Pack the ice tools, the touring skis and the fat bike, and point it to Lake City, Colorado. This surprising little town is full of adventure and free of crowds.
Serene beauty. Laid back vibes. Real wilderness. Welcome to Lake City, population 374, Colorado’s last best town nestled at 8,661 feet amid San Juans. And even if it’s wonderfully isolated, this adventure town provides plenty of creature comforts, including reasonable lodging, good eats and welcoming locals. Located off the breathtaking Silver Thread Scenic Byway, Lake City is a spectacular year-round destination, however, winter casts a powerful spell here, with star-filled skies, powder-laden peaks, frozen waterfalls and endless options for fun and exploration—all far from the crowds and glitz of the usual resort towns.
Nearby Ouray gets all the attention, but the Lake City Ice Park is well worth your attention. Located just a few blocks from historic downtown, it offers climbers a diverse array of routes with bolted anchors that range in length from 60 to 100 feet and run the grade gamut from WI3 to WI5. Free (but you are asked to sign a waiver to climb here), easily accessible and well maintained, the municipal frozen playground will challenge climbers of all abilities, from beginner to expert. Plus, most days you’re likely to have this peaceful place all to yourself. The park is open from December to March (weather permitting) with a community festival taking place in February that features top-roped and lead speed events. lakecityicepark.com
Climbers seeking more of an adventure can boot into the backcountry surrounding Lake City. The northern San Juans offer moderate and long multi-pitch ice climbs, including the well-known Sherman Falls, a classic, four-pitch, WI5 line. The ice park is the ideal place to hone your skills in preperation for these backcountry outings. Irwin Mountain Guides offers guided climbs at the Park with both novice instruction ($135 per person, minimum of three people) and lead climbing classes held on the walls of the park. Private instruction runs $350 per day for one and $200 per day, per person for groups of two and more. irwinguides.com/lake-city
Hit the Winter Trails
With over 100 miles of groomed multi-use trails weaving between Lake City and Creede, this wild, rugged landscape is easily accessible to skiers, snowshoers and fat bikers seeking long miles and elevated heart rates. Choose your own adventure: You can follow the high ridges of the Continental Divide, traverse the snow-covered tundra of the Alpine Plateau, explore the vastness of Slumgullion Pass or Saw Mill Park, or just ramble down one of the trails that leaves directly from town. For a longer exploit, hit the Hinsdale Haute Route, a remarkable and remote hut-to-hut journey with little avy danger. This crown jewel of the area links a system of three fully stocked yurts that deliver panoramas of the Weminuche Wilderness, the La Garita Mountains and five 14,000-foot peaks. The first stop in the system, The Wilson Yurt is just 1.25 miles (and 500 vertical feet) from the trailhead and makes for a fun family objective. hindsdalehauteroute.com
Drop a Line
The second-largest natural lake in Colorado and the town’s namesake, Lake San Cristobal, offers excellent ice fishing. Those willing to brave the cold, or smart enough to fish from a warming hut, can catch small to medium lake trout using bait or by jigging. Alpine Outfitters in town offers ice fishing trips with a snowmobile ride out to one of those cozy huts and the chance to haul up big fish.alpineoutfitterscolorado.com
Learn to Turn
Lift-served skiing in Colorado doesn’t have to break the bank. With seven runs of varying difficulty and a terrain park ideal for practicing jumps, the Lake City Ski Hill and Terrain Park is just the ticket for families looking for an affordable place to learn or perfect thier technique. And it’s priced just right—$20 per adult and $10 per child, both including rental equipment. townoflakecity.co/lake-city-ski-hill.html
Vacation and cabin rentals abound in the area, however, very few places remain open for winter. Fortunately, our favorite, The Matterhorn Motel & Cabins, does business year-round. Welcoming Lake City visitors since 1949, this classic, updated establishment tucked up against the mountain in historic downtown offers a range of options, including sparkling clean motel rooms, kitchen efficiency rooms and historic cottages. Bonus points for beautiful views, a large covered patio, hot tub, and a quiet location within walking access to dining, parks and trails. Plus, owner Debra Goodman, who sits on the Chamber Board, is always willing to share her seemingly endless wealth of knowledge about local trails, conditions and happenings. matterhornmotel.com
For a small town, Lake City’s food options are surprisingly diverse—and tasty. If you eat at only one place, hit Packers Saloon and Cannibal Grill. Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, this classic pub is the hands-down favorite hang-out for locals. It’s the most popular restaurant in town-for good reason—everything they serve, from burgers to pizza to ribs to duck, is delectable, and delivered with a smile, in an atmosphere where you can chill and take it all in. packersaloonandcannibalgrill.com
If you’re in the mood for a Lake City-style fine-dining option, Climb Elevated Eatery serves upscale, homemade comfort food in a relaxed, classy environment. Don’t miss the hand-cut truffle fries, the bison tenderloin, the delish pork chops and, for dessert, the Elevated S’more, a graham cracker -crusted brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, toasted marshmallow and premier chocolate sauce that is one of the best desserts we’ve ever tried (and we’ve tried a lot of them). climbeatery.com