Guanella Pass Scenic Byway
Guanella Pass Scenic Byway stretches 22 miles between Georgetown and Grant and takes about one hour to drive, though much longer in the fall when leaf peepers are enjoying autumn colors are on full display. The road climbs through an evergreen forest and aspen stands before it tops out above treeline offering expansive views of the Rockies. It’s north end is only about one hour from Denver, thus it is easy to reach a variety of hikes from the metro area.
Here are eight choices that rank from easy to difficult on AllTrails:
Burning Bear Trail
Burning Bear Trail is an easy 7.5 mile out and back trail located on the west side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. It begins near a creek and crosses intermittently through forest and meadows. The best views are during the first mile before the path is enveloped in evergreens.
The trail features an old cabin and ultimately climbs to a ridge without views. Many hikers turn around after reaching the cabin. Hiking all the way down the ridge to the road below increases the distance to 12 miles. The trail begins around 9,500 feet and climbs to the ridge at 10,800 feet, gaining only 1,300 feet over 3.75 miles.
Silver Dollar Lake and Murray Lake
The Silver Dollar Lake and Murray Lake Trail is a 3.9 mile out and back trail located on the west side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway just before reaching the pass from the north. The trail gains just over 1,000 feet in less than two miles which warrants the moderate ranking, especially given it begins at 11,126 feet.
The path climbs through the forest before reaching a nice viewpoint of Naylor Lake. It continues across the mountainside dotted with wildflowers until it comes to Silver Dollar Lake, 1.5 miles in from the trailhead. The steepest part of the climb is to Murray Lake which is worth the extra effort as less people hike the additional half mile.
Square Top Lakes
The out and back trail (#600) to Square Top Lakes begins at the top of Guanella Pass on the west side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. It starts and remains above treeline for the entire 4.1 miles. The elevation gain is moderate at just under 1,000 feet, but the high altitude (12,334 ft) can be difficult for many.
The trail passes through tundra dotted with wildflowers and is home to many pika and marmots. After two miles, it reaches two lakes, though anyone who wishes to make the hike much harder may continue an additional 1.5 miles to Square Top Mountain whose summit measures 13,930 feet.
Being above treeline, beware of threatening weather, and descend to safety should a thunder storm arise. It is best to be off the mountain by noon on this excellent summer hike.
Geneva Mountain Scramble
The out and back trail to Geneva Mountain begins just south of the Bierstadt parking lot on the east side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Hikers start out on the Rosalie Trail at 11,580, head south, and veer off the trail at the first fork onto a faded “road.” There is a barrier of rock and branches, which I’m uncertain if it is serving as a directional marker to Rosalie Trail or a closure marker to the road as there is no sign.
The road forks a few times and a single cairn marks the way each time, but it is best to have the AllTrails app to follow the path that soon dies at the first peak. Thereafter, hikers must wander from peak to peak across the tundra as there is not a trail. The views are rewarding and since the trail ends about 2.7 miles in, there is no feeling like all 7.7 miles must be completed. Turn around anytime to make this trail easy rather than moderate.
Shelf Lake Trail
Getting to Shelf Lake Trail requires turning off Guanella Pass Scenic Byway onto a dirt road (1038), though four-wheel drive isn’t necessary. The trailhead, located on the northeast side of 1038 isn’t terribly obvious, so keep a look out. Also, look for moose in the nearby beaver ponds!
The 6.8 mile out and back track begins just below 10,000 feet in an evergreen forest. It steadily gains over 2,000 feet in the next 3.4 for miles as it zig-zags through the trees to open tundra. When in doubt of the path, maintain elevation as the trail follows several switch backs to the lake. The lake, tucked in a picturesque setting, is known for its cutthroat trout fishing.
Three Mile Creek Trail
Three Mile Creek is located on the Grant side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway and starts at a lower elevation relative to the previous mentioned trails. The 9.4 mile hike begins at 8,900 feet on the west side of the road.
It climbs through the forest and crosses the road as it follows the beautiful creek up the mountain. There are many creek crossings during the 2,700 foot ascent. The last few crossings may need a little negotiation depending on how strong the creek is flowing.
The path reaches a meadow dotted with wildflowers shortly after the last crossing and then climbs to a view of distant mountains. The 9.4 mile distance is calculated to the aforementioned view, though the trail does continue until it intersects Rosalie which upon completion is closer to 12 miles. This out and back trek is rated moderate due to distance, but can be easy with a shortened length.
Abyss Lake Trail
The Abyss Lake Trail is located on the east side of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway and south of the pass. There is no other way to describe this trail except beautiful! It is best hiked in the fall for spectacular aspen. The gold, amber, and crimson colors of autumn will not disappoint. Having said that, the 16-mile hike will take forever with countless photo opportunities!
The trail begins at 9,400 feet and gains 3,333 feet along the way to the lake. It climbs through the forest as it crisscrosses the creek which may be difficult to cross at the beginning of the season. At around 11,000 feet, it reaches tree line and offers expansive views of the surrounding peaks.
At about 5.7 miles in, the trail passes by Helms Lake. Abyss Lake is two miles further, so don’t be fooled! Many people backpack this trail in order to enjoy a short trip to the lake after camping the first night.
The trail to Mount Bierstadt begins at the top of Guanella Pass Scenic Byway. Mount Bierstadt is one of Colorado’s famous 14ers. It’s close proximity to Denver and the relatively “easy” climb for a 14,000 foot peak attracts countless peak baggers. That said, no 14er is easy.
The parking lot is full before 8am which is probably the latest time to start the 6.9 mile out and back trail in order to remain safe from afternoon thunderstorms. Definitely turn around if dark clouds are threatening as it is not worth being struck by lightning, a strong possibility.
The first mile of the trail descends through the valley, thus it is very easy. The next 2.5 miles, however, climb 2,700 feet, resulting in a very steep ascent of approximately 1,000 feet per mile. The steep terrain coupled with high altitude makes the short hike very difficult.
Look out for mountain goats and marmots along the trail before scrambling over boulders to reach the summit. Aside from “bagging the peak”, the attraction to this trail are the panoramic views that will be enjoyed by many. Expect to share the trail with 100 others.
Of all these trails on Guanella Pass Scenic Byway, I think Shelf Lake is the best. It is less traveled and provides a nice variety over a short distance. Of course, all of them provide an incredible day in nature, so pick the one best suited for time, weather, and abilities. Happy Hiking and don’t forget your 10 essentials. ETB
Rather take a drive? Guanella Pass is famous for its fall colors, and many take the scenic drive. Tours are also available at Viator.
Where to Stay
Want to stay for the weekend and don’t want to camp. Try Kenosha Lodge, Georgetown Mountain Inn, or Hotel Chateau Chamonix.
Check out the photographic note cards and key chains at my shop. Each card has a travel story associated with it. 20% of proceeds are donated to charity.