* Please note most of the "trail" photos in this blog were taken with my cell phone. The lake images were taken with a slightly better camera :-)
Nestled in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area near Ouray, one of my favorite trails in all of Colorado leads up to the magnificent turquoise wataers of the Blue Lakes. I’ve hiked here several times over the years, but this basin is always a pleasure to revisit. So a few weeks ago, my best guy-friend and I made the 5 hour drive from the smoke-filled skies in Winter Park (smokey because of the western forest fires) to the very flat town of Montrose. The drive down south was uneventful except for a motorcycle “dude” who had road rage when my friend passed him (the dude was going about 15 miles an hour below the speed limit), but for an unknown reason the dude took offense at the pass – enough to speed up and give us the bird at 2 feet away). We still do not know what he was upset about. We do know enough to avoid crazies like that, and we sped on.
Eventually, we made our way into Montrose and headed straight for our first objective – a late lunch at the Horsefly Brewery.
I’d been here a time before, and as hoped, it did not disappoint. In my experience, the Horsefly offers the best burger in Colorado. Better burgers may be out there, but the Horsefly burgers never fail to impress, (and my friend loved their brews). We had planned on eating here the next day, too, but a sign on the door sad the kitchen was closing this day at 3pm. We had arrived about 2:30pm and were glad we did. When we asked our waitress about the following day’s hours, she said they were closed the following day, too -because the staff was going camping! I guess you just never know about operating hours in these smallish towns. Glad we inquired!
After satisfying one of our Maslovian needs, we arrived at our lodging – the Red Arrow Inn. The original plan had been to camp, but with heavy rains forecast each night, we made a last-minute adjustment. And when you wait until the last minute, pickings can be slim. In the parking lot was a beater truck decked out in American flags and political slogans straight from a rally. Facing the actual rooms from the parking lot – on the second deck patio – sat unshaven, flannel-clad woodsmen, smoking, sipping their lukewarm Bud Lights and staring coldly at us as we unpacked and moved to our modest room. Seemed like a movie. And those dudes were there each time we came and went for the next 48 hours. The sparse, sketchy accommodations were made slightly better by the front desk lady who actually seemed to care – taking an extra step to make sure we had muffins for our 430am departure the next morning! And our rooms were actually clean, so we stayed inside during our time on the premises.
That initial night, we spent the hours waiting for the storms to fade, but they did not. So we finally gave up. The next morning, we arose at 4am, grabbed our muffins, and drove the hour-plus to the Blue Lakes Trailhead. Heavy rains the previous night had left the road and trail filled with puddles, but nothing impassable. From Highway 62 heading west from Ridgway, the 11 mile, 4WD road on CR 7 (Dallas Creek), awaited. The road was slow going, but the views of Mount Sneffels and an aspen valley were attention-getting. Eventually, we bumped our way to the trailhead. Then the uphill started.
Right out of the gate, the trail leads up. Our goal this morning was the Blue Lakes Pass that offers views of both the Blue Lakes basin and Yankee Boy Basin, an 11 mile, 3,650 vertical feet round-trip. As we started out in the half-light of pre-dawn in a forest of pine, as I often do, I wondered why we do this as my lungs and body adjusted to moving at 9300’. After about 15-20 minutes, the body adjusted and slipped into the long-slog-rhythm.
As daylight began to filter through the aspen and pine, we quietly passed through meadows of wildflowers and green grasses.
The wind remained quiet both this morning and throughout our trip, and this would help my photography goals a little later in the morning. Along the way, we passed several beautiful cascades of the East Fork of Dallas Creek. Finally, about a third of a mile from the first of the three lakes, we passed a nice waterfall nestled in the trees.
At that point, we knew we were near the Lower Blue Lake at 10,940’.
Without bothering to linger here, we quickly headed uphill. Route-finding was a challenge, but after a few tries, we finally figured out/remembered we needed to stay to the left (north) of a small stream that ran down from the higher portions of the basin. And a 10-minute grunt ensued, finally placing us at one of the views that motivated me on this trip. However, looking down at the Lower Blue Lake from 400’ above, a portion of the turquoise lake was still in shade, so we kept going upward.
After reaching the overlook of the Lower Blue Lake, the grade of the trail tapered off a bit and made for easy walking. Middle Blue Lake quickly came into view s the trail skirted the west side of its waters. Ahead rose the majestic and rocky peak of Mount Sneffels. The slopes in this area were filled with wildflowers – columbine, paintbrush, elephant tusks, and more.
Further up the trail, the last lake – Upper Blue Lake – waited for us at 11,750’. During our hours around these lakes, the water was like glass, reflecting the beauty of the surrounding landscape like a mirror. I’d not been up here in these calm conditions, and that made this time even more special.
Looking back toward the Blue Lake basin, the clouds were white and puffy, but beginning to build just a bit. In front of us - high up on Blue Lakes Pass - they were a turning more menacing. The billowing whites were a dark blue, almost purplish. We hesitantly started up the long parade of switchbacks rising to the ridgeline, eventually reaching 12,500’. However, at this point, we decided the risk was not worth it. With 700 vertical feet to go, we turned around. Storms were forecast to roll in around noon, and since both my friend and I both have a wife and young girls, we decided we were done instead of getting caught in a lightning storm.
The hike down was brisk but we did stop to linger a bit before heading down to the Lower Blue Lake. The views of the turquoise lake - its color due to mineral deposits, called like a siren to my camera. My friend was patient and gave me time to do my work.
After pausing here, we headed down. And time seemed to drag on near the end. Finally, we made it back to the car, hungry and tired.
The plan was to drive into Ouray and find a brewery there. With muscles getting tight, we vetoed the plan and took the low hanging fruit – Freddy’s Burgers – on the way back to the Red Arrow. Cheap eats and a lot of refills of liquid later, we rolled into our lodging’s parking lot, again greeted by the bearded watchers on the balcony.
That night, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison awaited. But that is another story.
If you have questions about the Blue Lakes, I’m happy to help. Just contact me through my website. And feel free to see more Blue Lakes photos (and Ouray).
Happy travels, friends, and practice kindness.
Images from Colorado