Monarch Lake, Grand Lake, Colorado
Updated: Mar 28, 2021
If you happen to find yourself at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park without your Parks Pass, and without cash to gain entry, never fear, Monarch Lake has all the nature you can want without the entrance fee. Monarch Lake is a close neighbor of Grand Lake, and is less well-known, so somewhat less travelled.
From the spacious parking lot, you’ll walk a short service road to the trailhead. At the trailhead, you’ll find information about the area as well as a quality vaulted toilet.
Service Road, Monarch Lake Information Board, Ranger Cabin
Hiking the loop counter-clockwise, you’ll get helpful signage and get lay your eyes on the first open view of the lake.
For about a mile-and-a-half, you’ll travel south-east, alongside the northern shore of the lake. Occasionally, the trail ducks into the trees, then pops out again.
Evidence points to bumper crops of strawberries, raspberries, and grapes. Critters will be eating right this year!
Approaching the area of the eastern shoreline, you get your first glimpse of where Arapaho Creek feeds into Monarch Lake. This is also the general area of the confluence of Arapaho and Buchanan Creeks. This is a great spot to take a break and take in the moose country you’re entering.
Soon after walking away from the creek, you enter the Indian Peaks Wilderness and leave Arapaho Creek behind. Here, the forest gets denser, and the air becomes more still.
After about ¼ mile, the trail hooks south. Keep an eye out for signs that will keep you on the straight and narrow.
Eventually you'll make your way to Buchanan Creek. Shortly after reaching the creek, you'll cross a sturdy bridge. Then, you will cross a railroad timber bridging more water. Buchanan Creek is no weak rush of water.
You will be treated to a wide variety of wildflowers for the entirety of the hike.
Continue on for approximately another ¼ mile and you will cross Arapaho Creek.
Shortly after crossing Arapaho Creek, the trail turns to the north-west and moves toward the southern shore, and the completion of the loop. Along the way there are more crossings, over additional streams, but nothing as significant as the Buchanan and Arapaho Creek crossings.
After coming out of the trees, and turning north for the final leg of the hike, a wide-open east-looking view from the west banks of Monarch Lake awaits.
While walking down the service road to the parking lot, a gentleman yelled to us that he’d walked by the dumpster, which is situated at the beginning of the service road, and a bear was inside scavenging. We gave Yogi a wide berth and watched from a distance, hoping to get a glimpse. While waiting for bear to pop out two gents walked up to within 15 feet of the dumpster, one armed with a “smart phone” the other with a tablet, to try to get themselves a pretty picture of the puppy in the garbage can. If you would do such a thing, I ask, and even recommend, that you not go anywhere out of the city or town in which you reside as your smarts meter is running low and we don’t need any people getting bear-handled. Next up, another gentleman decided to drive the front fender of his car to just out of reach of the dumpster door and honk his horn, in an obvious attempt to provoke the bear into coming back to his window, or come out of the dumpster altogether. Here again, the smarts meter is deficient. In all seriousness, don’t do things like these three people did. You can be hurt or even killed if the bear comes after you. Not only that, the bear could hurt or kill someone else as it will be agitated and possibly in defense mode.
This is a 4-mile loop with only about 350’ in elevation gain. I’m going to rate this Easy-Moderate, depending on fitness level and where you are from. This would be a good hike for kids, too. Leashed dogs are allowed, but be acutely aware, for yourself and the pups, the area is thick with moose and bear, and so you need to be able to properly handle Fido if you find yourself face to face with either of these critters.
Wanna go? From Denver, Colorado, drive 90 miles Interstate 70 West until you reach US HWY 40 West. Drive HWY 40 West all the way to Granby, Colorado. From Granby, turn onto US HWY 34 East (right turn) and drive to County Road 6. Turn right onto County Road 6 and follow for 10 miles. There is plenty of signage to keep you from getting lost.
As always, pack out what you packed in. Happy Trekking!
Bonus: We finished the day up with a grand sunset at Grand Lake. Pun intended.
Author: Scott Baker