Wheeler Lakes trail in Colorado is a 6.6 mile hike in Summit County, located near Copper Mountain and Frisco. Not to be confused with Wheeler Lake in nearby Park County, this hike takes you to two alpine lakes that sit right above 11,000 feet in elevation. While the first mile of the hike wasn’t our favorite, it takes you to the true trailhead, which winds through pine forests, aspen groves, alpine meadows, stream crossings, and endless mountain views. Plus, these lakes are home to a surprising creature – read on to learn about our new friends we found!
Head west on I-70 towards Copper Mountain from Frisco. Just before exit 195 to Copper Mtn / Leadville, there’s an unmarked exit that takes you to a parking area right off the highway. Take this exit and park in the parking lot. There’s a small body of water on the non-highway side of the parking area – cross the small bridge and continue on the trail into the trees, and go left on the two track old dirt road. You are now on trail!
Please note that there is no access or parking from eastbound I-70. If you are coming eastbound, you’ll need to continue on the highway to the first Frisco exit, pull a U-turn under the highway, and head back westbound.
The Hike – Wheeler Lakes Colorado
You’ll find that many reviewers rate this hike lower when it comes to the first and last mile, since this section of the trail does parallel the highway. Honestly, there’s road noise and not many views. But think of this as a flat gateway to the real hike, which winds its way through beautiful aspen groves and pine forest before emerging at two incredible alpine lakes. The only reason you have to hike this portion is because of issues with parking closer to the true trailhead (we highly recommend NOT parking at the true trailhead, as there’s plenty of towing signs and you’ll probably come back to no vehicle waiting for you). There is also very little sun protection on this part of the hike, and even in the morning we found it hot, so make sure you’re dressed appropriately.
After you make it through the first mile, the trail starts to wind uphill, and this is where the elevation gain begins. Because the first and last miles are pretty much flat, you’ll get all 1,500 feet of elevation gain in the 2.3 miles from here to the lakes. It’s definitely uphill, but not difficult. The trail is well-marked, and the only split we came across was a fork that had a sign. You’ll continue to the right to get to the lakes, where the left fork takes you further on the Gore Range Trail, which begins at the same terminus as Wheeler Lakes.
We loved the beautiful aspen trees, and would highly recommend doing this hike in the summer for green aspens or the fall for a bright color show. We hiked in late June, and still ran into some snow patches here and there, especially at the second lake. We found this to be the perfect time to visit to see the salamanders in the water, which is something we were not expecting at all!
The Tiger Salamander
When we chose to hike Wheeler Lakes, we had absolutely no idea we would be seeing a Tiger Salamander for the first time! It’s actually Colorado’s state amphibian, which we didn’t know was a thing. It’s the world’s largest land-dwelling salamander, and can be found at a wide variety of elevations. These lakes at 11,000 feet are at the very top end of the range.
Derek brought his fishing gear, hoping to catch some high alpine Brook or Greenback trout. Imagine our surprise when we didn’t find a single fish but instead saw salamanders everywhere. These guys do hibernate, so you wouldn’t see them if you hike too late in the season. On the other side, they lay eggs that and born in the spring, so you may not see as many out and about if you go too early (snow conditions that high won’t really let you go too early anyways).
This little salamander surprise led this to be one of our favorite hikes of the season and we would highly recommend it! Even if there weren’t salamanders, we still loved this hike and would recommend it to any outdoor enthusiasts. We saw only a couple of people the entire day, and had the lakes completely to ourselves. We enjoyed great views of the surrounding Gore and 10 Mile mountain ranges, as well as beautiful pine forests and aspen groves. The Tiger Salamanders were just the icing on the cake of a great day.
Check out a quick video about our hike below!