There are few sights more welcome than a sparkling glacier-fed alpine lake at the top of a mountain. Views are always expected from a summit, but add the opportunity for a cool dip after a sweat-soaked excursion and you’ve got a winning combination. From the Appalachians to the Sierra Nevadas, there are multitudes of hidden alpine lakes — generally defined as lakes at elevations of 5,000 feet or above — waiting to be discovered across the North American continent. Here are five that are worth every drop of sweat to get to.
Mirror Lake, Colorado
After an eight-mile trek and an elevation gain of 2,300 feet, you’ll wonder if the promise of a picturesque alpine lake is worth all the effort. One look at Mirror Lake will put those doubts to rest. Perched at 11,000 feet above sea level at the end of a glacier-carved gorge, Mirror Lake is surrounded by pine trees and jagged, often snow-covered peaks. The aptly named lake perfectly reflects its surroundings, making it one of the most sought-after photo locations in Colorado. The Cascade Creek Trail leading to the lake is actually a two-in-one — keep walking for a mile past Mirror Lake and you’ll hit Crater Lake, another equally pristine pool that reflects the soaring cliffs that rise up behind it. If you’re not quite ready to leave the views of these two alpine beauties behind, spend a night or two at either of the nearby campsites.
Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park, Alberta
Dramatic mountains tower behind the carpets of forest that run along the edge of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park. It’s easy to see why this glacial lake and its clear gem-toned waters are the area’s most popular attraction, but fortunately it’s big enough to share — at 17 miles long, it’s the largest lake in the park. Lake Minnewanka’s long and winding shape resembles a river and creates miles of magnificent reflections in its emerald waters, which are located nearly 5,000 feet above sea level. While hiking and camping around the lake are popular activities, the best way to experience Minnewanka is to get out on it: There are several boat cruises which allow you to see most of the lake, or opt for a peaceful kayak or stand-up paddleboard trip to fully immerse yourself in Canada’s pristine natural beauty.
Lakes of the Clouds, New Hampshire
Lakes of the Clouds is a group of tarns (small mountain lakes that form in glacially-carved cirques) that sit at approximately 5,000 feet above sea level. The lakes are located in the middle of the Presidential Range between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington, encircled by some of the highest peaks in the Northeast. As their name suggests, the lakes beautifully reflect the cloud-streaked sky on a clear day and allow for some dazzling summit photos. After soaking up the lakes, hikers can summit Monroe or Washington via the famous Tuckerman’s ravine. The Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits at the end of the trail and offers co-ed bunk rooms and facilities to rest up before or after the journey.
Big Pine Lakes, California
The pale turquoise waters of California’s Big Pine Lakes set a striking contrast against the imposing backdrop of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Located 10,000 feet above sea level in the John Muir Wilderness area, the glacier-fed First Lake, Second Lake, and Third Lake all sit in a row along Big Pine Lakes Trail, offering one epic viewpoint after another on the way to the trail’s summit. Second Lake is particularly picturesque due to its proximity to Temple Crag, the highest peak in the area and a popular rock-climbing destination. As you continue past the first three alpine lakes to complete the loop, four more lakes await. With nearly 4,000 feet in elevation gain, there’s no doubt this trail requires a lot of effort, but it also yields major rewards.
Lake Blanche, Utah
One of the more accessible lakes on this list, Lake Blanche is nestled in Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. The Lake Blanche Trail only takes four miles to reach its namesake body of water, which is surrounded by the gorgeous rust-colored rocks that are synonymous with the state. The seven-mile trail is short and steep but gets you to the base of Sundial Peak and panoramas of Lake Blanche within a few hours. Vegetation and pine trees line the water’s edge, but it’s the reflection of Sundial and the glowing orange peaks surrounding it that makes this a truly spectacular sight.
No Name Lake, Oregon
This nameless pool sits at over 8,000 feet and welcomes hikers who conquer the Broken Top Crater Hike with irresistibly cool, cloudy turquoise waters. It’s unknown why this isolated lake has long had an identity crisis (although many refer to it as Broken Top Crater Lake), but the mystery makes the spot all the more alluring. Broken Top Crater is one of Oregon’s most famous trails, accessible only for a few months out of the year due to weather conditions. The trail starts at an elevation of almost 7,000 feet and terminates at 8,100 feet after an adventurous 8.5-mile climb. The payoff is a refreshing swim at the top surrounded by a lunar-like landscape and views over Oregon’s famous Three Sisters peaks.