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A Side of Vail You've Never Seen Before

PINEY LAKE: A HIDDEN SECRET IN VAIL

Article by Sherry Ott

Photography by Sherry Ott

I opened up the little cabin door and took a deep breath of chilly mountain air. Inhale. Exhale. It was 6AM and the sun was coming up from behind the Gore Range. I looked out on the calm, pristine Piney Lake and my eyes locked in on the small birds flitting around dipping their beaks into the water for a morning drink. I was completely alone in the backcountry landscape. It was hard to believe I was technically in Vail – a town known for its luxury and tourism.

This is a part of Vail I never knew existed!

History of Vail Town

I’ve often wondered how Vail came to be such an upscale mountain town – so different from many other mountain towns in Colorado. And the first thing I learned is that Vail doesn’t come from a western mountain town background like most of the ski towns around Colorado; it was a purpose-built ski town! It was created to have everything at your disposal as a pedestrian friendly ski village.

Its construction began in spring 1962, and by fall 1966, the Town of Vail was incorporated. Since then it has continued to grow and have a number of facelifts. It’s now home to not only incredible skiing, but world class restaurants, hotels, condos, and spas. If I were to compare it to high school times – Vail is the popular kid with all the right stuff.

However, one thing Vail isn’t is rustic and backwoods-ish…that is until I found this little gem where I woke up only 11 miles outside of Vail!

Piney Lake – a Hidden Secret in Vail

At the end of the road, you’ll find Piney Lake, one of the prettiest views in Vail…and Colorado. Found at 9,350 feet, Piney lake frames the majestic Gore range in the distance. Here, there are no fancy resorts or restaurants; in fact, there is barely even power thanks to a generator. You’ll only find 6 little cabins by the lake, and maybe a moose if you are lucky. 

In reality, Piney Lake isn’t too much of a secret, as during the day it’s full of visitors canoeing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, and SUPping. But the secret is…ssshhhh… if you stay overnight at Piney Lake, you will have this backcountry wilderness and incredible views all to yourself from 5PM to 10AM.

“You have to stay to get the real beauty of the place – it’s a totally different feel – everyone leaves and it’s yours to enjoy in peace and quiet.” --Piney River Ranch

Piney Lake is owned by the Denver Water Board, who bought it in the late 80’s during the water shortage in Denver with the intention to fill a reservoir. But luckily, they never had to do that! Piney River Ranch leases the land from the Water Board on a long-term lease and has continued to add amenities to the area by the lake for overnight stays and day visitors.

What Facilities are at Piney Lake?

Piney River Ranch has developed the area for day visitors and a few overnight guests. Located in the Vail backcountry, they somehow have managed to provide a few great facilities in this remote destination. 

You’ll find a simple restaurant serving food and drink from 11 am to 6 pm along with a small gift shop. There is also a small boat house that rents SUPs, canoes, and kayaks by the hour. For overnight guests the Ranch has 6 lakeside cabins and 3 glamping tents. All of their power at the Ranch is run by generator.

And if you want to go more rustic, there are dispersed camping areas along the road near the Ranch. Note – For information on camping, you are advised to call the Minturn Ranger’s station at 970-827-5715.

One thing there isn’t…any connectivity…not even cell connectivity. I think the ultimate way to really enjoy the outdoors is by doing it offline. It’s just another reason why I love Piney Lake!

Piney River Ranch Cabins and Glamping

We arrived at the Ranch and I saw the Adirondack chairs in front of our ‘Moose Cabin’ pointing out towards the lake, and I knew this was just what I was looking for. Each cabin has a propane grill, a fire pit (wood is available), porch, picnic table and Adirondack chairs to maximize your outdoor space. After all – you want to spend as much time as you can soaking up this view. 

The cabin was lovely inside with a queen bed, a bunk bed, couch, and a little bar area for coffee. It was simple and comfortable. The cabins have no plumbing but a there were multiple restroom choices. You could use simple pit toilets, or go a tiny bit further to the restroom with a multiple toilet stalls and sinks. There are no showers though.  

I cracked open my beer, put my feet up and took in the view. We brought food from home to grill out that night by the lake. Christopher cooked up a feast of grilled goodness reminding me that this is what summer is about; time outside with good food and friends.

