When the extreme heat of summer in the Southwest is brutal enough to melt the sneakers on the blacktop and inflate car tires like a balloon, that is the time to consider venturing off to distant lands where cooler conditions can be found. In the Four Corners region of the Desert Southwest, all that one has to do is enter the Colorado sector to find refreshing cool relief from the heat!
After getting about 50 miles into Colorado from Four Corners, the terrain shifts from hot high desert plateaus to a cooler mountainous pine woods environment. When following Highway 160 a little further into Colorado a few 14,000 foot tall peaks can be found in the San Juan Mountains and the early summer weather can actually still be a bit chilly in these parts.
The Nighthorse Lake Recreation Area is located next to Durango, Colorado and the summertime fun does start early in the season at this big mountain valley reservoir. The elevation of Durango varies between 6,000 to 7,500 feet above sea level, so the spring season snow melt ends early in this region and the mild temperatures last well into the summer. However, the elevations do rise to over 14,000 feet in these mountains and the snow pack in elevations over 9,000 feet up will still be thawing out in early summer, especially after a heavy winter.
The historic town of Durango is world famous for white water rafting ventures, antique train rides and 4x4 excursions in the mountains. Most of the tourists are solely focused on these activities when visiting Durango and relatively few take notice of the nearby lakes. For the locals and those who are in the know, this is like a blessing in disguise, because this a reason why there will be some extra elbow room. Smaller crowds are always a good thing when seeking a peaceful afternoon picnic spot by a lake!
Yet another reason why the southwestern Colorado lakes never seem overcrowded is because there are so many of them. From Delores to Durango there must be over 10 large bodies of water and most are navigable. Some can be accessed by paved road and some require an off road vehicle or a long hike. Some of the lakes are commercialized and some are more like a wildlife habitat, so there is a wide range of appeal. As can be imagined, with such a wide range of lakeside destination venues, it is easy for a visitor to find a comfortable spot of their own.
Vallecito Lake and the Lemon Reservoir Lake are located next to Durango and Lake Nighthorse is a third lake option that located just south of Highway 160 downtown. Lake Nighthorse is by far the most popular of the three big lakes, because it is operated as a recreation area. Lake Nighthorse is a fairly large body of water and it is one of the newest flood retention dam reservoir lakes in this region. Being so new, the water level is high, so this means Lake Nighthorse has plenty of navigable water for small craft boaters to roam from shore to shore.
Lake Nighthorse for the most part is surrounded by forests, ranches and private properties, so good roadside overlook viewpoints are not easy to come by. The shoreline is undeveloped, so there are currently no easy hiking trails over the rocky terrain. Therefore the boating, swimming and paddle-boarding are the best bets at this new reservoir lake.
In the section of the Lake Nighthorse that is closest to Durango is where the recreation area access can be found and this is where entrance fees are paid. The Lake Nighthorse Recreation Area offers plenty of summer season activities and organized events, so there is always something going on nearly every weekend. Near the entrance gate is where the boat launch ramps are located and watercraft rental businesses can be found on the premises, so there is no need to pack a canoe in the suitcase for this trip. Visitors can rent rafts, sailboards, paddle-boards, canoes and kayaks at the lakeside vendor stands. Nighthorse Lake is also stocked with gamefish, so anglers will have plenty to do too!
The picturesque pine forest mountain setting of Lake Nighthorse is captivating enough to inspire interest in this cool southwestern Colorado summertime destination. The size of this lake and the convenient watercraft rentals on site are like the icing on the cake, especially for those who are just hoping to escape the extreme heat of summer. With plenty of National Forest campgrounds and modern amenities in Durango to be found nearby, there is good reason to chalk the lakes of southwestern Colorado high on the travel destination list. Lake Nighthorse is the best choice if splashing in the cool water and having fun in the sun is your cup of tea!
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