Chicago Lakes

Trailhead: Echo Lake
Starting elevation: 10,300 ft
Ending elevation: 12,000 ft
Total elevation gain: 2,500 ft
Mileage: 11.5 miles round trip

On my first weekend in Denver, we broke in the hiking legs. I wanted to find somewhere I could feel some elevation but not go for a 14er right off the bat. My sister suggested Chicago Lakes, and it was just the right mix of a tough climb with elevation and great views. The weather was also fantastic.

The day started odd for me since there were at least ten cars at the trailhead. So many people! I had no idea what I was in for come that afternoon though. The trailhead would be packed beyond capacity, with people parked precariously along Highway 103. I am definitely not used to sharing the trail with that many people. It was strange and a little annoying at first, but I realized it was probably for the best. People were enjoying nature and getting fit while also offering a level of safety in numbers if anything happened.

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We are headed to that bowl in the background.

The trail took off downhill: a great way to warm up the lungs, but a looming omen for the end of the day since I knew we would have to come back up. More on that little piece of hell later.

I didn’t feel overly “perky” that morning to begin with, and the trail climbed steadily after dropping to Chicago Creek. But by the time we reached 11,000 feet, I was feeling downright lethargic. I had readied myself for a headache, rapid heartbeat, and tight lungs, but what I felt was simply slow. I could have just been tired from a busy week, but this felt different and only became more apparent the higher we climbed.

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One of the last pulls that took WAY too long to conquer.

At 11,500, I got a little angry since it was frustrating looking at a landscape I knew I would have soldiered up at a “normal” elevation. It was steep, but I was in shape and should’ve been able to take more than a few steps before having to rest. I wasn’t ready for this feeling of inadequacy. I wasn’t used to my body not responding when I mentally thought it should. The feeling was difficult to describe since I didn’t have many of the markers usually associated with elevation sickness. I felt like I was slogging through the end of the hardest hike I’d ever done and my legs were stuck in honey. The situation was humbling and good for me since it reminded me not to take my health for granted.

At least I was rewarded with great views. Chicago Lakes are absolutely stunning, and our day was blessed with a deep blue sky with great puffy, white clouds.

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Yes – I made it!
Good views during our lunch break.
Upper Chicago Lake.
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Can you spot him?
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Looking down the valley from my vantage point around the lake.

Leading up from Upper Chicago Lake is a trail to Summit Lake. I didn’t feel like climbing much more and was worried my head might get cloudy if I did. My sister went up though, and I took the time wandering around to the backside of the lake and climbing a few little hills where I officially hit 12,000 ft. on my watch.

I learned I can commune with marmots. This little guy liked when I talked to him: every time I stopped talking he would take off but come back as soon as I started up a conversation. I tried to feed him an almond, but my aim was bad and he didn’t feel like retrieving. Then I learned feeding marmots is frowned upon since they have sensitive stomachs, so hopefully his day didn’t end up with a stomach ache.

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This animal lover has to get some furry time somehow since Zeus isn’t with me on this leg of the journey. I decided city living in August would be too difficult, and irresponsible as a pet owner, so he stayed at the ranch. I miss him something terrible on my outdoor excursions though!

After basking in the beauty of the alpine lake, we took off back down the trail. I was feeling pretty good by then, so we ran a fair distance. All was awesome until we came to that dreaded uphill I knew was coming but was trying to ignore. The going was ok until about halfway up, with probably only a half mile left. Then I hit a wall, also known as “bonking” when your tank is pretty much empty. I thought I had fueled alright that day, but I knew this feeling from running and is usually associated with your body not having the correct nutrients to do what you ask. If you have ever watched an Ironman competition or something similar, you may have seen someone truly “bonking” if you noticed their running gait becoming strange by the end, like they no longer have control over their limbs. I have never had that experience, thank goodness, but I have experienced the early stages.

Anyway, that last half mile was not fun, but I hammered it out and then we went and had pie. All is good.

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