After grilling out I started up the pit fire and enjoyed the flames dance in the cold air while watching the stars come out, while I simultaneously cursed myself for not bringing the makings for S’mores! Doh!

There are also 3 glamping tents that sleep 4 people, however they don’t have a direct lake view. Each has a wood stove in the glamping tent for the chilly nights. There was a group of fun women renting the tent behind our cabin and they graciously let me in for a look…and even offered me a beer!  

If you want to get a complete view at Piney Lake Ranch, check out this video of the property (note – they have replaced the yurt with more cabins and replaced the teepees with 3 glamping tents)

Check availability at Piney River Ranch

Things to do at Piney Lake

Even though I could’ve sat and enjoyed the views all day, I was ready to get out into that Vail backcountry!

Hiking the Upper Piney River Falls Trail

The main trail is the Upper Piney Lake Trail that starts right where the road ends, follows along the lake and then disappears into the valley in the distance. This is a popular trail, and quite honestly, I don’t think I would’ve liked it as much as I did if it weren’t for staying at the Ranch overnight, enabling us to get on the trail early!  

We started out around 8AM and no one was around. Where the lake ended the river began and we followed above it for a while winding into the lush green valley. The trail then turned up and started a few switchbacks taking us through aspen groves. Wildflowers lined the trail and it was a pretty gentle rolling path up to the falls.  

We stayed and enjoyed the falls while soaking up the sun on the big rocks. On the way back down, we wore our masks expecting more traffic on the trail. We were right, we passed big family groups and lots of day visitors. It made me all that more thankful that we went up early.

It was a 6 mile round trip – just perfect for working up an appetite for lunch back at the ranch!

Get more info on the hike at All Trails. There is also a longer more advance trail that goes beyond the falls and up to much higher but the trail is not as well marked.

Get Out on the Lake

It’s not enough to simply look at the lake, get out there and enjoy it’s crystal clear waters. You can rent a canoe, kayak, or SUP by the hour from the boathouse.  

We took a canoe out in the early evening and paddled around the small lake. It was a great way to wind down and enjoy a different perspective. Keep your eyes peeled for moose along the banks! It’s also a great place to take a picnic lunch with you out on the canoe if you want to get away from the day visitors at the restaurant. Or take a book and take a floating reading break!

Last canoe/kayak/SUP is rented at 5 and can stay out until 6PM. Or – feel free to bring your own and stay out as long as you’d like! Lifejackets are provided.

Horseback Riding on Aspen Filled Trails

I hadn’t planned on going horseback riding, but another guest I met by the boat dock couldn’t stop raving about their horseback ride, so we decided to check it out. It’s worth it to simply meet the amazing Newnew – the horse wrangler with a petite build but a strong personality. We walked to the stables and Newnew came up and introduced herself. She had on dusty jeans, a cowboy hat, and you could tell she was smiling behind her mask as her eyes lit up and her smile lines appeared. I knew we were in good hands.

Newnew takes matching a horse to a guest extremely seriously. She knows these horses incredibly well – like her own kids. As we lined up behind the fence, she gave us a rundown of what to expect and took our ‘temperature’ on how we were feeling about the upcoming 2-hour ride.

“They (the horses) got your back – but more importantly they have their own back – they don’t want to fall, and they won’t fall,” she calmed any beginner fears anyone had. She went on to say, “They feel your energy.”

Even though I’m not a horse expert, I’ve always felt that way about horses, they are incredible animals; sensitive, intelligent, and perceptive.  

And quite frankly, much like the horses, Newnew can also feel your energy. That’s how she matches horses and guests. She knows the personality of her horses, where they like to be in the line, how fast they want to go, and how they like their reins. She observes people as they arrive, how they interact with each other, and talks to them about their experiences and how they are feeling about riding. Then she does the matchmaking; making a perfect horse/rider experience.

It was clear to me that she cared as much about the horse as she did the guest. And that is what made this horse-riding experience so wonderful. 

I was matched with Bud, a gentle giant that looked like butterscotch and smelled of hay and leather. As I looked into Bud’s eyes and pet his nose, I was mindful of my energy. I feel like we got off to a great start. As we clomped along through the aspen groves all I could think about what how this felt good for my soul. I loved the rhythm, the smell, and sound of the leather saddle creaking back and forth. On top of Bud, I had a whole new vantage point of the forest and the wildflowers.

