Lake Isabelle (10,910′), Front Range

Lake Isabelle (10,910′), Front Range

Lake Isabelle (10,910′), Front Range

Lake Isabelle lies hidden in a high, isolated bowl-shaped basin at the top of the South St. Vrain drainage in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area. It lies at tree-line in a stunning alpine valley surrounded by Navajo (13,409′), Apache (13,441′) and Shoshoni (12,967′) peaks. The Continental Divide is located just west of the lake, running along the high peaks above the valley.

Mitchell & Blue Lake and Mt Audubon, are also located in the Brainard Lake Recreation Area and also offer beautiful views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

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Trail Directions

From the Long Lake Trailhead, the trail begins its relatively gentle ascent up to Long Lake. After a quarter-mile of trekking, the trail intersects the Jean Lunning Trail, which will take you to and around Long Lake.  This area is known for moose sightings. Avoid the Jean Lunning Trail and continue to the right uphill to Lake Isabelle.

After approximately 1 more mile, the trail intersects the Jean Lunning Trail for the second time.  Again, continue towards Lake Isabelle and Pawnee Pass, bypassing the Jean Lunning Trail.  Lake Isabelle is just another .9 miles beyond this trail junction. From the lake you have the option of continuing further up the trail to reach Isabelle Glacier.

Trailhead Directions

Wager Gulch (12,350′), San Juan Range

Wager Gulch (12,350′), San Juan Range

Wager Gulch (12,350′), San Juan Range

The road up Wager Gulch (high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle recommended), leads to the remnants of the abandoned mining town of Carson, on the way up to the Continental Divide and beyond. Founded in 1889, Carson reached its peak at the turn of the century when some 500 miners worked the mountain. Carson fell victim to the harsh winters of Colorado, being situated almost directly on the Continental Divide. It was considered one of the most inaccessible mining camps in Colorado. To access, take Wager Gulch road located south of Lake City, immediately off the Alpine Loop.

While in the area you may also want to explore Hurricane (12,730′) and California Pass (12,960′)  which intersect further northwest along the Alpine Loop. Stony Pass provides a route to the headwaters of the Rio Grande river.

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Trail Directions

 

From Lake City enter the Alpine Loop on County Road 30. From there take the Wager Gulch Rd turnoff heading south.

As you start Wager Gulch road continue uphill following Wager Creek. Continue on switchbacks as you climb above the creek and head through the forest. Stay on the main road.

After numerous switchbacks the road will cross an open area of the gulch with Carson Mountain to the west. At the next intersection the left road will take you to the ghost town of Carson, which is visible just across Wager Creek. There is an area to park and explore the buildings. Keep in mind that they are private property so repect the property. A short distance up the gulch from the town are the tailings of two mines. The road will top out on the Continental Divide and descend southward.

Trailhead Directions

Alpine Loop (12,800′), San Juan Range

Alpine Loop (12,800′), San Juan Range

Alpine Loop (12,800′), San Juan Range

The Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway is a rugged 4×4 road that winds through the spectacular scenery of the San Juan Mountains, connecting Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray. The loop traverses passes up to 12,800 feet while showcasing old mines, ghost towns, natural wonders, beautiful wildflowers, and abundant wildlife. Take a 10 minute detour while on the way to Cinnamon Pass to treat yourself to American Basin, one of the most beautiful places in Colorado.

Tackling the loop in its entirety is easily an all-day adventure. However, the main loop is only part of the experience; miles of designated side routes allow visitors to either take a short tour or extend their trip to multiple days. Hurricane (12,730′) and California Pass (12,960′) are two such examples that take you north from the Alpine Loop. For something closer to Lake City, tackle Wager Gulch to the Continental Divide.

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Trail Directions

Tucked away in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado is the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. Located northeast of Silverton, Colorado in San Juan and Hinsdale Counties, the circular route makes its way from Lake City south along CO-149, to County Road 30, which turns west over Cinnamon Pass (12,640 feet) to Animas Forks, and then returns east over Engineer Pass (12,800) back to Lake City along County Road 20. The loop is best traveled in a clockwise direction.

From Lake City enter the Alpine Loop on either County Road 30 or County Road 20. From Silverton enter the Alpine Loop on County Road 2. From Ouray enter the Alpine Loop on County Road 18.

Trailhead Directions

Humboldt Peak (14,064′), Sangre de Cristo Range

Humboldt Peak (14,064′), Sangre de Cristo Range

Humboldt Peak (14,064′), Sangre de Cristo Range

Humboldt Peak is part of the Crestones in the rugged Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The Crestones are a cluster of 14,000′ peaks comprising Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson Peak, Challenger Point, Humboldt Peak, and Columbia Point. Humboldt Peak is the least difficult hike (difficult Class 2). The rest of the Crestone Group is Class 3, 4, and 5 climbing.

