It probably goes without saying, but Alta Lakes Telluride is hands-down one of the prettiest spots in the San Juan Mountains…heck probably all of Colorado. As Colorado locals, it’s one of our favorite places to come back to. The jagged mountain views truly never get old.
Alta Lakes is a gorgeous area featuring three alpine lakes (2 of which are publicly accessible) right outside Alta ghost town near Telluride, Colorado. The lakes sit at 11,300 ft elevation, with an awesome dispersed camping area that’s perfect for summer and early fall adventures.
From our adventures and visit to Alta Lakes Telluride over the years, we’ve created this guide with the key info you need to know if you’re planning on exploring or camping in this area (along with some pictures of the stunning views, of course!).
We’ve included all the must-know details, including the ideal times of the year to visit, when the road to the lakes is open, how you can come prepared for this spot, and the best places to stay nearby (if you’re not already planning on camping at the Alta Lakes dispersed campground).
Disclosure: We’ve included lodging and gear recommendations in this guide to Alta Lakes in Telluride, Colorado. If you choose to book or buy through our links, we may earn a commission, at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support our small Colorado business. All recommendations are crafted with love and expertise, from platforms we use and trust for our own adventures.
Directions to the Campground + Alta Lakes Observatory
If you’re driving to Alta Lakes from Telluride (or Mountain Village), you’ll take CO 145 southbound towards Trout Lake. From there, you’ll come up on Alta Lakes Rd on the lefthand side of the road (at these coordinates: 37.883934, -107.888305).
This is a dirt road that can be pretty easy to miss if you’re not paying close attention. Once you pass the Sunshine Campground on CO 145, Alta Lakes Rd is only 0.4 miles farther south. If you reach the Sunshine Mountain scenic overview, you’ve gone too far.
Make a left onto Alta Lakes Rd. You’ll drive up this unpaved road about 3.8 miles. On your way, you’ll come across Alta ghost town. Stop here for very cool abandoned buildings and mining ruins with sweeping mountain views (more on this later).
After the 3.8 mile drive, you’ll end up at a bit of a fork in the road, where the Alta Lakes campground will be to your left. This is where you can turn to find parking, whether you’re camping or just hanging out at Alta Lakes Telluride for the day.
On the other hand, continue straight/towards the right at the fork to head toward the Alta Lakes Observatory. The observatory is private property, though, so unless you’ve booked it, you can’t technically go up there. But if you’re looking for a truly epic, unforgettable Alta Lakes Telluride experience, it’s totally worth staying here. The third lake (the one we mentioned is private property) actually belongs to this spot.
And What Times of Year Is It No Longer Accessible?
Alta Lakes Rd (the road that gets you to the lakes and the campground) is accessible to drive during a short window of the year. If you plan on visiting in the winter months, you’ll either need to snowshoe or ride a snowmobile in. You cannot drive during winter.
The road is available to drive from the beginning of April through the end of October. However, April, May, and even parts of June will have a good bit of snow and ice on the road. And given this road isn’t for the faint of heart, we’d advise waiting until the snow melts.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to head up to Alta Lakes Telluride at the earliest in late June (although, this really depends on how much snow Telluride gets in the winter before you visit).
If you ask us, the ideal window to visit Alta Lakes Telluride by vehicle is really the beginning/middle of July through the very beginning of October (mid October and onward is really a coin toss in terms of winter storms).
This ideal date range is both for the road conditions, but also because this is when the landscapes up there are the prettiest (more on this later).
Leave No Trace Note: The Alta Lakes Telluride campground is a primitive campground, without the typical amenities (like trash bins). It’s important that you pack out any and all trash you create while there. Help us keep this gorgeous Colorado gem beautiful and free!
As Colorado locals (and adventure photographers who work in the mountains all the time), we know these mountains like the backs of our hands. And Alta Lakes Telluride is one of the spots that never gets old for us.
The jagged mountains and earthy green waters of the lakes (paired with epic free camping) makes Alta Lakes a true Colorado gem.
And on top of it all, the lakes are close by to several of the best mountain towns in the state.
Southwest Colorado’s San Juan mountains are best seen by driving through. If you’re able to dedicate a couple weeks to your time in Colorado, we highly recommend adding Alta Lakes Telluride to an epic road trip adventure.
And we’ve got you covered with the ultimate road trip itinerary that even includes a few of the towns near Alta Lakes Telluride.
If you are interested in braving the winter and want all the cozy, snowy wonderland vibes, snowshoeing or snowmobiling into Alta Lakes Telluride can truly be an unforgettable experience. Although, if you do this, renting the Alta Lakes Observatory is definitely the go-to, so you have a place to stay after making the trek up.
