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Colorado Lakes Perfect for Paddling

By Emily Krempholtz

There’s no way around it—this summer has been hot. Whether you’re dealing with 100°+ temperatures in the Front Range and Western Slope or the worse-than-usual drought that’s affecting more than 90% of the state this year, it’s been a summer to remember (and that’s before you take into account current events, like devastating wildfires or, you know, that pesky pandemic…). During a season like this, cooling off isn’t just a perk, it’s practically a necessity, and while Colorado is home to many bodies of water great for rafting, swimming, and fishing, there’s just something extra relaxing about a day spent on the lake, with a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard. From the Front Range to the Western Slope, we’ve got you covered when it comes to having fun and making a splash out of the rest of your summer, and hopefully it will help you stay cool until the weather breaks.

Lakes by Region

Depending on where you live or where you’re coming from, you might be looking for a lake that’s close by and easily accessible, especially if you’re hauling a boat or meeting friends when you get there. There are lakes and reservoirs across Colorado that are great for paddling. Be sure to check out the details before you go, because while some don’t allow motorized boats on their waters, some lakes do, which means you’ll be dealing with some choppier waves, and while this is totally doable and even fun for a lot of people, it’s not always ideal for beginners.

Front Range Lakes

The Front Range has a ton of great lakes for paddling, including Horsetooth Reservoir near Fort Collins, Cherry Creek Reservoir or Chatfield Reservoir just south of Denver, Boulder Reservoir, Evergreen Lake, Bear Creek Lake, and Monument Lake or Prospect Lake near Colorado Springs. In the Front Range, you’ll find clear blue skies and hot, sunny weather during the summer, which makes jumping off that paddleboard and going for a quick swim all the more appealing. 

Ruby Horsetooth

Central Colorado Lakes

Whereas lower elevation lakes have hot weather and cool swimming opportunities, kayaking, canoeing or paddleboarding in the central Rockies affords some unbeatable views, as well as cooler temperatures and, depending on the lake, icy cold refreshing water. Right off of I-70, Dillon Reservoir is a popular lake for paddling, with islands and isolated coves to discover, and tons of nearby camping. As a bonus, there are no motor boats or swimming allowed on the reservoir, so you won’t even have to worry about choppy waters from nearby water skiers or tubers. Similarly, Tarryall Reservoir in Park County is a calm, small lake that’s perfect for beginners or anyone looking for a peaceful day. Other great lakes for paddling in central Colorado include Green Mountain Reservoir in Heeney (one of the best kept secrets on Colorado!), and Leadville’s gorgeous Turquoise Lake. 

Turquoise Lake

Northern Colorado Lakes

Grand Lake (the largest and deepest non-manmade lake in Colorado!) and the connected Shadow Lake are without a doubt the best-known lake in the area. Both lakes are connected by a gate, so you could potentially explore both at once, but real talk—unless you’ve got weeks to be out on the water, you’re probably going to have your hands full trying to see even a fraction of one of these lakes. Grand Lake is a popular spot though, so if you’re looking for something a little more private and peaceful, try Wolford Mountain Reservoir near Kremmling, which has more than 1500 acres of surface area and is one of the least-frequented reservoirs in the state. Another great spot in the northern region of the state is Steamboat Springs—you can paddle to your heart’s content on Steamboat Lake or Stagecoach Reservoir, all with fantastic views.

Southwest Colorado Lakes

Right behind Grand Lake in the list of largest natural lakes is Lake San Cristobal, where you’ll be sharing the water (and the jaw dropping views of the San Juans!) with motorized boaters and plenty of fishermen looking for a lucky catch, but the lake is certainly big enough for everyone, and has a lot of designated picnic areas for fun both in and out of the water. Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison is another great choice, with a truly massive body of water to explore. If it’s views and seclusion you’re looking for, you’ll want to bring your board or kayak out to Trout Lake near Telluride, or Vallecito Lake, about 30 minutes drive from Durango, which are both the kind of place that are going to make you want to secure a waterproof phone case so you can bring it out on the water with you to take pictures.

Vallecito Lake

Western Slope Lakes

There are more than three hundred lakes on Grand Mesa, and while they vary in size, popularity, and seclusion, bringing your canoe or SUP out that way means you’re absolutely bound to find your Goldilocks “just right” spot. Near Silt, you’ll find Grass Valley Reservoir, which you’ll likely be sharing with anglers but which makes for a peaceful day on crystal clear waters. Other great paddling lakes on the Western Slope include Sweitzer Lake State Park in Delta, and James M. Robb Colorado River State Park, which has a number of lakes to explore.

Renting a Boat, Kayak, or Paddleboard

If you don’t own your own, can’t borrow one from a friend, or straight up don’t know how to kayak or SUP, most of the lakes listed above have nearby services for renting equipment. Many offer (or even require) lessons before you even hit the water to make sure you understand what you’re doing and have a grip on safe practices before you head out onto the lake. Shop around when it comes to these rental services for the best prices and packages, and do a bit of research or ask around to decide what you want, because there are several options, like two-person kayaks or inflatable paddleboards, which might interest you. You’ll also find rentals at local sporting goods stores or adventure companies, such as the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Buena Vista, or Journey Quest in Cotopaxi.

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