Hit the lakes: Visit Summit County for the peaks, but stay for the reservoirs
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the timing and circumstances of the establishment of the town of Dillon and its multiple moves.
Summit County is famous for its world-class skiing and snowboarding as well as its gorgeous views. The natural and man-made reservoirs of the county, however, offer a large range of activities off the peaks.
Summit County is adorned with 50 reservoirs ranging from ponds to some of the state’s largest water bodies. These reservoirs hold their own unique histories, modern uses and outdoor leisure opportunities.
The High Country can receive upwards of 400 inches of snow per season. To provide for an expanding Front Range and the growth of cities such as Denver, historic water boards began initiatives to divert water from the peaks to the plains.
The most striking body of water in Summit County is Dillon Reservoir. The reservoir covers over 3,233 acres, holds 310 million cubic meters of water and is bordered by the towns of Frisco and its namesake Dillon. The town of Dillon, however, was not always located on the shores of the massive reservoir.
The town of Dillon was established in 1881 and relocated twice in 1882 to be nearer to railroads that had been built. It eventually made it to its current location in 1961 to make way for Dillon Reservoir.
Today, Dillon Reservoir provides water for 1.4 million people on the Front Range through the Roberts Tunnel, which transports over 480 million gallons of water across the Continental Divide.
The reservoir offer locals and visitors access to multiple water activities from canoeing, paddleboarding, sailboating and boat racing. Six campgrounds and 350 campsites also dot the shore. In the winter, the reservoir is a popular site for ice fishing.
During the summer, however, one of the most popular activities is boating.
“We have what is normally a very busy power boat rental program, so we have a fleet of around 30 boats which are pontoons primarily,” Dillon Marina Director Craig Simson said. We also have sailboats, and that rental program is booked throughout the summer months.”
Visitors can rent boats from either the Frisco and Dillon marinas for two-hour periods and explore the reservoir, including its over 28 miles of shoreline and small islands.
Boaters can travel between the two marinas or catch a ride on the Lake Dillon water taxi.
“Often, people will travel between us and the Frisco Marina and the grill there and then come back to enjoy the tiki bar here,” Simson added.
While the Dillon and Frisco marinas offer a wide range of activities on the reservoir, there are some limitations. Motorboats must operate under a speed limit of 30 miles per hour. Potential island explorers are asked to stay away from protected wildlife areas such as Sentinel Island, where eagles often nest. Visitors also are banned from swimming in the reservoir due to year-round hypothermic temperatures.
Green Mountain Reservoir
While less well-known, Green Mountain Reservoir by Heeney, about 25 miles north of the Dillon Reservoir, is considered by many to be a hidden treasure. Unlike Dillon’s many marinas and bustling neighboring towns, Green Mountain Reservoir offers boaters, fishers and campers a quiet escape into nature.
The reservoir was the first infrastructure built in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 Colorado-Big Thompson Project. Similar to the Dillon Reservoir, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project aimed to divert water from the High Country of Colorado’s Western Slope to the drier and heavily populated Front Range. The Green Mountain Reservoir, however, does not provide water to the Front Range.
Over concerns that federal water diversion projects were transferring too much water from the Western Slope, the reservoir was built as a compromise to save water to be used on the west side of the state.
Not only does Green Mountain Reservoir store water resources, the Green Mountain Power Plant uses a hydroelectric power plant at the dam to generate 21,000 kilowatts, enough to power the homes of 60,000 Americans every year.
Heeney Marina offers boat rentals and slip reservations for Green Mountain Reservoir. The reservoir is also surrounded by seven campgrounds offering 156 sites. Unlike Dillon, Green Mountain allows water skiing and swimming, but visitors are advised to rent wetsuits as the water is direct snowmelt and can be near freezing even in the summer months.
The reservoir also offers bird-watching trails and is a popular environment for bald eagle nesting. The nearby Cataract Lake and Falls trail is a light 2-mile hike, perfect for families to enjoy spectacular wildflowers and the waterfall.
The reservoir provides ample fishing opportunities, including one that could be potentially lucrative for those interested in helping wildlife officials with reducing some invasive species. In a recent effort to reduce the number of pike in the reservoir, the marina is paying $20 for every pike that is caught and brought to their office.
Pike is not the only invasive species in the reservoir. In 2017, the U.S Bureau of Reclamation found larvae of the quagga mussel, an invasive species environmentally damaging to lakes across the western United States. To combat the species, the marina constructed a new boat ramp where inspections and decontaminations are done for boaters wanting to enter or exit the reservoir.
Sawmill Reservoir is one of the county’s smaller reservoirs, but it is highly accessible at less than a mile away from Breckenridge’s town center. The reservoir can be reached by the 1.5-mile round-trip Sawmill Creek footpath beginning below Breckenridge’s Sawmill Lift.
The reservoir was historically the main source of Breckenridge’s drinking water, though the town now receives its water from the Goose Pasture Tarn just over three miles south of town.
The reservoir is open to the public and surrounded by a walking trail but is predominately used for outdoor programming by the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.
The nonprofit uses the reservoir to allow people with disabilities to experience and enjoy nature, according to Jaime Overmyer, the wilderness program director for the center.
“It is pretty small, but we use it to plan out adventures for people with disabilities,” Overmyer said. “It is helpful because of its extreme accessibility, so it is very easy to help people into boats and out on the water.”
While the center’s program has its own private boats, there are not rentals for the public.
Sawmill Reservoir doesn’t boast the same range of activities as Dillon or
Green Mountain, but it is an accessible and peaceful location for a quiet walk or family outing. Kids can play alongside Sawmill Creek, making small damns with nearby rocks or sticks. After they are done playing, families can instruct their children in Leave No Trace principles by returning natural materials to their original location.
Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir
About 7 miles south of Copper Mountain Resort on Colorado Highway 91, Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir is further away from the county’s towns, but is an extremely popular site for anglers.
The reservoir was built for mining but is now used to supplement local water supplies and winter snowmaking for nearby ski resorts. Colorado Parks and Wildlife also uses the reservoir as a site for the state’s only native trout species, the colorful cutthroat trout.
Before seeking the quiet of the solitary reservoir, anglers can stop for tackle and supplies at Frisco’s Trouts Fly Fishing, Silverthorne’s Cutthroat Anglers or Breckenridge Outfitters.
Not only does the reservoir offer ample fishing opportunities, it is also surrounded by the 2.5-mile Clinton Gulch Dam Trail that offers prime views of the Tenmile Range often reserved for more challenging hikes at higher elevation. The trail involves less than 600 feet of elevation gain and is a quiet trail accessible to a wide range of ability levels.
Summit County is frequented by visitors from around the world every year for skiing, snowboarding and its beautiful and relaxing location. While visitors might be attracted to the region because of its peaks, the county’s reservoirs are considered by many to be among its hidden treasures.
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