Willis Lake, Willis Gulch Trailhead, Aspen - Snowmass, Colorado

Willis Lake - 10.3 miles

Willis Gulch Trailhead

Willis Lake (11,742') in the San Isabel National Forest

Willis Lake (11,742') in the San Isabel National Forest

Round-Trip Length: 10.3 miles (trail continues past the lake to mine remains)
Start-End Elevation: 9,305' - 11,742' (max elevation varies by route down to lake)
Elevation Change: +2,437' net elevation gain (+2,758' total roundtrip elevation gain)
Skill Level: Moderate-Strenuous
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Bikes Allowed: Yes
Horses Allowed: Yes
Related Trails:

Willis Lake - 10.3 Miles Round-Trip

Willis Lake (11,742') is located 5.15 miles from Willis Gulch Trailhead in the San Isabel National Forest. It lies in a deep, tightly hemmed basin capped by Mount Hope (13,933'), Ervin Peak (13,531'), Mt Blaurock (13,616') and Rinker Peak (13,783') at the head of Willis Gulch.

Trail Map | Photo Gallery

The route begins off Highway 82 and joins the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) before splitting off on the Big Willis Gulch Trail to the lake. Willis Lake can be overlooked for Hope Pass, a seminal point on the Leadville 100 racecourse accessed by the CDT. 

It's no less compelling with long stretches of varied terrain and open space in the upper valley. The lake is uncommonly long and ringed by contrastingly steep rockslides, gentle slopes and muddy flats. Fishing is quite good with reports of cutthroat up to 18". Anticipate rugged and overgrown sections on the last two miles, but nothing dissuasive.

Note distance and max elevation figures here only reflect travel to the lake; the Big Willis Gulch Trail never actually drops to the lake and instead continues high up the valley wall to mine remains before fading out. A short scramble down is required to reach the shore:

From the parking lot, cross the bridge over Lake Creek and head straight on a path through tall brush. Ignore social trails that branch off along the creek.

Follow signs for Big and Little Willis Gulch #1471 that lead over beaver ponds to the Upper Twin Lake split (.37 miles : 9,435'). Here grades steepen through young aspen on a long SE arc into the gulch (1.0 miles : 9,835').

Travel moderates to a bridge (1.35 miles : 9,893') where it joins the CDT and steepens considerably in a tall, mixed forest beside the creek. There are many cascades on this stretch though you'll have to work a bit to see the most kinetic ones.

The trail climbs 385' from the bridge to the Little Willis - Big Willis Gulch split (1.8 miles : 10,278'). The Big Willis Gulch Trail breaks SW and moderates to stream crossings at 1.92 and 2.3 miles.

It funnels up a tight gulch and climbs 340' in just .35 miles to a meadow (3.02 miles : 10,933') where the landscape opens to a long rockslide that takes a few minutes to cross (3.2 miles : 11,045').

Once over it begins rugged, shifting intervals through head-high willow that limit visibility. Watch your feet and trail closely on these obfuscated sections. Breaks in the willow pass through attractive meadows where you'll find cabin remains (3.95 miles : 11,350').

The trail clears treeline into a level expanse between a pond and the flank of Rinker Peak (4.45 miles : 11,590'). There's good camping terrain around the pond, though you'll have to punch through rocky willow mats to reach it.

The trail rises up the west valley wall to great views over the lake basin and on to mining remains at the head of the valley. There's no designated route down to the lake and you'll have to improvise, but it's better to drop sooner than later because the further you go the more difficult it is to descend to Willis Lake (5.15 miles : 11,742').

Note your departure point from the main trail, as it can be difficult to find on the return.

