I hesitate to write about this trail, as this particular segment of Trail 600 also known as South Park Trail, is not on the All Trails App. As a result, this seven-mile out-and-back hike close to Denver alludes crowds. While the entire length of South Park Trail is around 12 miles, there are three places where it may be accessed.
Where To Start
The most popular access is near the top of Guanella Pass where hikers gain almost 1,000 feet over two miles to reach Square Top Lakes to the west. South Park Trail also intersects with Bruno Gulch Trail several miles to the south. In between, the South Park Trail shares a trailhead with Shelf Lake. This is the segment I hiked.
Shelf Lake is also on All Trails thus the 6.4 mile hike to an alpine lake attracts many hikers. On the flip side, this segment of the South Park Trail, is not on All Trails. In addition, the trail description at the small dirt parking area mentions a 12-mile trail. Consequently, most people think they’d have to tackle a 24-mile hike and opt for its counterpart.
While the entire trail is 12 miles, it is possible to do a seven mile out-and-back hike from this location. The trek travels north to Square Top Lakes, rather than the popular west route. It is also much harder than option higher up on Guanella pass, as it gains at least 2,500 feet in the 3.5 mile climb to the lakes.
This segment of South Park Trail is so faint at times, it feels like being in true wilderness without another soul. I only saw people at the trailhead who all turned left at the Y to go to Shelf Lake and at Square Top Lakes upon whom I was looking down on upon arrival.
As I mentioned, the hike is steep. The trail climbs steadily through the forest and briefly parallels a small stream before it gradually veers to the left. The less trodden trail turns somewhat indistinct at times thereafter, though cairns point the way. It took me a little while to spot them at first because six to seven in a row had been knocked down or fallen. I stacked the rocks back up, so the path should be easier to navigate.
Soon, the trail reaches tree line where a few bleached, animal bones lay strewn on the slope dotted with early wildflowers. The path follows a few long switchbacks through the tundra before reaching the ridge which provides spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. As I stopped to admire the views, some ants were carrying a dead fly. Check out the 7 second video.
Crossing the ridge, hikers weave through willows and dodge early summer snowfields before eventually connecting with the trail that leads to Square Top Mountain. Ascending the trail to the west takes hikers to a wonderful rock outcrop overlooking the lakes.
I settled down in this outcropping with my new pup, Annie, for a snack while taking in the magnificent view. It turns out we enjoyed the location with a resident marmot. The more adventurous trekkers may continue to the summit of Square Top Mountain standing at 13,930 feet.
My late start at nearly 10am coupled with storm clouds brewing behind me encouraged me to head back down the mountain. On the way, I took a lower route below the snowfield and upon my return I took a higher option before I dropped below treeline.
All in all, it was a great hike on South Park Trail, and I would highly recommend it. ETB
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