Located at an elevation of 12,830 feet on Mt. Evans, Summit Lake is a forty-acre alpine lake known for its scenic beauty and unique ecosystem. Acquired by Denver in 1924 as part of the city’s system of mountain parks, it is the highest Denver park as well as the highest city park in North America. In 1965 it became the first National Natural Landmark in Colorado.
Summit Lake lies just north of the summit of Mount Evans, about forty miles west of Denver. It is in an amphitheater-like cirque, with steep walls to the west and south rising more than 1,000 feet above the lake. To the east, meandering streams create alpine wetlands as they drain the lake down a gently sloping Alpine meadow known as Summit Lake Flats. These streams are the start of Bear Creek, which flows east through Evergreen and Morrison on its way to the South Platte River.
Extreme conditions and a short growing season make survival difficult for plants and animals around Summit Lake. Snow typically melts in June; spring begins in July; fall arrives in August; and the long winter starts with the first snow in September. The area around the lake is one of the best examples of Arctic tundra in the contiguous United States. It supports several rare plants that otherwise occur only above the Arctic Circle, including Saxifraga foliolosa, a small forb. Wildlife include marmots, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elk, ptarmigan, and several rare butterfly species.
Denver Mountain Parks
The Denver Mountain Parks system was established in 1913. Within a few years the popularity of the mountain parks and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park—established in 1915—led the Mountain Parks Advisory Commission and the Denver Chamber of Commerce to lobby for a new Denver National Park encompassing Mount Evans and surrounding areas.
To boost the lobbying effort, the city of Denver started to build a road to the summit of Mount Evans from Bergen Park, a popular stop on circle drives through the mountains. From 1916 to 1919 the city invested $85,000 to build eleven miles of highway from Bergen Park to Squaw Pass, believing that the federal government would continue the road once Denver National Park was established.
Denver National Park never became a reality, however, because of a turf war between the US Forest Service—which owned the land—and the newly established National Park Service. The Forest Service opposed giving the land to the National Park Service, preferring to develop the Mount Evans area for recreational use itself. Denver entered into an agreement with the Forest Service to develop Mount Evans for recreational activities such as camping, hiking, fishing, and driving, with the Forest Service continuing the road from Squaw Pass to Echo Lake.
As part of its agreement with the Forest Service, Denver promised to acquire Echo and Summit Lakes, which were held at the time as private property within the national forest. As the Forest Service neared completion of the road to Echo Lake (now known as Squaw Pass Road), Denver purchased the lake in 1921. Three years later, Denver acquired Summit Lake, which the road reached in 1925. The road to the summit of Mount Evans was completed in 1930.
Summit Lake Park contains 160 acres, including the forty-acre lake. In the 1930s, Civilian Conservation Corps workers built a one-story rustic stone shelter near the lake. The shelter was designed by the prominent Denver architect Jules Jacques Benois Benedict, who designed similar rustic stone shelters for many other Denver Mountain Parks as well.
Preserving Summit Lake Today
Less than ninety minutes from Denver by car, Summit Lake quickly became a popular destination for Front Range residents and tourists. Many people went there to picnic and pick wildflowers. In addition, the lake was stocked with fish to attract anglers. The curator of the University of Colorado Herbarium, William A. Weber, recognized that regulations on human activity at Summit Lake were needed in order to save the area’s unique ecosystem, and he pushed for better preservation of the lake. As a result of these efforts, in 1965 the lake was designated as a National Natural Landmark, the first in Colorado.
Summit Lake can be reached via Mount Evans Road, which is usually open to the lake from Memorial Day to mid-September each year. Often considered one of the most beautiful of Denver’s Mountain Parks, Summit Lake receives heavy visitation on summer weekends. In 2010–11 Wildlands Restoration Volunteers constructed a new trail from the parking lot to the Chicago Lakes Overlook. Summit Lake also provides access to trails in the surrounding Mount Evans Wilderness.