Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 8.6 miles (round trip to upper lake)
Elevations: 2,370 ft. gain/loss
Blue Lakes Trailhead (start): 9,350 ft.
Lower Blue Lake: 10,980 ft.
Upper Blue Lake: 11,720 ft.
Trail: Well maintained and easy to follow.
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from mid-November through June.
Vicinity: Near Ouray
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Traveling west of Ridgway on Highway 62 one cannot help but be impressed by the long, rugged line of mountain peaks that lie directly south of the road. Nearly all of the summits rise above the 13,000-foot level, but there is one peak in particular that dominates the scene: Mount Sneffels. At 14,150 feet above sea level, Sneffels stands over 300 feet higher than its nearest neighbor; it is the only fourteener in the area.
In 1980 the land between Mount Sneffels and North Pole Peak, 7.5 miles to the west, was designated as the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area, and today few outdoorsmen can gaze at the dramatic mountain scenery without feeling the urge to explore. There are only a few trails leading into the wilderness area, but in my opinion the Blue Lakes Trail ranks among the best. The three Blue Lakes are the only large bodies of water in the 16,505-acre wilderness, and they are spectacularly situated in the East Dallas Drainage just west of Mount Sneffels. All of the lakes can easily be visited in one day, but if you are interested in an overnighter there are several excellent camp sites on the north side of the lower Blue Lake. Mount Sneffels can be clearly seen from all three lakes. It lies only 0.8 miles east of the upper lake, and in fact is often climbed as a day hike from the Blue Lakes
From the trailhead the path goes south for two hundred feet before arriving at the Blaine Basin Trail Junction. The Blue Lakes Trail bears right here and continues along the side of East Fork Dallas Creek for a short distance before turning up the west side of the steep valley. There are few level areas along the lower part of the trail; most of the time you will be angling upward along the steep sides of the drainage through a thick forest of Engelmann spruce. After 1.6 miles the trail enters a small, steep valley on the eastern side of Wolcott Mountain, then crosses the stream at the bottom of the drainage and resumes its uphill climb. Notice the absence of large trees in this small valley-a clear sign of avalanche activity. For 150 yards on the south side of the stream you won’t see any trees taller than about 15 feet, and looking up you can easily imagine the torrent of snow that occasionally rages down the precipitous slopes of the mountain. Not a good place to be in the wintertime. After leaving the avalanche chute the trail bends to the left and continues climbing at a somewhat more gradual rate, finally returning to the East Fork of Dallas Creek some 1.4 miles later. Lower Blue Lake is just above the point where the trail reaches the creek.
Although this hike is described as a day hike, many people choose to spend the night at the lower Blue Lake. There are several fine campsites amidst a grove of tall trees along the western shore. When I camped there in the summer of 2000 I had a close encounter with a large red fox that seemed to be making a routine inspection of the campground about an hour before sunset. He was very daring, and although he was keeping a close eye on me he was at one point only 15 feet away. It was the only time I have ever seen this reclusive species so close, and the experience was thrilling. The fox stood about 2 feet high, larger than I would have expected, and he had the most beautiful coat I have ever seen on an animal. Shades of reddish brown, with an exquisite bushy tail fully three feet long tipped on the end with a large tuft of snowy white fur.
Campers can also enjoy a magnificent view of Mount Sneffels above the east side of Lower Blue Lake. The peak looks very foreboding from this angle, with a series of heavily eroded serrations on its slopes and jagged, rocky pinnacles on its ridges. The assent to the summit via the south slope is not as difficult as it looks from this angle, although it is certainly a challenging climb.
To reach the other two Blue Lakes you must backtrack to a trail junction just below Lower Blue Lake and turn right across a primitive log bridge that spans East Fork Dallas Creek. This trail climbs past the other lakes on its way to Blue Lakes Pass. The cirque in which the middle and upper lakes are located is 600 feet higher that lower Blue Lake, and as you climb up the east side of the lower basin you will be treated to a number of fine views of the lake below. Lower Blue is located in an almost perfectly circular bowl with extremely steep sides. Dallas Peak (13,809 ft.) rises from the jagged ridge south of the lake, and the scree from its heavily eroded slopes appears to be slowly filling the lake with rocks.