The two hour ride even included a little galloping! The horseback ride with Bud and Newnew was a highlight of my time at the Ranch.

Fishing

I didn’t have time to try my hand at fishing at the lake, but I saw plenty of fishermen and women throwing out a line. The lake and river are home to many varieties of trout including brookies, browns, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. I was told that these species live in such abundance, that you’re almost guaranteed to make a catch!

A fishing license is required to fish in this private lake and can be acquired at Walmart, City Market, and Safeway. You can also rent a real for $20 from Piney River Ranch.

Stargazing

I brought my tripod along to do some night photography, however mother nature didn’t quite cooperate with me and gave us cloudy skies. However, when you do have a clear night at piney lake – it is stunning!

A Smoking Restaurant

Even though we cooked out at our cabin, we also made sure to eat at the restaurant for lunch. I couldn’t leave there without trying some of the meat from the smoker they have out back! We enjoyed the smoked pulled port and smoked wings – the perfect treat for after our hike!

What to Bring to Piney River Ranch

On any given day you may experience a variety of weather at Piney Lake; sun, rain, hail, snow, wind. Because of that you’ll want to be prepared to enjoy your time there. And if it does rain, hail, or snow just wait it out for a bit and you’ll likely have sunshine the next hour. 

  • Clothing for chilly nights and mornings
  • Sunscreen and a good Wallaroo SPF sun hat– you are at 9300 feet!
  • Hiking gear (see all of my essential hiking gear here)
  • Long pants and close toed shoes for horse riding
  • Water shoes for being out on the lake
  • Camera and don’t forget a tripod for night photography.
  • Thermal mug for and having your morning coffee or tea outside with a view
  • Don’t forget your masks! Masks are required to go into the lodge. I also recommend them on the trail to the waterfall as it is an out-and-back narrow trail with a lot of traffic. These are my favorite from Turtle Fur.
  • Food for grilling
  • S’mores kit (yes, there is such a thing!!)
  • Games
  • If you want to watch movies – you have to download them to your device before you arrive since there is no connectivity.

How to Get to Piney Lake in Vail

Vail’s Piney Lake is one of the highest lakes in Colorado you can drive to!

Take I-70 West towards Vail get off at exit 176. Take the North Frontage Road west to Red Sandstone Drive turn north and follow 0.7 miles to the fork. From here follow the dirt road to the left and continue about 2.7 miles, here you will hit a split, follow signs to Piney Lake continuing left. Stay the course down the dirt road for about 9 miles.

The only challenging part of this whole trip is the last 12 miles. The dirt road is rough. It is maintained by the forest service though, so it is possible to do in a passenger car if you go slow. How slow? Well, the experts at Piney River Ranch said that in a low clearance regular sedan, it should take 45 minutes if not more to get there if you are going slow enough! An SUV can be a bit faster – but it’s still advised to go slow, there are a number of hairpin turns and wildlife to watch for too.

However, let me stress – Every type of car does make it out there on the rough road, you just have to be patient. We drove a Jetta.

The road is maintained as long as the Ranch is open – from June 23rd to September 30th. Before or after that, make sure you call the USFS on (970) 827 5715 for updates

on the road and its condition.

COVID 19 Changes for 2020

The Ranch did a good job of utilizing their outdoor space and encouraging social distancing. They aren’t doing any table service, but they are offering counter service instead. They have closed their indoor dinging and have spread out picnic tables in front of the lake with 6 ft of distance. It’s a lovely view and I’d rather be outside anyway!

They also do not allow people into the lodge building without a mask.

See a Different Side of Vail This Summer

As I talked to one of the managers at the ranch, she said they still had availability for overnight stays in August and September. Make sure you book well in advance! I personally think September would be the best time to be there to enjoy the fall colors and golden Aspens around the lake.

In my opinion, you have to stay to get the real beauty of the place – it’s a totally different feel when everyone leaves and it’s yours to enjoy in peace and quiet. From 5PM to 10AM the next day all that Piney Lake Vail backcountry beauty is yours! 

I hope you enjoy these Denver Day trips to the mountains as much as I did! Now you are ready to fill up the tank, and head into the Colorado Rockies to experience the beauty of mountain life! Before we know it, we’ll be doing multi day trips and hikes again in the mountains!

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