The “Payoff” Scale for Trails Along the Front Range

Isabel Lake, Brainard Lakes Recreation Area scores high on the payoff scale.

I’ve been considering categorizing hikes on a “Payoff Scale” – in other words, what is the payoff in terms of scenery, ambiance, beauty in relationship to the effort (elevation gain and distance)? I know that it’s not very “contemplative” to rate trails like this, but it sure is helpful in managing your time and energy when planning a hike.

The payoff scale would go from 1 to 10, with 1 being too high an effort for too low a payoff, and 10 being low effort for a high payoff. Most hikes are somewhere in between, with some effort expended to see a gorgeous view or experience beauty and solitude.

Lower Crater Lake, James Peak Wilderness

Yesterday I hiked up to the Crater Lakes. This is in the James Peak Wilderness area, near the Moffet Tunnel. It’s 3 miles up to the lower lake, with about a 1,000 foot elevation gain. I rate this hike a “3” on the payoff scale, which is a low rating, because the last mile up to the lower lake is a grueling vertical climb up rocks that are like tall stairs. There are no great views along the way, with most of the hike in thick lodgepole and spruce. Most summer weekends there are a lot of other hikers along the way. Yesterday we counted around 75. There are some meadows and wet areas at the start of the hike, and wildflowers that are most abundant mid-summer, but all that is tempered by the booming noise of the tunnel ventilator fan, which drones on for a half an hour every so often, ruining your peace and quiet, especially within a half mile from the trailhead. The view at the lake shore is average in comparison to other alpine lake views, such as Loch Lake or Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain Park, or Lake Isabel in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area.

Here’s how I would rate some of my favorite hikes in the Front Range area, in terms of the payoff scale:

Isabel Lake – Brainard Lake Recreation Area: 8 (moderate effort with a big payoff view and lovely scenery along the way)

Loch Lake, RMNP: 8 (moderate effort with elevation gain, 3 miles to lake, incredible views, waterfalls and wildlife along the way)

Fraser Trail to Eldorado State Park, Eldorado Springs: 10 (low effort, short hike, wonderful scenery, especially in the canyon looking at the rock walls)

Goskawk Ridge Trail, Eldorado Springs: 7 (moderate effort, lots of variety of scenery and vegetation)

Ranger Trail or Gregory Canyon to the top of Green Mountain, Boulder: 6 (strenuous effort, 360 degree views at top, but not as scenic on the way up as other trails)

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder: 10 (only half hour or less to the top, with spectacular views all the way around, and in mid-summer some wildflowers along the way)

Mt. Evan Wilderness State Wildlife Area, Lost Lake or Captain Mountain Trail: 8

Deer Mountain, RMNP: 9 (the views along the way and at the top are worth the moderate effort up the hill)

How would you rate your favorite and not so favorite hikes along the Front Range on this “payoff scale”? Is there a hike with little to medium effort that has huge payoffs? Or one with a lot of effort and not much payoff? Share your experience in the comments section below.