Highland Mary Lakes
excerpts from the book
Colorado's
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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    Distance: 7.8 miles (loop)

    Walking time:  5 3/4 hours

    Elevations
    : 1,800 ft. gain/loss
       Highland Mary Trailhead (start): 10,800 ft.
       Highland Mary Lake (largest): 12,090 ft.
       Verde Lakes: 12,186 ft.
       Continental Divide: 12,600 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and easy to follow.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The higher parts of this trail are usually covered with snow from early November through mid-July.

    Vicinity: Near Silverton

    Highland Mary LakesHighland Mary Lakes

     

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    The Highland Mary Lakes are a group of seven above-timberline lakes on the northwestern side of the Weminuche Wilderness Area. This trail passes by the two largest Highland Mary Lakes as well as the nearby Verde Lakes. But, in my opinion, the most interesting part of the hike is the second half of the trail. From the Verde Lakes the trail turns east and climbs to the top of the Continental Divide. It then follows the Continental Divide Trail for 1.0 mile before turning west again for the descent back to the trailhead. All but the first and last mile of the hike are above timberline.

    I should mention an interesting bit of history regarding the Highland Mary Mine near the beginning of this hike. This mine was originally established by the Ennis brothers who emigrated from New York to Colorado in the early 1870s to try their luck at prospecting. Before leaving home they hired a spiritualist to tell them where to dig for gold. Given a map of the United States she confidently pointed to Cunningham Gulch and told them that this was the place where they would find a "Lake of Gold". The brothers struggled for over ten years, carefully following the mysticís instructions, until they had dug a mile-long tunnel into the mountain and discovered a number of high grade silver deposits, but they never struck gold. Finally, after spending a million dollars on the mine and $50,000 on the spiritualist, they went bankrupt. The Highland Mary Mine was taken over by new owners in 1895 and, ironically, by 1907 it had become the second largest silver producing mine in the Silverton area.

    From the trailhead the trail begins climbing upward almost immediately along the left side of the creek. For the next 40 minutes you will rarely be out of sight or sound of Cunningham Creek as it tumbles and splashes down the steep grade through a series of delightful cascades. After 0.2 mile there is a fork in the trail with a misleading sign that says hikers should bear right and horses bear left. Be sure to bear right at this sign, or you will soon find yourself climbing out of Cunningham Gulch toward the Continental Divide.

    The trail continues up the left side of the main drainage for another 0.9 mile, crossing two minor tributaries along the way. Then, just above a picturesque waterfall and shortly after crossing the northern boundary of the Weminuche Wilderness Area, the path crosses over a conveniently placed log to the west side of Cunningham Creek. At this point the trail veers further west into another unnamed drainage and follows it out of the forest to the first of the Highland Mary Lakes. By the time you reach the first tiny lake you will be above timberline. Soon the second lake will come into view, quickly followed by the third. All of the lakes are well above timberline, with not a tree in sight. They are situated in the midst of a plain of gently rolling hills with the crest of the continental divide 1.0 mile to the east.

    The third lake is the largest of the Highland Mary Lakes, 0.4 mile long and 300 yards wide. The trail continues south along its western shore and then bends westward to get around its swampy southwestern side. The path disappears into the tall grass at this point, but if you look further south you can see where it emerges again on the side of the hill a few hundred yards ahead. Continue following it in a southerly direction, and within 20 minutes you will arrive at the northern side of the two Verde Lakes.

    Having reached the Verde Lakes, many hikers simply return to the Highland Mary Trailhead and same way they came, but a much more interesting route is to return by way of a loop trail that crosses over the Continental Divide. Coloradoís higher altitude trails are often difficult to follow, and you may not immediately see the trail leading from Verde Lakes up to the top of the Divide. But fortunately the Forest Service has marked the route with a series of 7-foot poles placed along the route at intervals of a few hundred yards. If you just follow these poles up the slope on the east side of the lake you will soon run into the trail.

    As you climb up the slope your eyes will probably be drawn to a range of very rugged peaks four miles south of Verde Lake. This is the spectacular Grenadier Range, considered to be one of the highest concentrations of technical mountain climbing challenges in the state. While the Grenadiers do not contain any fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, they do contain over a dozen notable thirteeners. One sharply pointed, pyramid-shaped peak is particularly eye-catching. That is Arrow Peak (13,803 feet), considered to be one of the most difficult summits in Colorado.

    After a climb of 1.1 miles and an elevation gain of only 600 feet above Verde Lake the trail arrives at the Continental Divide. Another trail comes in from the south at this point, but it is poorly marked and you probably wonít even see it. This is the Continental Divide Trail. Continuing north along the Divide the path passes by a small lake that drains to the west, and then dips down on the eastern side of the Divide. (The Continental Divide is not well defined in this area, so donít be disappointed if you canít tell exactly where the magic line is.)

    After another 1.2 miles you will come to another fork where you must leave the Continental Divide Trail and drop back down to the west to return to the Highland Mary Trailhead. Again, the better trail is the one you want; if you are not paying attention you may not even see the fork where the Continental Divide Trail departs. The trail drops steeply back down into the trees and continues into Cunningham Gulch, loosing 1,200 feet before it reaches the creek. 0.5 mile before you reach the creek you will come to an unmarked fork in the trail. If you go right you will meet the creek 0.2 mile below the trailhead; if you go left you will meet the creek 0.2 mile above the trailhead. Both routes are about the same distance to the trailhead, but if you parked you car on the main road near the Highland Mary Mine the trail on the right will get you to your vehicle a little faster.

      

     
    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Highland Mary Lakes
    we recommend:
    Weminuche Wilderness (Trails Illustrated, map #140)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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