In the summer of 2019, we lived in a valley right near the pass and continental divide. In this area is Montgomery Reservoir, a dammed lake owned by the city of Colorado Springs. Under the water, there is the remnants of the town of Montgomery, a former gold mining town that was abandoned in the late 1800’s and flooded soon after. Colorado Springs thought the best use for the area would be a reservoir, so they built a dam to catch the snow melt. All that is visible of the old town above water is Magnolia Mill, which is the starting point for what we refer to as one of our favorite hikes of all time.
Magnolia Mill is worth a visit just by itself. While the building has fallen into a state of disrepair, the site is part of Colorado’s colorful mining history. A stream flows next to the mill and cascades down the valley in a series of stair stepping waterfalls before flowing into the reservoir. This stream turns into a raging river during peak melt in the springtime. This trail is definitely not for beginners, as it is a steady incline most of the way. The last 1/2 mile or so increases in incline and difficulty even more, so that last push up to the lake can be the most difficult part of the hike.
- Distance: 7 miles roundtrip
- Elevation Gain: 1,246 feet
- Best Time to Hike: end of July and August (this varies depending on previous years’ snow accumulation)
- Features: wildflowers, 1 stream crossing, 2 waterfalls, 1 alpine lake
- Difficulty Rating: moderate to difficult
Hiking Wheeler Lake Trail
We start the trail by parking in a small parking lot just south of Magnolia Mill. After parking, hike up to the mill and from under the mill’s archway you will see a sign pointing north for Wheeler. The trail goes along the OHV road, which is quite rocky and and rough. There will be points where you will ask yourself, “A truck can really drive up this road??” because it’s such a difficult off-road track. The trail continues north and follows the valley floor. Keep your eye out for the “glass cabin” on the right and a private yurt on the left. The area has a ton of mines, so keep your eyes peeled, especially on North Star’s ridge (the ridge line high up on your right). You’ll start off being surrounded by lots of trees, which will slowly become less and less dense as you make your way above treeline.
The river will stay on your left, all the way until you’re right below the lake. This is where a waterfall coming out of the lake crosses the trail and you will need to be prepared to cross. We were able to use hiking poles to balance and walk across the higher rocks in the water, but without waterproof hiking boots, this wouldn’t have been an option. I can imagine that this crossing would be even more difficult the closer to peak melt your are. Be prepared for the possibility of taking your shoes off and rolling up your pants so you can cross barefoot in the ice-cold water.
When you come to the fork in the road, go right. This is where the inclines and difficulty increases significantly, but that means you’re on the last push before the lake. (If you go left at the fork, this will take you the long way around to Wheeler Lake and you will summit three 13ers – see this AllTrails listing if you are interested in this longer hike). When the trail flattens out again, you know you’re really close to the lake; just go another 50 yards or so and you’ll see it.
Looking at the lake, to the left there will be a waterfall and, depending on the season, tons of wildflowers. Straight across, there’s another, smaller waterfall that comes from another alpine lake a couple hundred feet above. You could hypothetically hike to this lake as well, but we decided against it since some darker clouds were starting to move in. Note that it would be quite difficult and probably include Class 2 or even Class 3 rock scrambles. To your right you’ll see where the water starts to funnel out of the lake and down towards your stream crossing from earlier in the hike. We spent a decent amount of time at this beautiful alpine lake before heading back down the same way we came.
- Pick the right day of the week. Because this is a popular 4×4 OHV road, it can be busy with vehicles on weekends, especially Saturdays and holidays. We chose to hike on a Wednesday, the same week school was back in session, so we had the entire trail to ourselves.
- Start early. This trail goes above treeline, so as with many Colorado hikes, it’s important be back below treeline by early afternoon. Afternoon rain and thunderstorms happen almost daily in the summer, so getting caught above treeline can be dangerous.
- Pack a lunch and eat at the lake. The lake is the focal point of this hike, so take your time while you’re there and soak in your surroundings while enjoying your lunch and a rest break.
- Don’t plan on driving up the road at all. Sometimes you can cut off some mileage by driving up the OHV road, but this is definitely NOT recommended for this road. In order to successfully navigate the rocks, you will need a serious off road vehicle, something that’s lifted with large tires. Even lifted, off-road jeeps will have difficulty with the obstacles on this road.
- Wear waterproof shoes (or be okay with crossing barefoot). Wearing waterproof boots can help you successfully cross the stream, as well as using hiking poles for balance. If your shoes aren’t tall enough, be prepared to roll up your pants and cross barefoot. That water is really cold though!
- Have fun and enjoy!
Please note that this trail should not be confused with Wheeler Lakes (notice the plurality), which is a hike just outside of Silverthorne. The trail in the post above is for Wheeler Lake, which is just outside of Alma.