Shelf Lake Trail is an alpine lake at just under 12,000 feet in elevation in the Pike National Forest. Aptly named for his location on a shelf overlooking the basin below, Shelf Lake is a beautiful site and is the perfect place to fish and enjoy a snack before heading back down below tree line. During the later summer months, wildflowers carpet the basin floor and thick willows canvas the many wetland areas along the trail.
To get to the trailhead, you’ll need to go up Guanella Pass from either Georgetown or Grant. On the southern side of the pass, you’ll take a turn to the west onto Forest Service Road 119, which turns into 1038. This portion of the road is not paved, and a 4WD vehicle with decent clearance is recommended, but not necessarily required. It takes about 3 miles on this dirt road to get to the trailhead parking area, which is well marked on the right hand side.
- Distance: 7-8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
- Route Type: out and back
- Difficulty: moderate
- Features: views, wildflowers, forest, alpine lake
- Time of Year: July-early September
Note that this high elevation hike is best attempted during peak summer, when snow should be mostly clear at the lake. Guanella Pass Road closes during the winter time anyway, so winter access is nearly impossible.
Hiking Shelf Lake Trail
You’ll start out the beginning of the trail with a series of short switchbacks that go through aspen groves, followed by a relatively steep ascent up a rocky area. This is where the views behind you down valley start to come into focus so remember to look behind you. From there, the trail rises at less rapid rate for a couple of miles. You’ll walk through pine forest and cross several streams. These river crossings are small and manageable without having to take your shoes off to cross barefoot. In the forest, I was awed by the size of the boulders randomly scattered throughout the area. These boulders came in handy later when we got stuck in a massive hail storm – but more on that later.
The last 0.75 mile rises rapidly to the shelf the lake sits on, but the lake is well worth the effort to get up there. Having hiked later in the wildflower season, this higher elevation is where we found the best display of wildflowers on the whole hike. You can see why it’s obviously called Shelf Lake as it truly sits on a shelf that overlooks the basin below. Shelf Lake is a beautiful blue color that you see in most alpine lakes, and just glancing at it you can see that it looks really deep. There were lots of people fishing, and Derek caught a beautiful Cutthroat Trout on one of his first casts.
Unfortunately our time at the lake was cut short when the wind shifted and we rushed down. We got caught in a miserable hail storm above tree line, and the lightning forced us to take shelter behind a large rock at the first group of trees we could find. We sat there until we were cold and our clothes were soaked through, then decided to book it to some real trees. We went as quickly and safely as possible and continued through the trees until the lightning was so close that you could feel the crackle of electricity in the air. We pressed ourselves up against a large boulder and huddled there until the lightning was about 4 miles away. Needless to say this was a terrifying experience and it was sad that it put such a damper on an amazing hike. We hiked down in heavy rain and hail and were soaking wet by the time we made it back to the car. Luckily I had some towels in the back awaiting donation to our local animal shelter, so we gladly used those to dry off and warm up. Because we rushed down, there’s not much I remember about the descent besides being cold and wet.
- As you’ll see with our experience, afternoon storms are common and you should be back below tree line by early afternoon. Because of the lake’s orientation, it was impossible to see incoming storms until they were right above us, which didn’t give much warning to take cover.
- Bring rain gear and wear layers. Bring a snack or meal to have at the lake so you can soak in the view.
While I wish we could have spent more time up at Shelf Lake, we still enjoyed the ascent and limited time we did have there. The hike up was challenging but doable, and the multiple stream crossings added a little fun to the adventure. We saw lots of mushrooms, and truly enjoyed the scenery. Because we liked this hike even with getting rained out, I would love to go back in the future and spend more time at the lake and more time on the descent so we can appreciate the views even more. This area on Guanella Pass is beautiful and we would definitely recommend this hike to anyone in the surrounding area.