When most people think about the Mount Massive Wilderness, they think about the area’s namesake -- Mount Massive. At 14,421 feet, Mount Massive is the second tallest peak in Colorado. However, the area is also home to several scenic lakes that sit in beautiful cirques surrounded by tall peaks.
The North Halfmoon Lakes Trail is a bit difficult to get to, but the reward is worth it – two incredible lakes. Some use the Halfmoon Trailhead as a shortcut to Mount Massive, but on this day, we were using it for its other destination, North Halfmoon Lakes (directions below).
At the trailhead, fill out a free permit form and begin hiking on the old Jeep road. Just a few steps from the trailhead is a memorial cross. Four people died when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed on Mount Massive in 2009 during high altitude training. The memorial honors the four men who lost their lives.
After reading the signs, continue on the old Jeep road through the forest. While much of the first 1.25 miles is in the forest, you’ll occasionally come to a spot where the forest opens up and you can see the surrounding mountain peaks. As you hike, look around in the trees. At 0.9 miles we spotted an old box spring mattress just off the trail. We followed the path and saw a collapsed cabin, a stove and other remnants from an old home here.
At 1.25 miles from the trailhead, the trail exits the trees and you get your first view of the valley you’re hiking up. While you’ll be hiking through some thick vegetation and willows, the mountain peaks above you are incredible.
Hike about 0.3 miles in the valley to a trail split. A sign here tells hikers going to Mount Massive to turn right and hikers staying on the North Halfmoon Trail to continue straight ahead. At this point, you’re near halfway to the lakes, but you’ve only gained about 680 feet in elevation. There’s still another 1,000 feet to go, which means the trail is about to get steeper.
After leaving this large meadow, the trail is back in the trees, though there is a rock outcropping or two along the way with great views of the valley.
As you approach 11,900 feet, the trail takes a big right turn into another valley. The trail winds through the vegetation in what seemed like a "C" curve to me. Suddenly, after all that steep climbing, the trail finally mellowed out. Here you should see a river below the trail, then a cascade. That cascade is an important landmark (see slideshow). I highly recommend turning off the main trail at the cascade and finding a place to cross over the water. Just a couple hundred yards behind that cascade is Lower Halfmoon Lake.
We did not turn off here and continued up the trail. It turns out, that’s a climbers trail – it goes up to Mount Massive, not the lakes. About half way up the valley, I checked my GPS and determined the lakes were to our left and not ahead on the path. That meant we had to bushwhack through the willows and cross a stream. Don’t do that. Look for that first cascade (again, see slideshow) and cross there.
After a little route finding over the cascade/water and along a faint trail heading northwest, you should find yourself at Lower Halfmoon Lake. This is a fairly large lake. Take a break here and enjoy the views. When you’re ready it’s time for the final climb to the upper lake. However, there’s not much of a trail here. We continued on that faint trail by the lower lake as it climbed above the lower lake toward the upper lake. The trail faded in and out, so we mainly tried to head up and northwest. The upper lake is about .3-.4 miles away from the lower lake and 135 feet higher than the lower lake, depending on what route you take.
At the upper lake, you can sit and enjoy the views or continue going up and explore this incredible valley.
Details: The hike to the Halfmoon Lakes is about 6.6 miles with 1700 feet of elevation gain. Add an extra distance if you have to park along the road.
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Directions: From Leadville, drive south to Colorado 300. Take Colorado 300 right/west for 0.8 miles and turn left/south on County Road 11. Drive 1.2 miles and turn right at the sign for Halfmoon Campground. This road soon becomes dirt. From the last turnoff, it’s about 5.5 miles to the Mount Massive Trailhead and 8.1 miles to the Halfmoon Trailhead. Expect a rough, bumpy road the closer you get to the trailhead. Even in 4-wheel drive vehicles, a friend had to park 0.3 miles from the trailhead when the road got even rougher.