Happy Hiking: Watanga Lake

  • Watanga Lake
  • Distance:  7.9 miles
  • Type: Hard, out-and-back
  • Elevation Gain: 2,522 ft
  • Other: Dogs Allowed
  • All Trails Link

Watanga Lake is located in the Indian Peaks Wilderness of Arapaho National Forest.  It is named for a Southern Arapaho Chief who lived in the late 1800’s.

I tried hiking to Watanga Lake a year ago in June and there was too much snow to even get to the trail junction.  This year, I waited until late July and hiked the Roaring Fork Trail to the lake with my friend Tina.  This was our third and final hike while visiting Grand Lake.

The trailhead to Watanga Lake may be found on the other side of Lake Granby.  After a night of rain, we were blessed to see low clouds and fog lifting off the lake’s surface as we drove to our destination.

lake granby

Aside from the mosquitoes, we were the first to arrive in the circular dirt parking lot.  We laced up our shoes, strapped on our packs, and headed out.

The Hike to Watanga Lake

The trail is flat for about a quarter mile before it ascends steeply up the mountain side.  Views of Lake Granby may be seen intermittently between the evergreens at the beginning of the ascent.

After about one mile, hikers get a reprieve as the incline softens.  The path, dotted with wildflowers, crosses Watanga creek a few times as it continues through the lush forest.

Soon the path weaves through some large boulders.  Here, the smell of decay lingered in the air.  I jokingly said, “Maybe it’s the bear in the area” based on the warning sign posted at the trailhead.

Tina promptly hollered, “Hey bear,” and tapped her hiking poles together, so if it were a bear, we’d scare it off.  I, with my camera ready, however, told her to be quiet!  Ha Ha…wishful!  We were too loud for any animal to stick around. 

Plus, I don’t think it was a bear anyway, just a terrible stench that we were happy to leave behind.   It is nice to hope though. I really loved seeing the moose, weasel, elk, pika and marmots on our previous two hikes, Mount Ida and Bowen Lake

In the end, I wasn’t skunked.   While packing up the car to leave Grand Lake Lodge the following morning, I watched a bear cross right behind a guy walking his dog in the parking lot!  He was completely oblivious.  Oh, how I would have liked to capture that scene!  At least I managed to snap a few shots upon driving home.  But I digress.

bear at grand lake lodge

Back to the hike and the welcome crisp, clean air.  At about 2.5 miles into our trek, we reached a trail junction.  Here the Roaring Fork Trail turns right up the mountain while the trail to Watanga Lake continues straight.

The trail flattens briefly prior to ascending steeply past a slope of wildflowers and waterfall (there were two on this trail).  For the last half-mile, the grade lessens and soon hikers are rewarded with the view of Watanga Lake tucked in the subalpine terrain.

watanga lake

10 Second Video View of Watanga Lake

At Watanga Lake

We sat on its southern shore for a while as we snacked on our lunch and watched the trout dart from the cover of one rock to next.  Then surprisingly, two different creatures caught my eye. The first looked like a grassy covered mollusk which crawled across the rock.  The other looked like a tiny eel the size of an earth worm.

Seriously, I was so mesmerized.  I’ve never seen anything like either one in a sub-alpine lake at almost 11,000 feet.  If anyone knows what these creatures are, please comment.  Or forward this link to someone who might know.  I posted the photos on the app iNaturalist to no avail.

In the meantime, Tina wasn’t nearly as amused, though after some coaxing I did her to walk to the east where the map showed two more lakes.  These were soggy mud pits, so we returned to the lake where she napped while I played with my lensball.  It was fun to mess around at the lake which we had completely to ourselves.

lensball photo of Tina napping

In fact, we were shocked to hardly see a soul on the trail.  All be it a Thursday, we didn’t run into anyone until our descent, and in total we may have counted 11 people.  Want to social distance during COVID?  Hike to Watanga Lake!  Don’t forget your water and sunscreen. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

3 thoughts on “Happy Hiking: Watanga Lake

    1. The eel is a brook lamprey and the mollusk is a cadisfly larva that uses leaves for camouflage and will hatch into a fly. Fortunately I had one friend whose brother has a masters in fishery and matinee biology!

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