“There’s no trail there,” the ranger told us after he hiked the shortest route to American & Snow lakes in Poudre Canyon. While the trail was a bit faint in spots, we had no problem finding it. There were brown trail signs in the ground with arrows along the way for the first mile and much of the trail had blue triangle trail markers on the trees, so we never realized there was a problem.
There are three popular routes to the lakes:
- The Cameron Pass/Michigan Ditch route. 12 miles roundtrip
- The American Lakes route. 11 miles roundtrip
- The Crags campground route: 7.6 miles roundtrip
Looking at that list made our decision easy. We were starting at the Crags campground. The campground trail starts just past spots 16 and 17 (directions below). A sign says American Lakes Trail at the top in small print. I would call this a single-track trail that is a bit overgrown in spots, but park trail workers call it primitive. Expect some steep sections, but they never last very long.
From the campground, the trail switchbacks about one mile up to an unnamed dirt road, it’s an access road. We were a bit confused about which way to go, but after looking at which way the signs were pointing, we turned left.
After less than a quarter mile of hiking on the road, we were back to a trail split with another sign that sign “American Lakes Trail” in small print at the top. The trail is a bit faint, but it’s up the hill behind the sign. Depending on what month you go, this trail is more like a stream.
At the top of this stretch, you’ll get your first view of the mountain range and the scenic Nokhu Crags. This is also an amazing spot for wildfowers in late July, depending on the snowfall.
As you continue hiking, the trail suddenly takes a big turn east. It may look like the talus slope in front of you has a lake above it, but it does not. The trail actually takes you around the mountain range to the lakes on the other side. At the saddle, the views are incredible. Look all around you, before continuing back west toward the lakes. (Along the way you may notice a trail from the east joins your trail, that’s the trail from Cameron Pass.)
American Lakes is actually one lake in the grass, though it may be two lakes when the water level is low. Some people and some maps call this Michigan Lakes. Park officials call it American Lakes.
My map calls the upper lake, Snow Lake. To get there, walk the trail along the north side of American Lake to the rocky slope ahead. Snow Lake is up that slope about 300 feet higher. While you may not want the extra distance and elevation, Snow Lake is what makes this hike worthwhile.
Some articles say the only way to Snow Lake is up that talus slope. Not true. Hike around American Lake to about the middle of the slope below Snow Lake, near the outflow. Here you should find a social trail that winds its way up the grassy area of the slope with just a few talus crossings.
Snow Lake is beautiful. It’s larger than American Lake. So large, you’ll need a wide-angle lens to get a good picture. Even in the middle of the summer, you may find chunks of snow in the lake. While very few people make the extra climb to the lake, it is definitely worth it.
Details: The hike to American & Snow Lakes from the Crags campground is about 7.6 miles with about 1,600 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From Fort Collins, take Highway 14 for 75 miles across Cameron Pass. As you are descending the pass, look for a sign that says “State Forest State Park” and “Crags.” The sign is on the right side of the road and the road is on the left side. Just a few feet after the turn, you’ll need to stop and pay the day use fee of $7 cash. (Park info.) From the turnoff, follow the signs to the Crags campground, not American Lakes. At the campground, drive the loop. You should see the trailhead just past spots 16 and 17. We did not find any parking near the trailhead so we drove the loop back to the entrance, parked in a large grassy area there and hiked 0.1 miles through the trees back to the trailhead.
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