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Overnight Backpacking at Kelly Lake in Colorado

Overnight Backpacking at Kelly Lake in Colorado

Kelly Lake, among just about every other alpine lake in Colorado, requires quite the arduous hike. The trail is roughly 7.4 miles in, and another 7.4 miles out. Add in a 2460’ elevation gain, and you’ve got yourself a solid trek ahead of you. If you are looking for a great, short backpacking trip, this is the place.

Kelly Lake Trailhead is in State Forest State Park near Walden, CO. State Forest State Park has a large trail system and multi-use trails that make this a great park for all types of recreation.

Getting There:

  • From Fort Collins, get onto US-287 North.
  • Turn left onto CO-14 West into the Poudre Canyon. Follow this for 69.3 miles.
  • Turn Right onto CO Rd 41. You’ll be on this road for 8.7 miles until you see the State Forest State Park entrance on your right.
  • Follow the park road up past the nice car camping spots and follow the signs to the Kelly Lake trailhead.

You will have to pay for parking when you enter the State Park. The entrance is unmanned, so bring cash or a check book to drop payment. Don’t forget to grab the piece of paper from the envelope; this is your parking permit! You’ll have to have that on your dashboard while away from your car.

Kelly Lake is a great trail for hiking, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, horseback riding, fishing, and mountain biking. Hunters frequently use this trail to access the North Canadian Yurt, Clear Lake trail, and Hidden Valley Trail via horseback. The trail can be busy depending on the season, but “busy” here will mean seeing (maybe) two other parties while you’re out.

The trail comes to a junction with these trails after about 1.5-2 miles in. These first 2 miles is where you’ll run into any parties on horseback or mountain bikes, as they’re coming or going on those trails. The trail is a utility road here though, so there is plenty of room for people, horses and bikes.

Cooper enjoying the open utility road on the first mile.

Access/Things to Consider:

  • Dogs are permitted here but must be kept on leash. Check them (and yourself) for ticks when you leave!
  • Artificial Fly and Lure fishing is permitted with a Colorado Fishing License.
  • Fires are allowed only below timberline. Follow LNT principles and use your best judgement when making fires in the backcountry.
  • This is a pretty committing trail, so be prepared for all weather you might encounter. Look ahead at the weather before leaving.
  • If you have a water filter you trust, you can get away with carrying minimal water. If you camp right by Kelly Lake itself, filtering water can be an easy option. This is especially nice if you bring any dogs along.
  • Practice LNT principles while camping close to water. I find it easiest to just remember 200’: 200’ between camp and water, another 200’ between human waste and water. Do not dump any waste from cooking and cleaning into the water. Dilute and disperse this waste-water – “The solution to pollution is dilution.”
  • Groups are limited to 8 back here. If you are in a group, remember to stay in a single-file line while on the trail, and do your best to minimize impact when camping in a group.
  • This land is used for logging and moving cattle, so be patient if the trail is temporarily blocked.

Fall Colors at State Forest State Park.

The trail up to Kelly Lake is varying and just plain wonderful to be on. There are expansive aspen groves that light up in the Fall, and meadows filled with wildflowers in the Spring. The trail is difficult, but don’t let that stop you. There is a good bit of downhill action between the steep hauls uphill. The meandering trail leads to this grueling last mile of a hill, but right after this hill is the lake… and camp!

The trail dissipates once you reach the lake, and you can see where campsites and fire rings have previously been. It is best to reuse these spots, so you don’t disturb anything that hasn’t already been disturbed. In these fragile alpine-lake landscapes, we want to minimize our impact as much as possible.

Wildlife in State Forest State Park:

The Colorado Moose Boom

State Forest State Park’s claim to fame has been the amount of moose that are in this Colorado backcountry. North Park, CO is considered the Moose Viewing Capitol of Colorado. Starting in the late 1970’s, Colorado imported Moose from other parts of the country to help bring back and maintain a healthy moose population in the Rockies.

A part of this initiative was to increase tourism and licensed hunting. With the population of moose booming despite a good amount of hunting, their population can’t really disperse due to large highways such as I-80 and I-25. This has just created more of a population boom. While unfortunate and incidental, this “entrapment” has made it really cool to visit this part of Colorado!

Sunset from Camp.

If you want to guarantee some moose sightings, hike Kelly Lake during the Summer months, as the moose move down in elevation to feed during this season. You can also hike from camp at the lake around dawn and twilight – just don’t forget your headlamp for the hike back!

Moose can get aggressive if they feel threatened, so remember to always give them their space and just observe.

The Fearless Coyotes

The first time I camped up here, there seemed to be two packs of coyotes that were hunting and howling like crazy. Throughout the night, the howls just seemed to get closer and closer to camp. If I wasn’t in a large group with a bunch of dogs, I might’ve been worried.

The packs got super close to camp without really caring.

The Golden Cutthroat Trout?

If you enjoy fishing, Kelly Lake would be a peaceful spot to fish right at camp. Why not strap your rod to your pack and hike it up? Artificial fly and lure fishing is allowed in the park accompanied with a fishing license. You can look at Colorado’s license options here. If you don’t live in Colorado and want to fish for the weekend, they do have day passes that would work for you.

Years ago, Colorado Parks and Recreation tried really hard to stock Golden Trout populations in alpine lakes but haven’t had much success. Currently, the lakes in this area are stocked with Cutthroats. A few forum posts have mentioned seeing Cutthroats with surprisingly golden bellies, and the theory on the street (fishing forums) is that these are hybrids from when the state was bringing Golden Trout into the lakes.

I suggest checking online before leaving for this trail. Sometimes, there will be reviews left by people who have recently hiked the trail. Doing some light research and planning is a good way to learn about any crazy wildlife sightings/events that might’ve happened recently.

It’s definitely nice to know if a family of mountain lions has been seen right by the trail or lake. If the trail is closed, or if there is still a lot of snow on the trail, you can learn all of that by reviews, too. This type of information is what’s mostly on a website like

State Forest State Park is high up into the Poudre Canyon, so there can be snow on the trail long into June. I have only hiked this trail in early Fall, so snow from the previous winter is guaranteed to be gone at that point. This time of year can be perfect, or it

Spam and Hash Browns for Breakfast.

can come with early winter storms. No matter what time of year you go, being tucked away in the high mountains gets cold at night. No need for a summer sleeping bag here; you’ll want your warm sleeping gear.

You’ll also want to bring more food than you think you’ll eat. After getting up this trail, you’ll want to eat immediately…and then again in an hour. Last year, I set up the tent as fast as possible, then pulled out the stove and heated up some ramen.

We reached camp at around 5PM and were going to cook dinner together and start a fire soon, but the immediate sustenance and time to sit was very necessary before socializing.

First Timers:

If you are new to backpacking, this trail is a great one to test your skills on. Weather you are staying for three nights or one, you will have to pack the same amount of stuff. Since this trail is tough, but shorter than a trail you’d hike for an extended backpacking trip where you might hike 15-20 miles a day, you can learn how your pack and hiking boots feel after a hard day.

It is important to break in any boots you have recently purchased before going on a hard trail to begin with, so don’t use Kelly Lake to break in new boots.

Even if you are planning a short overnight trip to Kelly Lake, it is good to begin making a habit of doing some quick research before going out the door. The internet makes this really easy for us. We can easily look up trail conditions and weather on or Hiking Project. Both of these are apps you can download on your phone, so this information can be pulled up in a matter of seconds.

Hiking out.

Break up the drive back into Fort Collins with a stop at the Mishawaka! The Mishawaka music venue is complete with a Bar & Grill. They have amazing burgers and fries that taste even better after a good hike.


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