s what they camp up with.
While much smaller than Lost Lake Slough—the one near the campground—this pool radiates classic alpine lake. Still, blue-green water, littered with fallen trees (lining the bank and scattered along the shallow bed), nameless peaks reflecting off the mirrored surface, quiet, untouched, tranquil. The only downside to this blissful moment: rain. Rain doesn’t bother me on a hike, but the low-hanging clouds often veiled the scenery around me. But, I had the mountains all to myself, so I can’t really complain.
What Is In A Name?
The Falls. Well, at least that’s the name they're given on the trail, and they’re impossible to miss. After leaving the peace and quiet of Lost Lake, I made my way the short distance to this small tumble of water—which is feed from the upper portion of Middle Creek. There’s a trail marker for The Falls and it says .1 miles, but it isn’t even that, more like 50 ft.
Three quick drops guide the swift stream over the smoothed rocks into a small pool below. Golden aspen leaves have collected along the swirling waters edge and stick to wet rocks like autumnal glitter. There isn’t any effort to get to the falls, so be sure to take a peek before moving down the trail.
While photographing the waterfall, I lost one of the rubber feet/nubs to my tripod. The purpose of a tripod is to keep your camera stable, not let one of the legs slowly sink into the mud. Now I get to clean packed mud out of my tripod leg, yay! Kind of a bummer, but not the end of the world. Let me know if you find it.
Some of the best views of Ruby Peak, Mount Owen (and Kebler Pass below) are found on the hike toward Dollar Lake. I met one other hiker/photographer on my way and he wasn’t too impressed with Dollar Lake. While not as impressive as Lost Lake or Lost Lake Slough, it does have its own charm.
Dollar Lake isn’t on the main loop, so it’s an extra hike to get there. The trail marker reads .1 miles, but it’s farther than that. I’d guess it to be closer to .5 miles or even a little farther. The spur to Dollar Lake is all uphill, and does have some loose rocks on the trail to navigate, but the elevation gain isn’t that much.
I decided to have my lunch break on the shore and watch the fog and clouds swirl around the tops of closest peaks. The temperature was starting to drop and light rain hadn’t let up, but it was still enjoyable solitude.
I’ve mentioned my love/hate relationship with switchbacks before, nothing new there. The trail, after Dollar Lake, is all downhill and has five or six switchbacks. Well, downhill switchbacks are a piece-of-cake…unless they are covered with millions of slick aspen leaves and a steady rain. The descent isn’t that bad, and I’m undoubtedly making it sound worse than it actually was, but for some reason I had a hard time keeping my footing. I never fell, but I’m sure I looked like a goofball a couple of times. I’m very glad I had my trekking poles—they saved me every time.
This was the best spot for aspen trees and worth every slip and wobble I might have had. The large aspen grove stretched their gilded branches over the path and decorated the rocks and undergrowth with falling colors. Between the light rain, the soothing sounds from the quaking aspen leaves filled the forest and reminded me of why hiking in the fall is so remarkable.
Nearing the campground, I was able to get another great view of the peaks above Lost Lake Slough. East Beckwith Mountain, dominates the views, but you can also catch the top of West Beckwith Peak to the west. The fall colors, cool mountain air and serene lakes make Three Lakes Trail a worthwhile hike and perfect destination to any trip along Kebler Pass.