Willow Lakes, Rock Creek Trailhead, Summit County - Eagle County - Clear Creek County, Colorado
Willow Lakes - 17.4 Miles
Rock Creek Trailhead
|Round-Trip Length:||17.4 Miles (roundtrip distance to upper lake)|
|Start-End Elevation:||9,487' - 11,418' (11,455' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+1,931' net elevation gain (+3,424' total roundtrip elevation gain)|
The Willow Lakes are located west of Silverthorne, CO in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. The cluster includes three lakes and several large ponds in a remote valley of the Gore Range.
Because reaching them takes considerable effort, most visitors choose to camp and take advantage of its accommodating terrain and excellent fishing.
Despite modest net elevation gains and miles of gentle grades, hikers should anticipate frequent gains and losses which are cumulatively challenging. Plan resources accordingly, and allow extra time for the return trip:
Follow the Rock Creek Trail to the Gore Range Trail and bear left (.4 miles : 9,638'). The Gore Range Trail drops to a large meadow and crosses North Rock Creek (.6 miles : 9,505'), then rises steeply into a thick, quiet forest (1.0 miles : 9,795'). Though beetle kill is prevalent, the forest floor remains unaffected and busy with life and color.
The trail bends sharply east (1.15 miles : 9,895') and laces several small ponds before resuming a due-south course. The pace quickens beyond 1.5 miles on a gradual descent to South Rock Creek (2.75 miles : 9,888'). Once over, it climbs steeply to a signpost guiding you left around the north edge of two large, lily covered ponds (3.0 miles : 10,074'). Scan the area for moose, one of many likely places to see them on this trail.
Travel eases considerably to mile 4 (10,292'), where it glides downhill and narrows over a creek (4.5 miles : 10,184'). The trail steepens over the creek in a thick forest that breaks at a vast blow-down area (5.2 miles : 10,315'), leveling through its skeletal remains to the Salmon - Willow Trail split (5.5 miles : 10,332').
The Salmon-Willow Trail bends southwest and rises sharply on a wide, rocky path into the high subalpine. The climb moderates past 6.5 miles to the Salmon Lake Trail split (7.15 miles : 11,061'), where it flattens across a rock field (7.35 miles : 11,105') and over Salmon Lake's outlet stream (7.45 miles : 11,089').
It's worth noting that, despite map depictions that might suggest otherwise, Salmon Lake is not visible nor accessible from the Willow Lakes Trail.
The Willow Lakes Trail shifts frequently in a thinning forest where lingering snow, runoff and overgrowth may obscure portions of the trail at various times of year. Remain vigilant on the transition through treeline, especially while crossing a wide pool along North Willow Creek (7.8 miles : 11,214').
The trail skirts a large pond (8.0 miles : 11,237'), just past which the forest opens with dramatic views of Red Peak (13,189') and the serrated walls of Zodiac Ridge.
The trail banks and rolls through an expanding alpine landscape to Willow Lake #1 (8.2 miles :11,247'), the smallest of the three. It's a short scramble to its cluttered shore, something you might skip in favor of views across the entire lake basin from the main trail a short distance ahead.
Still, those with time may opt to follow the west shore and climb its inlet to reach the outlet area of Lake #2, which offers the most complete view of this deceptively large lake, and one that's not possible from the main trail (it's worth noting that Willow Lake #2 is hemmed tightly by Red Peak, which limits exploration).
The main trail meanders up-valley to a faint spur for Willow Lake #2 (8.35 miles : 11,364'), a rugged but compelling excursion. The Willow Lakes Trail undulates gently above an oblong pond - often mistaken for one of the lakes - to the edge of Willow Lake #3 (8.7 miles : 11,424').
Upper Willow Lake fills a steep-walled bowl just over treeline. Unlike the first two, it's shore is free of obstacles and easily explored. Scale its south slope for panoramas across the basin, and a chance to see mountain goat that inhabit cliffs and spires framing the lake.
GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84View these GPS points on a Google Map
- N39 42.633 W106 10.036 — Rock Creek Trailhead
- N39 42.329 W106 10.199 — .4 miles : Gore Range Trail junction - turn left
- N39 42.024 W106 09.855 — 1.0 miles : Travel moderates in thick forest
- N39 42.117 W106 09.158 — 2.0 miles : Gradual descent to South Rock Creek
- N39 41.602 W106 09.090 — 2.75 miles : Cross South Rock Creek on wide bridge
- N39 41.403 W106 09.051 — 3.0 miles : Sign guiding you left at edge of large pond
- N39 40.941 W106 08.683 — 4.0 miles : Variously level-mild grades through forest
- N39 40.541 W106 08.601 — 4.5 miles : Cross small creek, begin steep climb
- N39 40.183 W106 08.528 — 5.0 miles : Steady climb to blow-down area
- N39 39.913 W106 08.189 — 5.5 miles : Gore Range - Salmon-Willow Trail split
- N39 39.952 W106 08.756 — 6.0 miles : Strenuous climb on wide, rocky path
- N39 39.940 W106 09.084 — 6.5 miles : Grade moderates in high subalpine
- N39 39.654 W106 09.649 — 7.15 miles : Salmon Lake Trail split
- N39 39.254 W106 09.881 — 7.8 miles : Cross vague, flooded area to resume trail
- N39 39.118 W106 10.005 — 8.0 miles : Skirt edge of pond and break thru treeline
- N39 39.003 W106 10.001 — Willow Lake #1
- N39 38.794 W106 10.046 — Willow Lake #2
- N39 38.815 W106 10.413 — 8.7 miles : Willow Lake #3
- Roundtrip distance and elevation gain figures above are for direct travel to upper Willow Lake. Some additional travel is required to reach and explore the shores of the first and second Willow Lakes.
- Falling trees are a potential hazard to hikers and backcountry campers along this trail, especially when strong winds persist. Select camping locales carefully, ideally in healthy swaths of forest.
- The Rock Creek Trailhead vicinity is part of the Alfred M. Bailey Bird Nesting Area. The site was designated by the Denver Field Ornithologists in 1971 in recognition of the area's high concentration and wide variety of nesting bird species.
Camping and Backpacking Information
- Dispersed backcountry camping is permitted in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. No permit is necessary. Camping is prohibited within 100' of any lake or stream. Group size is limited to 15 individuals.
- Due to heavy use, campfires are not permitted in the Willow Lakes vicinity. Campfires are otherwise permitted for dispersed camping in the backcountry, with potential seasonal restrictions. Campfires are not permitted above or within .25 miles (440 yards) of treeline, or within 100' of any lake or stream.
- Contact the Dillon Ranger District (970.468.5400) for the latest on weather, trail conditions and trail-specific usage guidelines when planning your trip. The office is open M - F from 8am - 4pm.
- There are several developed campgrounds in the Silverthorne area and White River National Forest. Contact the Dillon Ranger District for information on these sites.
- Fishing is permitted at Willow Lakes and along its drainage with a valid Colorado fishing license.
Rules and Regulations
- Dogs are permitted on the Gore Range and Salmon-Willow Trail, and within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Dogs must be on a leash no longer than 6'.
- Horses are permitted on the Gore Range and Salmon-Willow Trail.
- Bikes and mechanized vehicles are not permitted on the Gore Range or Salmon-Willow Trail.
Willow Lakes are located within the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area and Dillon Ranger District of the White River National Forest. The Rock Creek Trailhead is located 2.85 miles west of Highway 9, 7.7 miles north of Silverthorne.
From I-70, exit 205 at Silverthorne and drive 7.7 miles north on Highway 9 to Rock Creek Road (FDR 1350). The turnoff from Highway 9 is located across the street from the Blue River Campground.
Follow the gravel road 1.2 miles and turn left on the road marked Rock Creek. Continue 1.7 miles to the Rock Creek Trailhead parking area. Though suitable for most 2WD cars in good condition, the last 1.7 miles are rough and subject to washouts. 4WD - High Clearance Vehicles are recommended.
Dillon Ranger District
680 Blue River Parkway
Silverthorne, CO 80498
M - F from 8am - 4pm
White River National Forest
900 Grand Ave.
P.O. Box 948
Glenwood Springs CO 81602