ranger lakes near walden

Five Hikes Near Walden

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The town of Walden is located off Highway 14 in Jackson County.  The town of a little over 1,000 has two gas stations, a Family Dollar, a handful of restaurants, a beautiful courthouse, an interesting museum, and many motel type places to stay. 

It sits on a glacial plain called North Park, also known as the moose viewing capital of Colorado.  Nearly 80% of the surrounding land is public.  As a result, hiking, hunting, and fishing opportunities abound.

State Forest State Park

A hiker at heart, I made a last-minute decision to head toward State Forest State Park from Denver in hopes to spot some moose and to find some fall color.    State Forest State Park located approximately 30 minutes east of Walden.  The drive from Fort Collins through the canyon is spectacular but be sure to fill up beforehand as fuel is scarce until reaching Walden, over 100 miles away.

There are many campgrounds in different areas throughout the 70,000 acre park.  I thought it would be easy to just pull in and pay for a campsite at the Crags Campground.  Not so.  All campsites are by reservation only and there is no cell service to call or to get online.

Fortunately, the Moose Visitor Center isn’t too much further down the road, and it is open from 9 to 5 daily.  I always like stopping in the visitor center anyway, as many times it is a great source of information.  While the employees couldn’t say the best time to view moose (which skunked me after five hikes), the pamphlets and area newspapers are always great to pick up.  How else would I have known about the tiny County Fair?

Anyway, with my campsite reserved at the Crags which featured basic amenities of a picnic table, fire pit, pit toilets, and a sign warning, “active moose area,” I planned my hikes.  Fortunately, I had a gut feeling that this area of northwestern Colorado would be remote, so I downloaded an offline google map as well as AllTrails hiking options before I reached the area.

Snow Lake (Moderate – 7.9 Miles)

On Wednesday, I set out for Snow Lake via American Lakes Trail.  The trailhead is just a mile or two from the Crags Campground.  The 7.9-mile roundtrip follows a narrow road through the evergreen forest.  It continues across a dirt road and slowly changes into a single-track path as it zig zags up the mountain slope over a gentle grade.

Soon the trail enters a high alpine meadow with magnificent views of jagged mountain peaks and American Lakes.  The tranquil waters of American Lakes afford lovely reflections of the surrounding mountains. 

american lakes in state forest state park

Knowing the last quarter mile was a steep scramble to Snow Lake, I was tempted to stop here, but I carried on to the blue waters tucked in the rocky cirque.  I shared much of this section with lots of chirping marmots and was proud of Annie at restraining herself from chasing any.  She didn’t even think about it!

snow lake in state forest state park
marmot in walden

Ruby Jewel Road to Kelly Lake (Hard – 10.9 Miles)

With only a deer sighting, we hiked in a different area of the park the following day.  The aspen were turning yellow, so I figured I’d at least enjoy the fall colors.  The rocky dirt road to the trail, however, took us past the aspen and to an evergreen forest.

In fact, the coordinates on AllTrails did not take us all the way to the trailhead.  Instead, the 6.2 mile roundtrip to Ruby Jewell Lake begins at the intersection of Ruby Jewell Road and another dirt road in the park.  There is only enough room for a car or two to pull off to the side at this location.  I was lucky to see a beautiful fox shortly after parking.  Unfortunately, Annie felt she should protect VANgo and bark at it.  Additionally, my camera eluded me, thus my pictures were poor at best.

beautiful fox near walden

Ruby Jewell Road up to the trailhead is very rocky and steep.  I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it when a hunter came whizzing by on his four-wheeler.  Fortunately, that was the only traffic I saw except upon reaching the trailhead about 1.5 miles up the road, where one 4WD SUV was parked.  I definitely recommend a high clearance vehicle if driving to the trailhead.

The well-defined trail climbs through the forest to a meadow at which point hikers are supposed to leave the path and bushwack through the grass to the lake.  Given all the signs to the surrounding yurts and lakes, I was surprised by such an unmarked detour.

Hiking alone and with a dog in moose country, it didn’t seem wise to just wander through the bush.  Fortunately, there is another lake on the trail called Kelly Lake.  I didn’t plan on turning my moderate hike into hard, but in the end, I gained 3,100 feet over 10.9 miles as I continued up the well-marked path rather than taking the detour.

The path led me through a boulder field and then to treeline which afforded some lovely views.  I only crossed paths with two hikers and their dog who were returning as I neared the top, so I had the lake all to myself.  For that matter, I had Snow Lake all to myself too.  It’s always nice to sit in the far away wilderness and just take in the majesty.

kelly lake in state forest state park

While I disliked the start of this hike, overall, it may have been my favorite of the five hikes I took in State Forest State Park near Walden.

Gould Loop Trail (Moderate – 6.1 Miles)

For my third hike, I started out at the Moose Visitor Center and followed the Gould Loop Trail for 6.1 miles.  The relatively flat trail that runs close to Highway got mediocre reviews on AllTrails, so I wasn’t expecting much. After 18 miles of hiking in the last two days, I really just wanted something easy that might give me a chance to spot a moose.

I had seen one female moose tucked beneath the trees on the way to the visitor center, so I was excited to start my journey.  I leashed up Annie and started through the golden aspen.  The scenery quickly changed to an evergreen forest with many downed trees due to beetle kill.

At times the views were lovely, but the surrounding dead wood was a disappointment.  At least a few deer made their home there. I also wasn’t too thrilled to walk by the Ranger Lakes Campground until I came out on the other side with magnificent views of the lakes for which the campground is named.  WOW!

deer in state forest state park

They were more like placid ponds tucked between a private residence and the woodlands.  I felt so fortunate to have enjoyed the reflection, the heron, and the goose as I finished circling them just before a noisy family situated themselves on a bench.

At the intersection which can be slightly confusing, the path, well marked for winter skiing, took me across the creek and up a road past remnants of old sawmills.  Eventually it descended back into the valley, crossed the creek once more and connected with the beginning of the lollipop loop.  Reviews on AllTrails suggested to leash your dog, which is required in State Forest State Park anyway, because you are bound to see a moose.  Nope, with a 7am start, I was skunked again!

Beaver Ponds Loop (Easy – 1.3 Miles)

Because Gould Loop was a relatively easy hike, I took Annie on a short 1.3 mile outing at Beaver Ponds Loop for the afternoon.  The beginning descends through golden aspen to willows lining a creek.  The loop includes posts marking points of interest that a brochure from the trailhead explains.

As I followed the markers, I ascended the hillside for a view of the valley.  I spotted two moose drinking from the creek! Nope, upon further review, they were elk or deer.  Oh well, I enjoyed the fall colors!

fall colors near walden colorado

Lake Agnes (Moderate – 1.6 Miles)

Normally, I don’t hike on weekends because the trails get crowded, but I wanted to see Lake Agnes while in Walden, and I was still hoping to see a moose.  I heard moose had been spotted in the area.

I arose even earlier and drove the mile or so from Crags Campground to the trailhead.  The dirt road has one or two ditches that might make having a 2WD challenging, but otherwise, it was well graded.

The trail begins at a historic cabin, passes by a grassy valley, and immediately ascends through the forest.  It is only 0.8 miles one way and takes about 25 minutes to gain around 500 feet along the switchbacks to the lake.  I was surprised by the moderate rating on AllTrails.  Though somewhat steep, it was very short! 

Reviewers who thought the road was difficult to drive initially scared me off.  I considered walking it, but I was tired of hiking roads.  The mile-long drive proved simple.  I made it in a high-clearance camper van!

The lake features an island in the middle which is probably why people like it so much.  I got there just as the bright orange tips of the mountains faded with the rising sun.  The trail can be extended by circling the lake.  Much of the surrounding area is a boulder field, however, so I only walked about half-way around in search of better views, but the best was upon arrival.

lake agnes in state forest state park

I set my expectations a bit too high for this hike, as I didn’t find Lake Agnes as special as some of the aforementioned lakes.  That said, it was nice to follow a single-track trail rather than roads.

Still skunked on moose, with an evening storm brewing, I extended my stay in Walden one more day.  I hoped for cooler temperatures or overcast skies in the morning. I mean I had seen deer, a fox, marmots, and even flying turkeys! Surely a moose would turn up soon.

American Lakes Trail to Michigan Ditch (Moderate 4.6 Miles)

Fortunately, overcast skies prevailed and the moose were out. I arrived at the American Lakes Trailhead between 6:30 and 6:45am.  It was still a little dark.  Annie immediately growled which means a person, dog, or animal is walking by VANgo.  The latter was the only choice.  I peered out the window but didn’t see anything.