The Alta Lakes campground doesn’t officially open until June, so if you’ve planned your trip to Telluride for the winter months, you’ll either need to book lodging in town or at the observatory.
As gorgeous as our Colorado winters are, though, we’re personally suckers for Alta Lakes Telluride in the summer and early fall.
Our favorite window to visit the lakes in the summertime is early July through early August. Generally speaking, that’s when Alta Lakes Telluride will be the most lush and green. And depending on snowfall the winter before, early July may have some snow still on the mountains too.
Alta Lakes Telluride typically sees fall colors either in the last week of September or the first week or so of October (again, it depends on so many factors, like how much rain we get in the summertime).
The drive up Alta Lakes Rd in Telluride has lots and lots of aspen trees that are truly a breathtaking sight to witness. It’s worth noting though, that once you hit Alta Lakes Telluride itself, the aspens aren’t really present. They’re pretty much only on the drive up.
However, there are alpine shrubs sitting lakeside that do change to vibrant oranges in the fall (see photo below).
This is the season that we highly recommend stopping at Alta ghost town on your way to Alta Lakes Telluride, as there’s an area with wide, expansive views of the San Juans, with aspens dotting the mountainsides. Definitely a fall sight to behold.
Colorado’s seasons can be pretty wild, and some are certainly better than others. Especially when visiting a high alpine spot like Alta Lakes Telluride. We’ve covered all the important details in our guide to the best seasons for visiting the Rockies.
As the name implies, Alta Lakes Telluride is relatively close to…you guessed it: Telluride. Technically, however, the town of Mountain Village is a tad bit closer (and tends to have more available lodging).
Mountain Village is a little under 10 miles from Alta Lakes, and Telluride is a little under 13 miles from it. These are going to be your closest options. The town of Rico is south of Alta Lakes, but it’s a bit over 20 miles away, so not as close to Alta Lakes as Telluride and Mountain Village.
For Telluride, our favorite lodging options include:
For Mountain Village, we love:
Given that Telluride and Mountain Village are more luxurious spots, lodging can get a bit expensive, especially in the peak season. So if you’re looking for something more budget-friendly during your trip to Alta Lakes Telluride, Rico has the Rico Mine Shaft Inn.
If you’re open to a bit more driving, our personal favorite thing to do when visiting Alta Lakes Telluride is to stay in one of our favorite cities: Ridgway. It’s about 40 miles (and a little less than an hour away) from Telluride, but it’s way less expensive (and it’s also about 10 miles away from Ouray and a little over 30 miles from Silverton, making it a nice central spot to explore the San Juan Mountains.
Plus, Ridgway is home to some seriously other-worldly hikes. Our go-to hotel to stay at is this one (it’s a no frills stay, but the staff is amazing, and it’s location alongside Million Dollar Highway is perfect for visiting Ouray as well).
Lastly, Alta Lakes also has the Alta Lakes dispersed campground (more on this later). And you can also book the Alta Lakes Observatory for a more luxurious cabin vibe (perfect if you’re visiting the area with a larger group).
Our guide to Telluride lodging covers a few additional favorites.
Colorado is a 14er paradise, with some truly breathtaking peaks. So naturally, we had to create a list of our favorite 14er posters and maps. Talk about the perfect gift for hikers to mark off their peak bagging adventures.
CO 145, which’ll get you most of the way to Alta Lakes from Telluride, is a paved road and can be done in most any vehicle (although, if you’re driving in the shoulder season or during the winter and don’t have an AWD or 4WD vehicle, you’ll want tire chains handy, both to abide by Colorado traction laws and to keep you safe on this winding mountain road.
However, like we mentioned earlier, Alta Lakes Rd is a bumpy, rocky, dirt road that is best driven with an AWD or 4WD vehicle with decent ground clearance. In good, dry, warm conditions, you can do the drive in a 2WD vehicle, but we’d advise against this.
Turning around is all but impossible on many stretches of Alta Lakes Rd, as it’s a single lane for much of the way. Not to mention, the beginning sections have some decently sharp drop-offs off the side of the mountain.
Also don’t forget: you cannot drive Alta Lakes Rd in a car in the winter months. You either need to snowshoe or snowmobile your way up.
Speaking of visiting Alta Lakes Telluride in the winter months, we highly recommend keeping emergency winter gear close by. You’ll want items like camping and hiking-friendly lightweight emergency blankets with you just in case you get stranded.
When visiting Alta Lakes Telluride (or really any place without cell services, we also always make sure we bring our Garmin inReach, so we can text loved ones and call for help if we need it.
And because much of the drive to Alta Lakes is a dead zone, we also highly recommend downloading an offline map using Google Maps, so you have your full driving route handy.
Just as a general best-practice when doing any sort of off-roading, it’s also a good idea to have a set of traction boards handy to help your vehicle get out of muddy or snowy situations.
Colorado Pro Tip: With high elevation locations like Alta Lakes Telluride, it’s so much easier to get sunburned (even for people who don’t typically burn, like myself!). If there’s one piece of advice we could give you, it’s to make sure you pack a solid sunscreen with you during your visit to Alta Lakes.
The one we love to use for our all our Colorado mountain adventures is this one for our faces (it doesn’t leave a chalky residue and it doesn’t clog pores, which is a true win our our books), and this sweat-resistant one from the same brand for our bodies (we’ve never had a sunscreen that avoided high elevation burns quite like this one).
No. The road that leads to Alta Lakes Telluride (Alta Lakes Rd) is not paved. We highly recommend driving a high clearance AWD or 4WD vehicle to get there, as it can be quite the bumpy and uneven ride. You’ll be on this road for the last 3.8 miles to get to the lakes.
However, if you’re coming from Telluride or Mountain Village, the beginning of your journey to Alta Lakes will be on CO 145, which is a paved road.
While the last leg of the drive to Alta Lakes Telluride is only 3.8 miles, don’t let that short distance fool you: the road is a bumpy single lane route with quite a few twists and turns. Needless to say, it’s a very slow drive.
Be aware: Google Maps will tell you it’ll take a little over 30 minutes to get to Alta Lakes from Telluride. However, Google Maps generally tends to underestimate driving length on many of the bumpy, rocky, dirt roads in Colorado.
We’d recommend giving yourselves at least 45 minutes to make the trek to Alta Lakes Telluride (and even longer, if you plan on stopping at Alta ghost town, which we highly recommend doing!).
This park is basically our backyard. So needless to say, we’ve visited it more times than we can count. And from our experiences, we’ve curated a list of the must-see spots in the park.
Our guide is written for anyone who’s visiting the park for the first time and wants to get the most bang for their buck during their time there.
The Alta Lakes campground is home to 20 campsites that don’t require reservation or a fee to stay. They’re first-come, first-served, so we highly recommend visiting on a weekday if you’re able to. During the busy summer season, spots can fill up fast.
As far as amenities are concerned, there are portable toilets you can use, but outside of that, it’s pretty primitive camping.
There’s a little lakeside patch of grass and dirt near some of the campsites at Alta Lakes Telluride that has an unreal view of the nearby mountains (see the pic above). It’s perfect for setting up your camping chairs (we love these ones with a 4 can cooler attached to them) and admiring the sunset, local beer in hand.
Colorado’s mountain passes are on a different level. And one of our favorites is Independence Pass, particularly for its great hiking and unreal mountain views.
Colorado is home to so many epic mining ghost towns, and Alta Lakes ghost town is probably one of our favorites.
If you’re driving to Alta Lakes Telluride, you don’t even have to go out of your way to find it. You’ll literally drive right past it.
The town was founded in 1877, and is full of historic charm. And it’s in pretty good condition, all things considered. Across from the town, you also have epic mountain views.
Personally, we love admiring these views through the windows of the abandoned buildings of the town. We can’t imagine a cooler frame!
It’s one of the lesser known mountain passes in Colorado, but it’s hands-down one of the coolest. If you’ve never seen or heard of Cottonwood Pass, trust us, you’re missing out. Our full guide has all the details.
Like we mentioned earlier, Alta Lakes Telluride (and the campground there) can get busy in the summer months in particular (summer is peak season for the campground). So the best way to avoid the crowds is to plan your adventures for a weekday.
If you don’t plan on camping, opt to visit at sunrise or sunset for a more peaceful experience at the lakes. Most people don’t like to adventure at sunrise, since it’s so early. But the golden light at Alta Lakes Telluride is absolutely stunning at this time of day.
And sunset? You get to see the prettiest alpenglow on the mountains near the Alta Lakes campground. It’s truly a sight to behold.
Sheena and Ed here! We’re hikers, outdoors advocates, and adventure photographers. And we’re lucky enough to call Colorado home, which is why we love crafting guides to our favorite places in our great state.
Hands-down the best way to experience the rockies is by road. Which is why we’ve created the perfect 2-3 week driving itinerary that you can use to map out your own Rocky Mountain travels.
And if you need more inspiration on which mountain villages you should add to your list of stops, we’ve curated a collection of our favorite mountain towns in Colorado.
When visiting places like Alta Lakes Telluride, it’s important to keep in mind how wild our seasons can get (and some are certainly better than others). We break down everything you need to know in our guide to the best times of year to be in the Rockies.
Lastly, if you plan on visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, you don’t want to miss our guide to the best things to do and see in the park.
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