One of the most beautiful and special places in Colorado is Piney Lake, located at Piney River Ranch. The lake and ranch are accessed out of Vail about ten miles away on a windy dirt road. Here a pristine lake reflects the majestic Gore Range of the Colorado Rockies. Hiking, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, paddle boarding and just taking in nature are ways to enjoy the area’s beauty.
A visit is well worth the drive, as a line of cars bumping along the road on the weekends will attest to. But did you know that you can spend the night, or multiple nights here? You can almost have the place to yourself — solitude as the sun sets or rises in one of the most beautiful places in Colorado.
Vail in Colorado is home to many special and spectacular places. These natural spectacles are of varying popularity and difficulty to access. Piney Lake is one where you can truly feel at one with nature, especially if you spend the night and can enjoy the early morning hours.
Disclosure: We were hosted on this trip by Piney River Ranch. All opinions, however, are our own.
Piney River Ranch operates a restaurant, horseback riding, a pier with canoe rentals, as well as cabins and tents, all located right on Piney Lake Vail. Piney River Ranch is a popular location for weddings. And, the Upper Piney Lake Trail is popular with hikers.
The area can get crowded during weekend days, but we had the opportunity to spend the night in one of the tents. We discovered that it was a way to enjoy the sights here without so many people around.
I first visited Piney Lake more than a decade ago. The first visit was camping in the area. I have fond memories of setting up my tent and discovering a tree by the creek and sounds of running water. Under which I cozied up my dog and a book. Three or four years later I took a drive up again, this time to see the ranch when considering possible wedding locations.
Piney River Ranch may be the most beautiful wedding venue in the Vail area. The Vail wedding deck and other on-mountain locations offer spectacular mountain views. But the proximity of the Gore Range and the beauty of Piney Lake make this area unique as the alpenglow reflects on the lake.
Piney Lake is a bit harder to get to. It is a 30-45 minute drive from Vail Village to Red Sandstone Road and up a bumpy dirt road. There is no cell phone service starting a couple of miles into the drive. Nor does the ranch offer WiFi. It is a remote part of White River National Forest, which is a part of its charm, especially when glamping with your family.
Lodging at Piney River Ranch
Tents at Piney River Ranch
Our family was seeking a glamping experience so booked one of their tents. The tents are rustically charming. They offer wood floors and a wood burning fireplace for heat. There’s a basic table for four and a wooden rocking chair. I really enjoyed reading to my kids in the wooden rocking chair to the light of a lantern. It is hard to capture their attention so intently at home. And, it just felt old fashioned.
The tent has a queen bed and two twin beds with bedding. We brought along extra blankets. But it was so nice to not have to worry about packing sleeping bags or camping mats or air mattresses. A night stand is on one side of the bed with a lamp. And there’s an overhead light at the top of the tent. There were also a couple of electrical outlets available via extension cord. I happened to bring along the all-important camping accessory, my Nespresso machine, so we were able to have hot espresso early on a very cold Colorado fall morning. We only wished that we’d thought to bring along the space heater too.
The tents have screens so that you could open them up on warm days. Though the evenings can always get a little chilly at this mountain altitude. There’s a front deck to the tent with two chairs and end tables made of sawed up logs.
And, in front of the tent is a space with a fire pit, a gas grill and a picnic table with benches. It was lovely to be able to roast S’mores in the evening. And, it was so easy to heat up some pre-made burritos on the gas grill the next morning. The tents each have parking right next to them making loading in and out easy.
Insider Tip: Piney Lake Vail rests at 9,350 feet above sea level. Bring water to stave off altitude sickness. Bring firewood for cold evenings, and roasting S’mores by the fire.
Cabins at Piney Lake Vail
The cabins are right on Piney Lake. We didn’t stay in one, but they have a similar layout in the front with a fire pit and gas grill, and parking right next to the cabin. For early or late season, in hindsight, I’d go for one of these. While there’s no heat in the cabins they are much better insulated than a tent. I’d imagine that works for noise too. Our neighbors were all quiet so noise wasn’t an issue. But in the tents you can even hear the crunching of footsteps on the gravel outside.
Most importantly, the cabins are truly lakefront. While the tents are only a few steps to uninterrupted fabulous views. The cabins are right there. Just open the front door to see the Gore Range reflected on the still lake.
Rumor has it that for summer 2020 they have removed the large yurt and built two new cabins in its place.
Restaurant at Piney River Ranch
The restaurant is open to the public from 11 am until 6 pm. Hours are limited which means you need to arrive at a decent time if you’d like to eat at the restaurant rather than prepare your own camp dinner. The restaurant is top notch. There’s a limited menu but we all loved our food. We even ordered a second order of their wings cooked on their smoker out back.
Our waitress was very kind and helpful, and didn’t seem to mind bringing us lots and lots of water. Even though the restaurant was closed at 6 pm, she was still there cleaning just after close and didn’t mind helping direct me to find fire starter and kindling at the front office. The assistant general manager was kind enough to hunt down said fire starter in a back room.
While we opted to make coffee and heat up breakfast at our tent, the front office and store does open at 9 am with hot coffee and breakfast burritos. They also have great souvenirs. We came home with a new Christmas tree ornament and a very cool hat with a Moose on it for our little guy.
What to Do at Piney River Ranch
Hiking at Piney Lake Colorado
Piney Lake offers some of the most spectacular hiking in Vail. No mountain bikes or motorized vehicles are allowed. Dogs must be on leash. The Upper Piney Lake Trail leads to waterfalls and is about 7 miles round trip to the falls.
When in beautiful places, I often try to sneak out early for an hour or two to get in a quick hike while my kids play. So, I didn’t have enough time to make it to the falls. But I can tell you that the Gore Range is beautiful. The aspen leaves were just starting to turn gold and the morning light light them up.
There is another hiking trail on the right hand side of the lake. I just explored the base area around the lake but it was beautiful too, in a different way. That is the side of the lake that apparently the Moose frequent.
Fishing at Piney Lake
Piney River Ranch rents spin rods & reels. There are plenty of picturesque places around the lake to try your hand at fishing. We spent some time along the shore with a rod and our kids loved it. While we didn’t catch anything, it was the perfect introduction to fishing for our kids. There are also guided fishing tours available during the peak season.
Canoeing & Stand Up Paddle Boarding at Piney Lake
The lake isn’t large and taking a canoe or paddle board out is a fun way to explore it. My daughter & I spent some time in the canoe. The lake is calm and serene. It was just nice to be out on the water for a bit.
Horseback Riding at Piney River Ranch
We visited the second to last weekend that Piney River Ranch was open for the season. Sadly, the horses headed down the mountain the weekend prior. Otherwise, I am sure that this would have been the highlight of the trip for me. There’s no better way to take in Colorado’s majestic landscape than on horseback!
When is Piney Lake Accessible?
The road to Piney Lake typically opens the beginning of June. June 21st is the open date for summer 2020. Piney River Ranch is typically open through the end of September though nights get cold in the fall. Some activities, such as horseback riding may wrap up a couple of weeks before.
Spectacular mountains reflected on clear alpine lakes is quite the beautiful sight. You might be surprised how many reservoirs and lakes in Colorado there actually are.
Piney River Ranch is a favorite Colorado glamping spot, but be sure to check out our round up of other favorites!