A few minutes later, she growled and barked again.  There was a cow moose!  She walked from the willow engulfed field across the parking lot and stopped to eat a bush just yards from VANgo’s driver side window.  Annie’s periodic barking didn’t faze her, she hardly ever looked up.

As I snapped lots of blurry photos of her in the low light, I heard some twigs crack in the distance.  I didn’t see anything, but I suppose she had better vision (or instinct anyway).  She turned and sauntered back across the parking lot to be with her baby that was hidden in the willows.  WOW!  I didn’t even know it was there. I could only see its ears every so often.

I was so enthralled with the pair, that at first, I didn’t see the bull moose who wandered into the area close to VANgo where she previously was eating.  I should have paid closer attention to that snapping twig, as I don’t have a good pic to show for the young man.

With all the activity at the parking lot, I hardly wanted to go for the 4.6 mile hike, but Annie and I could use the exercise.  Me especially, after sitting in a safari vehicle for two weeks in Zambia.  We gained 761 feet, most of which was in the first 1.2 miles of American Lakes Trail.  Instead of continuing straight like we were going to Snow Lake, we turned right on the road which paralleled Michigan Ditch.

Michigan Ditch was constructed by John McNabb and William Rist between 1902 and 1906 to carry water from Lake Agnes, over Cameron Pass, and into the Poudre River watershed.  Today, the ditch is owned and operated by the City of Fort Collins.

While the dirt road is open to traffic, we didn’t run into anyone and enjoyed some nice views before descending toward Crags Camground.  The last 1.5 miles follows the road that that I took to the trailhead.  Despite only having to move over for one car, I didn’t find this enjoyable.  Had I realized the route, I likely would have done an out-and-back, retracing my steps along the Michigan Ditch and down American Lakes Trail.

Other Things to Do in Walden

North Park Pioneer Museum

Satisfied with my moose sightings, I explored Walden and the surrounding area.  Walden features a beautiful courthouse and well-done museum. The museum is open daily from 10-4 through the summer, approximately May to the end of September.  It is free to enter.

From the outside, it doesn’t look very big, but the historic three-room cabin now includes a basement and an upstairs.  As a result, the museum features just about everything!  China, dolls, guns, cameras, kitchen appliances, clothing, arrowheads, and countless other collections dating from the late 1800’s to the 1950’s. 

north park pioneer museum in walden

It also features a display on the National Christmas tree which was taken from Routt National Forest near Walden in 1990.  I was very surprised by the museum’s extensive collection (in some places almost overflowing) and happily donated to its cause.

Jackson County Fair

After checking out the museum, I drove a mile outside of Walden to the Jackson County Fairgrounds which was holding its annual fair.  Youth showed their cattle while adults did some crafts in the display room.  The three-day fair was TINY, but it is always nice to check out local events.

jackson county fair in walden

Stockman Bar & Grill

I suppose I could have stayed at the fair to enjoy their evening BBQ, but instead I tried out Stockman Bar & Grill.  They make a mean fully loaded grilled cheese on Texas Toast.  The bacon, grilled onion, tomato, and cheese heart attacked waiting to happen sandwich was excellent!  I certainly didn’t need to wash it down with fries, but I did!

grilled cheese at stockman bar & grill

Teller City Ghost Town

Overall, I really enjoyed my stay in Walden.  I would have liked to see the Teller City Ghost Town in the Routte County Forest, but after I drove over five miles down a wide, relatively smooth dirt road, a sign indicated I’d have to drive three miles up a “Narrow, Rocky” road.  I wasn’t getting myself into a mess like that again.  At least this time I had warning.  In Leadville, I had to back VANgo a quarter mile out of a narrow squeeze.  No thank you!

Those miners continue to amaze me, setting up camp in places that are difficult to access with modern day cars!  Anyway, the history, the scenery, and the wildlife are all reasons to visit Walden.  Not to mention, it is a little bit off the beaten path, so those who want a reprieve from society can get lost in the surrounds of Walden.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

7 thoughts on “Five Hikes Near Walden

  1. I still find it strange that we’re so close but the marmots are so different, your’s with the dark fur. We’ve been on a busy trip across Canada and I couldnkeep up with blogging so I’ll have to go back and read some of your latest. Maggie

    1. I know! It is crazy. You mist have snow for many more months than we do or something. I know the feeling of keeping up with blogging. I fail at reading people posts often. I think I’m almost caught up now from my travels, so I look forward to reading yours (and doing a busy trip across Canada some summer)!

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