Colorado: Gibson Lake, Pike National Forest

Tiny Gibson Lake will take you out of Denver in a hurry with its big-wilderness feel and smirking brook trout.
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Tiny Gibson Lake will take you out of Denver in a hurry with its big-wilderness feel and smirking brook trout.

Little Known Fact: Did you know that smirking brookies will watch you as you circumnavigate Lake Gibson?

While Denver and Colorado's eastern plains swelter in summer's unmerciful heat, snow lingers on the 12,000-foot slopes of the Continental Divide. For those suffering in the city, cool relief is a short drive away.

This pleasant July weekend, we intended to check out rumors of 14-inch brook trout in Gibson Lake, within Pike National Forest. We hit the trail early under clear skies. The climb to Gibson Lake was a pleasant one at a grade of 12 percent. The path crossed Lake Fork Creek, a 2-foot-wide stream, several times along the way.

Conditions seemed perfect at the lake: A slight breeze rippled the surface, and occasional rises tangled the wave patterns. Within 15 minutes Steve had landed a fat 10-incher. "It's going to be great!" he said. Of course, that was our only fish of the day.

As I fished my way around the tiny glacial lake, casting here and there to likely spots, squeaks and whistles echoed down from the talus slopes above. A glance up the hill revealed a marmot sitting nervously on his haunches to warn others nearby of real or imagined dangers.

We could see the mythic brookies smirking and hungerless in the depths. I eventually exchanged my rod for a camera and turned to the shoreline rainbowed in delicate alpine flowers.

Contact Information:

Pike National Forest

South Platte Ranger District

19316 Goddard Ranch Court

Morrison, CO 80465

(303) 275-5610

Location:

Gibson Lake is in Pike National Forest in the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, a 90-minute drive west of Denver.

Getting There:

From Denver take U.S. 285 south. About 2 miles past Grant, turn right on Forest Service Road 120, a rough road that parallels the north fork of the South Platte River. After a bouncy 7-mile ride, park at the poorly marked Forest Service picnic ground on the left, where the trail begins.

Seasonal Information:

The trail opens as early as mid-June. By July, little if any snow blocks the trail.

From June through August, afternoon thundershowers are a daily probability. Temperatures at night will often fall below freezing. Daytime highs range from 50 to 80 degrees F.

October or November brings snow that closes much of the area to all but cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Access is more difficult in winter because the Forest Service road from U.S. 285 is plowed for only three miles.

With increasing numbers of visitors to the area, no season will provide a lot of solitude.

Wildlife:

Bring your binoculars for bighorn sheep. And look for pikas, those small critters that look like a cross between a rat and a rabbit, busily harvesting grass for their breakfast. Marmots, deer, and elk also make their home here.

Gibson Lake is small, but it holds 15-inch, smirking brookies.

Insects:

No information available.

Plant Life:

After crossing an old log bridge over the north fork of the South Platte River, you'll wind through lodgepole pine and aspen forest for about 2 miles. Scattered willows, junipers, and subalpine tundra surrounded the last mile or so.

You'll want a camera for the abundant wildflowers. Blue columbines rise from pink granite surrounded by a carpet of mountain bluebells, kingscrown, red elephants, and white bistort.

Facilities:

Near Gibson Lake, there are two developed campgrounds ~ Hall Valley and Handcart ~ with a fee of $9 per night. These sites provide water, tables, toilets, and firegrates May through October.

Although primitive camping is allowed, there are few areas along the trail suitable for overnight camping.

Parking:

There is a small parking area at the Gibson Lake Trailhead.

Permits:

No permits are needed.

Policies:

  • No fires permitted at this time; use propane stoves. Fire regulations may vary depending on conditions, so check with the ranger station.
  • Pets must be on a leash.
  • Camping is limited to 14 days anywhere within the forest.

Hazards:

Watch for lightning in summer.

Leave No Trace:

This area is heavily used, so if you intend to visit use lots of care not to leave any marks on the landscape.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

USGS 7.5-minute Jefferson quad. Pike National Forest map available at most Denver backpacking stores or from the South Platte Ranger District Office.

Other Trip Options:

For another experience, try mountain biking through the forest's Buffalo Creek area.

For another experience, try mountain biking through the forest's Buffalo Creek area.