The Highest Lake

(C) Copyright 2002 by Carl Drews
Last update: September 22, 2004


The highest summit in a geographical area is a well-defined concept: It's the greatest elevation where a climber can stand, sit, squat, be photographed, or at least reach over and tag it with an outstretched hand, like Sunlight Peak in Colorado's Chicago Basin. The concept of the highest lake is somewhat harder to define. As climber Claudio Seebach has observed, "The highest is always a doubtful thing: what is a lake?" What, indeed? Obviously not every little puddle of meltwater can qualify as a lake. Geographers agree that a lake is an enclosed body of standing water, but beyond that basic concept it gets a little tricky.

A lake must be larger than a certain minimum size, otherwise any tiny pond or puddle would be a lake. The size ought to be measured in terms of the surface area, which can usually be determined from topographical maps. The lake should be mostly open water; that is, it should not have vegetation or little stepping-stones all the way across it.

The lake must have liquid water. There might be some glacier-filled hollow in the saddle of Mt. McKinley in Alaska, or at the bottom of Snow Lake in Pakistan; but it doesn't qualify as a lake unless some climber can throw a chunk of snow into it and make a splash.

A lake must be of water. The lava lakes in the summit crater of the volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai in Tanzania are certainly fascinating, but they don't count here. And they only last a few days.

Since I've studied the topic and reviewed various standards, I'll propose here a working definition of a lake:

1. The lake surface area must be at least 1 hectare, or 2.471 acres. 1 hectare is 100 meters by 100 meters. Long-recognized lakes smaller than this size are grandfathered in; if ancient Hawaiians and Incas were willing to make the trek up to their sacred lake, that's good enough for me!
2. The lake must be at least 2 meters deep somewhere. You know, for swimming.
3. The lake must be mostly open water. If you can walk or hop all the way across it in your water-proofed hiking boots, it's not a lake, it's a marsh.
4. The lake must be perennial, lasting throughout the entire year. Specifically, the lake must retain at least 100 cubic meters of liquid water year-round. That's 10x10 meters by 1 meter deep - fish could live in that. It's okay for the lake to have a permanent surface layer of ice, like Lake Vostok in Antarctica, as long as there's water down below.
5. Someone has to visit the lake on the ground to verify and document it.

I figure that a near-lake that meets most of these criteria should be called a "pool." Those are interesting, too.

Having said all that, the definition of a lake is actually not much of a problem! There are few enough contenders for the title of "highest lake" that it's practical simply to list the top candidates and have the reader decide on the winner. I don't mind typing, and you seem to have some time on your hands to surf the Internet. So let's go . . . !

The Highest Lake in the United States of America

That link contains a list of highest lakes in the USA. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database of named geographical features in the country. You can search their database at this very cool web site here:

To find lakes by altitude, search on Feature Type = lake and set the minimum elevation. With a little fiddling, you can also find the northernmost cemetery in Idaho (the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery is at 485958 North latitude) and other useful information like that. However, the USGS database only lists named features. And therein lies a tale . . .

Pacific Tarn Trip Report

That link contains our trip report of the wildly successful scientific expedition undertaken by CHAOS to "Pacific Tarn", near Breckenridge, Colorado, on July 13-14, 2002. We visited the lake, swam in it, photographed it, paddled across it, drank it, took its temperature, plumbed its depths, and about everything else we could think of!

The Highest Lake in the World

That link contains a list of highest lakes in the world. The problem in compiling this list is in determining accurate altitudes for the candidates. Many of the elevations listed on web sites for far-off places are approximate. Furthermore, the rest of the world has been mapped less thoroughly than the United States. On the positive side, each candidate seems to have some interesting story associated with it, and most of them are visually spectacular. There ain't no such thing as a boring high lake!

Conversion Notes:
There are 43,560 square feet in an acre.
There are 39.37 inches in a meter.

Summit Register from Maroon Peak

This doesn't have anything to do with lakes, but it has a lot to do with mountains, and if you weren't interested in mountains you wouldn't be visiting this web site. That page contains a reprint of an actual summit register retrieved from Maroon Peak near Aspen, Colorado, dating from the years 2000-2002.

Detecting Climate Change in Canadian Ice Data

In 2003 I took an introductory course in meteorology. This is the research paper that I wrote for the course. I got an 'A' grade on the paper, if anybody wants to know.


Please send me an e-mail if you find incorrect information on these pages. I'm also interested in photos, trip reports, scientific articles, and of course - newly discovered higher lakes!

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