The Shelf Lake Trail follows the Smelter Gulch drainage to Shelf Lake in a high mountain cirque. The 3.2 mile hike is on an established trail the entire distance. The trip will take approximately 2 hours of hiking at a moderate pace to reach the lake. Elevation gain is 1,842'. The last 3/4 miles is above tree line in tundra filled with a profusion of high alpine wildflowers. The lake is usually frozen until mid-June, and there may be snow at high elevations through mid-July. Because of this late snow melt the final portions of the trail remain wet and slightly boggy through midsummer. Fishing in the lake is generally rated good for cutthroat trout. There are very few areas along the trail that are suitable as campsites.
For the first 1.5 miles the trail climbs steadily in a north/northwest direction in the Smelter Gulch drainage. The trail then rises at a less rapid rate until tree line at about mile 2.4. The final .75 miles rise more rapidly in a series of switchbacks up to the shelf on which the lake is located. There are 5 major stream crossings on the trail. The first two are about 200' apart, and are located about .7 miles from the trailhead. Above the second major stream crossing, Smelter Gulch stream will be to the left (south) of the trail. At slightly over 1 mile from the trailhead, the trail makes two more stream crossings and the drainage will again be to the left (south) of the trail. At 2 miles you will reach the fifth (and final) major stream crossing. From this point onward to the lake, the drainage is to the right (north) of the trail. As you reach tree line, the trail begins to pass through willows in which there frequently appear to be several trails that come and go. Continue in a north-northwest direction and maintain your elevation if you get confused. As you leave tree line you will see, on your right, several series of cascading falls as the terrain gets steeper. The final stretch of the trail bends left (west) up a steep series of switchbacks on the tundra. In midsummer this final stretch of the trail has a spectacular display of wildflowers. Note that the trail described above varies somewhat from how it is represented on the topographic quad map.
Directions from Bailey: From Bailey drive 10.8 miles west on Highway 285 to Grant. Turn right (north) on Park County Road 62 (sometimes called Guanella Pass Road). Drive 6.6 miles to the turnoff for Geneva Park campground and Duck Creek Picnic Ground. Follow the turnoff .3 miles to the entrance sign at Geneva Park Campground. Continue traveling straight 2.8 miles from the sign on Forest Road 119 to reach the Shelf Lake Trailhead. This final stretch of road is not a designated four-wheel drive road, but there are several rocky stretches which may be difficult to negotiate with a low clearance vehicle.
Early Summer through Mid-Fall .