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Interactive GPS Topo Map

Key GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84

  • N39 03.780 W106 24.256 — 0.0 miles : Willis Gulch Trailhead
  • N39 03.774 W106 24.014 — .37 miles : Upper Twin Lake Trail split
  • N39 03.738 W106 23.864 — .5 miles : Steep climb into aspen forest
  • N39 03.523 W106 23.592 — 1.0 miles : Level arc into Willis Gulch
  • N39 03.351 W106 23.328 — 1.35 miles : Bridge over Willis Creek
  • N39 03.203 W106 23.338 — 1.5 miles : Steep climb up east side of Willis Creek
  • N39 02.977 W106 23.417 — 1.8 miles : Big Willis Gulch - Little Willis Gulch split
  • N39 02.948 W106 23.534 — 1.92 miles : Cross small creek to right
  • N39 02.802 W106 23.877 — 2.3 miles : Cross small creek to right
  • N39 02.700 W106 24.233 — 2.65 miles : Begin steep climb up narrow gulch
  • N39 02.480 W106 24.513 — 3.02 miles : Trail levels into meadow
  • N39 02.421 W106 24.659 — 3.15 miles : Cross long rock slide
  • N39 02.237 W106 24.865 — 3.5 miles : Rugged intervals of dense brush
  • N39 02.024 W106 25.242 — 3.95 miles : Pass old cabin remains
  • N39 01.863 W106 25.690 — 4.4 miles : Travel moderates in open upper valley
  • N39 01.821 W106 25.806 — 4.55 miles : Trail runs above large pond in center of valley
  • N39 01.436 W106 26.093 — 5.15 miles : Depart trail and drop to Willis Lake

Worth Noting

  • The Colorado Mountain Club was founded in 1812. Carl Blaurock was a charter member credited with being the first person to climb all Fourteeners in the continental US. He famously celebrated each climb by standing on his head when he reached the summit.

Camping and Backpacking Information

Backcountry Camping

  • Dispersed backcountry camping is permitted in the San Isabel National Forest. No permits or fees are required.

  • Camping is prohibited within 100' of any trail, lake or stream. Group size is limited to 15 individuals (or 25 total with people + stock).

  • Campfires are permitted in the San Isabel National Forest. Campfires are not permitted above or within .25 miles (440 yards) of treeline, or within 100' of any lake or stream. Location and seasonal-specific restrictions may also apply.

  • Contact the Leadville Ranger District (719.486.0749) for the latest weather, trail conditions and trail-specific guidelines when planning your trip.
  • Nearby campgrounds include Twin Peaks, Parry Peak, White Star, Lakeview and Dexter.

Fishing Information

  • Fishing is permitted in Big Willis Gulch, Little Willis Gulch, Willis Lake and Lake Creek with a valid Colorado fishing license. Contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife or the Leadville Ranger Station (719.486.0749) to learn more about rules and restrictions related to Greenback Cutthroat Trout.

Rules and Regulations

  • Dogs must be under voice and sight control in the San Isabel National Forest.
  • Motorized vehicles are not permitted on this trail.

Directions to Trailhead

Willis Gulch Trailhead is located on Highway 82, 8.3 miles west of the traffic light at 6th St. and Harrison Avenue in Twin Lakes, and 15 miles east of Independence Pass (or 34.1 total miles east of Original Street in downtown Aspen).

The trailhead is between Mile Marker #76 - #77, just east of the Parry Peak Campground.

Anticipate the turnoff as it comes up rather quickly. Pull into the lot and follow the short dirt road to the trailhead at the bridge over Lake Creek.

Contact Information

Leadville Ranger District
810 Front Street
Leadville, CO 80461

Pike and San Isabel National Forest
2840 Kachina Drive
Pueblo, CO 81008

Trip Reports

There are no trip reports on this trail.


"Happened on this trail today with my 13 year old daughter. We crossed the bridge off Hwy 82 and headed up the trail. Trail was well-kept, clear, and very passable. Some very neat views of the lakes below. We stopped and turned around about 1/2 into the young Aspen forest on the big arc described above between point 3 and 4. A very satisfying hike. Only suggestion would be for someone to indicate mile markers with end destination mileage. We headed in on a lark and had fun. It would have helped to know how far we went and how much further there was. I know...should probably look that up before embarking, but we are out of state passing through and cell/internet from our provider non existent. Thank you for this informative site which allowed me to work out how far we went...and, thank you to those who help maintain this beautiful trail."
Geert Pallemans  -  IL Illinois  -  Date Posted: June 30, 2016


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