Look at a topographic map of the mountainous terrain above Durango and you are certain to see an excess of high altitude lakes.
Many have trails going right to them, but most of these are demanding hikes, especially for the casual hiker.
However, those seeking a shorter excursion to a backcountry pool are in luck. Clocking in at 2 miles round-trip and 400 feet of elevation change, the Potato Lake Trail is an easy hike to a beautiful backcountry lake.
Oh, and by the way, if you want to sound like local, call it Spud Lake instead of Potato Lake!
Parking is Half the Adventure
Old Lime Creek Road, the access route for the Potato Lake trailhead, is bumpy to say the least. Those experienced in such excursions will find an easy 3 miles. However, those averse to being jostled in their vehicle may be worn out before the hike even begins. Let me just say that my wife is definitely not a fan of bumpy dirt roads. While I found the road a bit tedious but not the worst ever, my wife gives it two big thumbs down.
Regardless, arrival at the trailhead unveils a stunning scene with the West Needle Mountains towering above. There’s even a beautiful lake at the trailhead, replete with lily pads, just like in our childhood storybooks. Even if you don’t plan on hiking, this is a worthy stop. Looking the topographic maps, this lake may or may not be called Scout Lake, but that’s how I’m referring to it.
Into the Woods
Write enough about the beauty of Colorado and it becomes hard to come up with new ways of describing it! Like every other trail in the area, this one is gorgeous. Groves of aspen intermingle with rock outcrops that provide million dollar views. One particular break in the forest provides a spectacular view across the forested valley below, with the high peaks of Engineer Mountain and Greyrock Peak towering over the landscape. Other times the trail winds through little stretches of forest reminiscent of a Robert Frost poem.
The trail then passes a little piece of wetlands and the views open up to the north and east. Potato Hill (known to locals as Spud Mountain), towers overheard due north. The West Needle Mountains, a constant backdrop in this little slice of Colorado, make their presence known to the east. Only one more little hill to climb before reaching Potato/Spud Lake.
Cresting the top of the hill, Potato Lake unveils itself, tucked up in the conifer forest, surrounded by mountains. Come on a weekend, and this place will likely by popping with activity. Fisherman casting their lines into the cool waters. Backpackers setting up their tents among the spruce trees. Dogs panting happily in the thin air as they swim and frolic through the grass. Fishing is definitely the most popular activity up here, but this is also a great place to just sit and enjoy the mountains.
Do yourself a favor and explore around the edge of the lake, at least a little bit. While the initial view at the trail’s end is nice, there are prettier views elsewhere. Likely the best is over toward the west end of the lake where the West Needles and their craggy tops provide a classic Rocky Mountains backdrop.
While we just did this trip as a day hike, this would make a fantastic short and easy backpacking trip! There seem to be at least a few nice, established tent sites around the water’s edge. Of course, my own preferred means of backcountry camping involves sleeping in a hammock, and the forested banks of this lake are primo for hammock camping.
Vehicle Requirements and Directions
I would describe Old Lime Creek Road as a jeep road. We drove it in a Subaru Forester, so any small SUV should be able to make it. If you aren’t experienced in driving rugged dirt roads with a lot of rocks, you’re probably more comfortable in a jeep, pickup truck, or other high clearance vehicle. In a small SUV, the wrong move could easily damage the underside of your vehicle. Sedans are a no-go on this road unless you are an absolute maniac.
Directions: From downtown Durango, drive approximately 28 miles north on Highway 550. Turn right at the signed turnoff for Old Lime Creek Road (if you reach Coal Bank Pass, you’ve gone too far). Continue 2.8 miles up the jeep road, parking for the Potato Lake Trail is on the left.