As the trail winds up Humboldt Peak you pass the South Colony Lakes, the most popular back country camping site in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

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Trail Directions

The trail climbs the peak from the South Colony Lakes basin, accessed from the east side of the range. This basin is a popular site that is also the base for most climbs of Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle. You start the hike on a very rugged four-wheel drive road that was closed in 2009 as it follows the South Colony drainage.

Once near the lakes there will be Forest Service signs providing information on the area. Going NW (Humboldt Peak cutoff trail) at the junction, takes you to the Upper South Colony Lake.

The trail climbs steeply to the ridge from the upper lake. Once on the ridge stay to the center for the safest scramble to the summit. The northern side is treacherous with a steep drop for most of the remaining route.

Once on the false summit, head to the northeast to the true summit along large talus.

Trailhead Directions

Hurricane Pass (12,730′) and California Pass (12,960′), San Juan Range

Hurricane Pass (12,730′) and California Pass (12,960′), San Juan Range

Hurricane Pass (12,730′) and California Pass (12,960′), San Juan Range

The National Water and Climate Center reported that the SWE (snow water equivalent) for the San Juan Mountains, including Hurricane Pass and California Pass, in May of 2019 was 728% above normal. It was such a heavy snow year that most of the back country at higher elevations was still buried in July. The heavy amounts of snow also caused a significant number of avalanches in the state. The only option out of Silverton to the Alpine Loop this July was to take SH 100 to Gladstone. Heavy avalanche debris still blocked the route to Animas Forks from Silverton using County Rd. 2.

Heading out of Silverton on SH 110, you pass Gladstone, which sits in a flat meadow where the five forks of Cement Creek meet. The town began in the late 1870’s from the surrounding mines including a sawmill just below the town site. As the mines grew, the sawmill was needed by other mines in the area, so a wagon road was graded up Cement Creek. In 1879 this wagon road went over Hurricane Pass and down Poughkeepsie Gulch as the route from Silverton to Ouray.

Today Poughkeepsie Gulch is generally for high clearance 4×4 vehicles that don’t mind a few road scars. The route today includes Hurricane and California Pass, and eventually leads down to Animas Forks.

The San Juan Mountains offer incredible outdoor beauty, including areas such as the Alpine Loop, American Basin, Mt Sneffels, and Stony Pass.

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This area is part of the Alpine Loop, a 4X4 lover’s dream. There are countless trails all leading to incredible alpine beauty and history.

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Route Directions

Starting from Silverton, exit Highway 550 onto Greene St./Hwy 110

Continue on Hwy 110 through Silverton (1.2 Miles)

Turn left to stay on Hwy 110 (6.4 Miles)

Slight left onto County Rd 10/Hurricane Pass

Trailhead Directions

Picket Wire Canyonlands Tracksite (4,403′), Eastern Plains

Picket Wire Canyonlands Tracksite (4,403′), Eastern Plains

Picket Wire Canyonlands Tracksite (4,403′), Eastern Plains

Picket Wire (Purgatoire) Canyonlands, in the Comanche National Grasslands, is home to the largest dinosaur track site in North America. 150 million years ago this area was part of a large shallow lake and was teaming with Brontosaurs and Allosaurs. As these massive beasts plodded along the muddy edge of this lake, they left their footprints in the mud, which were eventually buried and turned to stone. Today, over 1,300 of these footprints, extending a 1/4 mile, are exposed at the Picket Wire Canyonlands dinosaur track site.

Another interesting geological attraction on the Eastern Plains is Paint Mines Park, with it’s richly colored clay spires.

Ranger led vehicle access can be arranged in advance during certain times. Vehicle access does not traverse same trail.

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Trail Directions

There are no navigation issues with the trail. The reason for the difficulty rating is the distance.

Starting at the Withers Canyon Trailhead, the trail descends 250 feet into the canyons. Along the way you will encounter many ruins including the Dolores Mission and Cemetery. Many rocks above the trail have centuries old petroglyphs left behind by nomadic tribes.

Trailhead Directions

Lake Helene (10,630′), Front Range

Lake Helene (10,630′), Front Range

Lake Helene (10,630′), Front Range

There is no signage and you must follow a social trail to get to the lake, but despite it’s obscurity, Lake Helene is a spectacular destination inside Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is situated at treeline, between Flattop Mountain (12,324′) and Notchtop Mountain (12,129′).

Even lesser known Two Rivers Lake is a short walk from Lake Helene, and also worth the visit while in the alpine valley.

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Trail Directions

Follow the Bear Lake trail for less than 1/2 mile to the Odessa Lake Trail Junction and take the trail to the right. The trail climbs above Bear Lake to the Flattop Mountain trail junction. Continue towards Odessa Lake, climbing through forests and meadows. After approximately 3.5 miles from the trailhead you will see social trails on your left for Lake Helene. The lake is partially concealed from the trail and spurs are fairly easy to miss. If you make a sharp hairpin turn north (right) and begin descending, you’ve passed it.

Two Rivers Lake is near treeline just downstream of Lake Helene. A thick forest and boulder field stand between the main trail and lake, making it easier to walk east from Lake Helene through the forest and meadows.

Trailhead Directions

West Spanish Peak (13,625′), Sangre de Cristo Range

West Spanish Peak (13,625′), Sangre de Cristo Range

West Spanish Peak (13,625′), Sangre de Cristo Range

West Spanish Peak (13,625′) and East Spanish Peak (12,684′) have world class geological features that made the two peaks a National Natural Landmark in 1976 and designated as a Wilderness Area in 2000. The peaks rise 6,000 ft from the edge of the eastern plains, and were used as a navigation aid for centuries for people heading west.

The Spanish Peaks are world class examples of “stocks” and “dikes”. Stocks are large masses of igneous (molten) rock which forced their way into seams of the sedimentary rock which eroded more quickly over time. East Peak is a nearly circular stock about 5.5 miles long by 3 miles wide while West Peak is a stock about 2.75 miles long by 1.75 miles wide.

The other structures, hundreds of dikes which radiate out from the two mountains, were formed in the same way, but instead of a large pool of molten rock, the magma filled cracks in the soft sedimentary layer. Erosion wore away the softer sedimentary rock leaving dikes (walls) of granite rock up to 100′ high, 100′ wide, and 14 miles long. This scenic combination of two stocks (West Spanish Peak and East Spanish Peak) and hundreds of unique dikes is second to none with it’s size, diversity and beauty.

While in the area, just a short drive west on Hwy 160, is another geological wonder, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Zapata Falls, which lies just outside the park, is also a favorite.

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While the Spanish Peaks are categorized as belonging to the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, the are not geologically part of a chain of mountains, having been formed independently by different processes.

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Trail Directions

The trail is fairly level as it meanders through forests and meadows for about 2 miles (3.2 km) to treeline. At treeline there is a massive cairn signaling the beginning of the steep section of the trail. There is a rough path on talus (scree) up the southwest ridge of the peak for the 1.5 miles (2.4 km) of steep climbing. When in doubt stay to the left and close to the ridge, the climbing is on more solid footing.

Gaining the false summit, the actual summit comes into view, not far away and on much more even terrain. There is a cairn and large branch on the summit.

Trailhead Directions

La Plata Peak (14,336′), Sawatch Range

La Plata Peak (14,336′), Sawatch Range

La Plata Peak (14,336′), Sawatch Range

La Plata Peak is known for it’s distinctive Ellingwood Ridge, and is one of the highest 14,000′ peaks in Colorado. Traverseing the Southwest Ridge route, with Huron Peak and the Three Apostles providing a backdrop, makes for stunning scenery. 

“La Plata” is Spanish for “The Silver”, a reference to the many silver deposits in the area. You can find remnants of old mines along the trail.

The Sawatch Mountain Range is home to fourteen other 14,000′ peaks, such as Huron Peak, Mt Antero, Missouri Mountain, and the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Elbert.

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Trail Directions

Note: The West Winfield trailhead is small and very hard to reach, even during dry conditions due to the rough 4X4 road.

Once at the trailhead head directly north and cross a small creek and turn west for a bit. Following the steep trail you reach treeline at about 12,000′. Here the elevation levels out and you navigate through a large bog overgrown with willows. Expect to get your boots muddy here. Past the bog, you can see the steep trail which climbs to the ridge. Be careful here because of the loose rock and lack of traction, especially on the way down. Once on the ridge, the trail turns northeast and traverses the cliffs you viewed all morning. The trail steepens considerably again and gains 1,000′ in a very short distance, boulder hopping all the way to the top of the ridge. Once on the ridge, continue climbing over two false summits. The trail joins the Northwest Slopes standard route (#1474) for the last 20 feet to the summit of La Plata Peak.

Trailhead Directions

Longs Peak (14,255′), Front Range

Longs Peak (14,255′), Front Range

Longs Peak (14,255′), Front Range

Iconic Longs Peak (14,259′) is the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the northern most 14,000′ peak in the Rocky Mountains.

The peak is guarded by granite cliffs and does require Class 3 climbing, although the first 6.5 miles before the Keyhole are Class 2. Stepping through the Keyhole is an exhilarating experience, with thousand foot drop offs and endless views.

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