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Camping At Turquoise Lake Recreation Area

September 14, 2010
Filed under Camping Destinations, West Camping

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Like sterling-silver charms strung about a blue-green gemstone, the campgrounds of the Turquoise Lake Recreation Area are treasures that are only a two-hour drive west of Denver. Located in the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains near Leadville, the campgrounds are named for nearby gold and silver mines and the mineral tycoons who owned them. They offer access to boating, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and beaches with million-dollar views.

The Campsite at Turquoise Lake Recreation Area


Eight campgrounds ring the lake. Some sites look out over the water to 13,000-foot peaks beyond. Others are tucked into secluded forests and meadows. The campgrounds are equipped with picnic tables, fire rings, toilets, and drinking water. The Belle of Colorado campground is for tents only, and is on a first-come, first-served basis. All of the other campgrounds have some first-come, first-served sites, but the majority of the campsites can be reserved. There is no dispersed camping allowed around the lake.

The Tabor Boat Ramp offers room for RVs up to 37 feet in length, but is closed to trailered-boat launching until further notice due to invasive-species (zebra mussels, primarily) restrictions. However, hand-carried boats, such as jon-boats, canoes and kayaks are acceptable at Tabor. Matchless Boat Ramp near Silver Dollar Campground is open to trailered-boat launching.

Wild Sights


At an altitude of 9800 feet above sea level, the air here is thin and crystal clear — all the better for sighting wildlife, whether it’s pika or marmot above timberline, or elk and mule deer in the woods near your campsite. Bears have been known to visit the area, so keep a clean camp and store your food, cooking gear, and toiletries in the car when they aren’t in use. Porcupines are common in the forests, as are chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels.

You’ll also likely hear a chickaree’s scolding call. Steller’s jays, chickadees, and an occasional bluebird flit through the branches, while numerous hummingbirds may be attracted to bright red objects around your campsite. Occasionally beavers are seen along streams near Turquoise Lake, and if you are very lucky, you might spot river otters playing there as well.

High-Country Hiking around Turquoise Lake Recreation Area


Several nearby hiking tails wind through the woods and climb to spectacular viewpoints. Others follow tumbling streams to glacier-carved pockets with trout-filled lakes.

The Turquoise Lake Trail follows the eastern and northern shoreline for 6.4 (one-way) easy-to-moderate miles. Great for families, it leads to several campgrounds and picnic areas. Braiding in and out of lodgepole pines, it treats you to changing views of the lake and peaks beyond.

High above Turquoise Lake, Hagerman Pass crosses the Continental Divide. Just beneath this lofty ridge lies the abandoned bed of the Colorado Midland Railroad.

Built in the 1890s, now it is a winding complex of paths, tunnels and ghost towns. The official trail is hard to trace, but it follows a 5.5-mile loop through the alpine meadows and then passes what was once the site of a giant trestle. Although the old train-bridge is no longer there, you can still find artifacts among the wildflowers in the gulch it once crossed.

Fishy Business

Anglers will find plenty of action in Turquoise Lake. Rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and brook trout swim its waters, as do mackinaw and kokanee. In this incredible setting, it’s worth it to rise before the sun and catch the rosy pre-dawn alpenglow that reflects from the peaks.

Across from the May Queen Campground, a pullout and trailhead marks the beginning of the Lake Fork Creek Trail. It climbs northwest for 2.1 miles to pretty Timberline Lake, providing good fishing opportunities along the way. Within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area, these waters are catch-and-release only, with artificial flies and lures. Greenback cutthroat trout are being restored in the creek and the lake.

With 1780 acres of open water, Turquoise Lake is also popular with boaters. Sailboats catch the mountain breezes for beautiful, fast rides. Those same winds can be awfully chilly for power boaters as they splash through water that was snow the day before. Still, a few die-hard water skiers don wetsuits and brave the frigid waters. Bright summer days can make the lake a busy place.

As the sun sets, the breezes calm, and the bigger boats are winched onto their trailers, Turquoise Lake becomes even more beautiful for canoeists following the shoreline to watch the evening settle in.

Star Bright

Far from city lights, Turquoise Lake offers stargazing that will blow your mind. For a treat, bundle up against the nighttime frost, grab a blanket and a comfortable camp chair to sit in, and sneak quietly to the water’s edge. The soft lapping of waves and the rush of air through pine needles make a sweet soundtrack for the spectacle above. Take a deep breath of sweet mountain air and watch the silhouette of the Great Divide fade into the inky sky. It will be a bright spot in an already brilliant weekend getaway.

Getting There

From Denver, take Interstate 70 west to exit 195, near Copper Mountain, and go south on Colorado Route 91 to Leadville. From Leadville’s main street, Harrison Avenue, turn right (west) onto 6th Street and follow it to McWethy Drive. Go right on McWethy and then merge into County Road 4, going west. Cross the railroad tracks and the Arkansas River, then follow the road straight into the recreation area.

The heavy snowfall often doesn’t completely melt until mid-May. Summer days can still be crisp, with high temperatures just reaching the 70s. Still, you can work up a sweat in the sunshine. Wear layers to adjust to changing temperatures. Apply sunscreen often to protect against high-altitude sun exposure. Nighttime lows in the summer dip toward freezing, so bring good warm sleeping bags and be prepared to bundle up.

At nearly two miles above sea level, it is easy to feel the affects of altitude sickness. Drink two liters or more of water each day and avoid alcohol, which makes symptoms worse. (Filter or treat water in the lakes and streams before drinking.) Take it easy, rest frequently, and eat plenty of high-energy food when exercising.

Reserve campsites at 877/444-6777 or recreation.gov. Contact the San Isabel National Forest Leadville Ranger (719/486-0749) for more information.

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