By the time you reach the upper basin you will be well above timberline, and as the trail levels off you will enter a world of gently rolling hills richly carpeted with the grasses and wild flowers of the alpine tundra. The trail first skirts around the west side of middle Blue Lake, the smallest of the three, and then climbs another 200 feet to the slightly larger upper lake. On a clear day the peaceful landscape of the upper basin seems to foster a mood of great tranquility. However, lest you forget where you are, the peaceful meadow is surrounded on three sides by a 13,000-foot ridge punctuated by Dallas Peak, Gilpin Peak, and Mount Sneffels. It is altogether a wondrous place to spend a few hours thinking about what it means to be alive on God’s earth.
Yankee Boy Basin
The Blue Lakes can also be reached from Yankee Boy Basin near Ouray. Drive south from Ouray towards Silverton on Highway 550. Just 0.3 miles from town you will see a graded gravel road near a sign that says Camp Bird and Yankee Boy Basin. Turn right here and follow the signs for the next 9.6 miles to the end of the road at the top of Yankee Boy Basin. After 5.0 miles, just above the Camp Bird Mine, the road starts to get very rough, and you may not be able to get beyond that point with a 2WD car. Another 2.7 miles will bring you to a small parking area where the Forest Service has erected an outhouse. You definitely will not be able to get beyond that point without a 4WD vehicle.
1.0 mile beyond the Forest Service outhouse the road passes Wright's Lake Trailhead, where you can begin your hike to the Blue Lakes. Alternatively, if you are still driving (and your car is still in one piece!) you can continue another 0.9 mile to the Blue Lakes Trailhead at the end of the road and begin your hike from there. From the Wright's Lake Trailhead the distance to the top of Blue Lakes Pass is 1.6 miles with an elevation gain of 1,230 feet. If you begin at the end of the road the distance to the top of the pass will be 1.0 mile with an elevation gain of 600 feet. When you reach the summit of Blue Lakes Pass you will be treated to a gorgeous view of Upper Blue Lake 1,270 feet below. The trail down to the lake is 1.5 miles long.
As mentioned earlier, Mount Sneffels is often climbed as a day trip from the Blue Lakes. If you are considering this, however, you should be aware that this climb is considerably more challenging than the other fourteener assents described in this book, and I would not recommend it unless you have had previous mountaineering experience. The south slope of Sneffels is usually classified as a class 2+ climb: harder than Colorado’s class 1 and class 2 walkups, but not as hard as the class 3 routes up the Maroon Bells and the Crestones. In his book, Colorado’s Fourteeners, Gerry Roach describes it as a good climb for "someone who has climbed all the easy fourteeners and wants a taste of what the harder ones are like".6
The easiest route up Sneffels begins on the Blue Lakes Trail just 0.5 mile below the east side of Blue Lakes Pass in Yankee Boy Basin. There you will see a large cairn marking the point where the Sneffels Trail departs from the Blue Lakes Trail. The faint trail first zigzags up a wide, rocky couloir to a 13,500-foot-high saddle between Sneffels and the nearby Kismet Peak. There is no trail above the saddle, but the established route continues westward up another small, steep couloir that extends to within 150 feet of the summit. Just before reaching the end of the smaller couloir you must exit via a 30-foot V-shaped crack on the left, and then scramble up the last 200 feet to the top.
If you intend to climb Sneffels I suggest you read Gerry Roach’s description of the assent route before starting out. Another excellent description of this climb can be found in Kelvin Kent's Ouray Hiking Guide.7
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Blue Lakes
Silverton, Ouray, Telluride (Trails Illustrated, map #141)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS