A tour of Colorado High Country Trails

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Mandy and I in a field of peak wildflowers on the Blue Lakes Trail

I haven’t posted since mid-July, so I decided to touch upon each of our weekly high country hikes in one blog posting. We’ve been high in the mountains above Telluride, Ouray and Ridgway, Colorado Tuesday or Wednesday of each week; our days off. The scenery has been amazing as we hiked through deep forests of spruce and aspen, through waist-high fields of wildflowers, through alpine tundra, through snow and over boulders and scree above tree line. We’ve been hiking mostly between 9,000 and 12,500 feet. Each trail has been a challenge and a test as each time we strike out at elevation our bodies feel like they couldn’t possibly carry us up to that high peak or ridge line at the apex of the trail. We huff and puff all the way up and our knees scream “no more” all the way down! I am training, ostensibly for a 14’er summit with one of the rangers, who used to be a guide, here at Ridgway State Park.

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Telluride as seen from the trail connecting town with Mountain Village

The 2 pictures above are from the sparsely travelled but superbly built Hawn Mountain Trail, which takes off from just above the Telluride Airport (we watched a steady stream of “jets of the stars” coming and going from the precipitously placed runway). The segment of trail we hiked was almost entirely scree, but the trail was constructed through the scree by strategically placing scree rocks against the mountain. They jiggled some when you walked across them, but they felt secure, nonetheless. Thunder sounded ominously in the distance and it was past noon, so we didn’t make it to the top of Hawn Mountain this time around. In the photos below, we did capture some awesome views of 3 14’ers in the immediate distance, Mt. Wilson, Wilson Peak and El Diente. If you squint you can also see Lizard Head, which is an interesting 800 foot high column of independent rock jutting above the surrounding landscape. Wilson Peak, the pointy mountain in the center of the left picture is the mountain on the Coors Beer Can; viola!

To find these trails we have been using the High Country Day Hikes books by Anne and Mike Poe. There is one for Ouray, Lake City and Silverton and another for the Telluride High Country. These books are marvelously mapped and illustrated, with step-by-step directions on how to get to the trails and where to go once you are on the trails. The Poes have also published hiking books for Crested Butte and Moab.

We did make it all the way to the lower Blue Lake, which sits in a bowl of high peaks and on a sunny day is an unreal aquamarine blue. If you keep going on the trail, which gets considerably steeper, it takes you over Blue Lakes Pass and into Yankee Boy Basin, which is the starting point for the classic route up Mt. Sneffels. Our day was mostly cloudy, so we didn’t quite manage to capture the famous color.

The wildflowers on the way up were stunning, to say the least, and presented a riot of colors.

For a serious challenge, try the Bridge of Heaven trail. This trail is not found in the Poe books, but I found it on a trails map and the topography looked interesting, so I hiked it with Levar in 2012. It was exciting to bring Mandy back this year, as it is one of my favorite trails. This trail even pooped Levar out:_MG_2254

There are wonderful views back towards Ouray from the trail and deep into the heart of the San Juans from the highest parts of the trail. “I’m on top of the world!”

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The final trail I will discuss is the West Fork Trail, which takes off from Owl Creek Pass, way above the town of Ridgway. Following the West Fork Trail will take you into the Wetterhorn Basin, where you can be face to face with the flanks of the Wetterhorn, another fabulous 14’er. Like the Bridge of Heaven trail near the top, you feel like you are on top of the world when you reach the West Fork Pass leading down into the basin. Below are some photos of the world above tree line, leading up to the pass. This one features some pretty serious scree, with occasional cairns to guide the way.

On the way back to the trailhead you are rewarded with awesome views of Chimney Rock, another 12,000 foot high column of rock jutting high above its surroundings.

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Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock as seen from the West Fork Trail

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