First County Seat of the 17 Original Counties of Colorado
What is now known as Twin Lakes was once the site of Lake County’s first county seat, Dayton. Lake County was one of Colorado’s original 17 counties, established by the Colorado Legislature in 1861. Twin Lakes has been a tourist attraction since as early as the 1870s, when it became an important stop along the route to the gold and silver mines of Aspen. The Interlaken Hotel, located on the south side of Twin Lakes, was founded in 1879 and had some of the best amenities available of the time.
In 1979, 100 years after the founding of the Interlaken Hotel, the Bureau of Reclamation designated the site as well as other sites in the Twin Lakes area as protected historical areas. The Interlaken Hotel, for many years, was the only available service for travelers in the area, and rightfully had facilities to serve almost any traveler’s need.
In addition to the main tavern, there was a pool hall, and multiple sheds to accommodate guests and their horses. There was also a 16-stall horse barn, another barn for chickens and cows, an ice house, granary, and laundry facility. More information about the Interlaken Hotel is available from the Bureau of Reclamation website, here. Neither the Bureau of Reclamation nor usbr.gov is affiliated with BackwoodsWanderers.com
Right off Highway 82 through Twin Lakes, there is a visitor center with a parking lot and restrooms. This visitor center was once the Red Rooster Tavern. Additionally, there are also several other historic buildings, including the Clarion Hotel, a historic log cabin, an Assay Office, and a historic shed. There is also a cemetery. In the summer a visitor center is open to the public.
Twin Lakes Today
Today, Twin Lakes is a tourist attraction, bedroom community, and vacation home as the industries which spurred its existence have since faded. There is plentiful fishing, hiking, and camping in the area. There are numerous offroad trails and cool places to explore. And throughout the area, you can find the numerous relics of the past scattered about. Old cabins, sheds, and wells are among the many artifacts of history that can be found in the area. Most were established to support the ranching industries that once dominated the area in times past.
Even through Interlaken Hotel is no longer operating, there are numerous lodging options in the area: multiple Bed & Breakfasts and cabin rentals, as well as of course, camping (more about currenr Twin Lakes services ad amenities on the official visitor website). Twin Lakes is certainly a summer town, as many of the services available close in the winter. Many residents aren’t year-round residents; lots of people have summer vacation homes in the Twin Lakes area.
The lakes themselves are of glacial origin, and surrounded by 13,000ft+ peaks, including Mount Elbert (14,440ft, the highest peak in Colorado and the second highest in the lower 48). The Twin Lakes have been dammed twice, and drain into the Mississippi River basin via the Arkansas River.
The area draws many for its abundant recreation opportunities in the warm season. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the classic Colorado outdoors experience in the Twin Lakes area.
Abundant Recreation Opportunities
The lakes themselves have two boat ramps, making access easy. The lakes are regularly stocked by Colorado Parks & Wildlife with brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout. And there are five (yes, five) National Forest Service maintained campgrounds surrounding the lakes, as well as plenty of dispersed camping. There is also plenty of hiking and mountain biking. And if you don’t want to climb the side of one of the numerous surrounding 13,000ft and 14,000ft. mountains, the 12-mile Twin Lakes loop is an easy hiking trail around the lakes with minimal elevation gain (although at a baseline elevation of over 9,900ft).
As with the entire state of Colorado (if you haven’t gathered), there are plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities around the Twin Lakes area. The biggest here are camping, hiking, and fishing. The towering peaks around Twin Lakes make it quite the spectacular setting, lending good photography opportunities. Most of the surrounding peaks have a significant (more than 3000ft) prominence above the lakes.
The Sawatch Mountain Range, where Twin Lakes is located, rarely drops below 13,000ft. Rinker Peak and Quail Mountain are two prominent 13ers on the southwest side of Twin Lakes. Rinker Peak is a Class 2 climb, accessible via its south slope (more info about Rinker Peak at 14ers.com). Quail Mountain is a Class 2 climb, accessible via its west ridge, but to get to the trailhead you have to go via Chaffee County Road 390, on the other side of the mountain from Twin Lakes (more info on 14ers.com). Mount Elbert (14,440ft), the second highest peak in the lower 48 and highest in Colorado, is due northwest of Twin Lakes. And La Plata Peak (14,336ft) is the fifth highest peak in Colorado, located due west-southwest of Rinker Peak (“behind” Rinker from the perspective of Twin Lakes).
Water Diversion and Hydroelectric Capacity
Mount Elbert Forebay reservoir is due north of Twin Lakes, up the hill, accessible by Lake County Road 24, which continues towards Leadville. This 275-acre reservoir was created by the Fryingpan-Arkansas project, a transmountain and transbasin water diversion project, which as a whole diverts over 69,200 acre-feet of water a year.
The project helps contribute an 80,400 acre-feet water supply for municipal/domestic use. Put another way, the project provides 107,200 families with water for a year (based on 0.75 acre-feet use per family per year; the lowest average water use is often 0.25, such as in the arid Desert Southwest, or in this figure, 321,600 families). Irrigation of over 200,000 acres of agricultural land in the Arkansas River basin is also made possible by this water diversion project. Additionally, the one hydroelectric powerplant in the project is located in Twin Lakes, generating 200 megawatts.
Even through Twin Lakes today is nothing but a tourist attraction for most people, its rich history and amazing setting sets Twin Lakes apart from other Colorado Mountain towns. It makes a great base for hiking the high peaks of the Sawatch Range, mountain biking, photography, but also serves as a great place just for a weekend getaway.