Alternate post title: Diana’s absolute favorite hike in Colorado!
In a world of Instagram and photo filters and photo editing software, it’s common to see a photo of something that looks too amazing to be real. So it’s reasonable to be skeptical. I definitely was the first time I ever saw a photo of Columbine Lake. But then I hiked there and, well… the photos are accurate. The colors really are that vibrant. Every photo in this post is unedited.
I’m not certain any picture could ever fully depict the unbelievable beauty of this hike. But I definitely tried. A lot. So prepare to be inundated with photos.
After bailing early on our previous hike, we spent the night sleeping in our car near the Columbine Lake trailhead. It was the first time we’d ever tried the whole ‘sleeping in your car at the trailhead’ thing and it worked out pretty well. We were warm and comfortable and, best of all, we were already at our destination. All we had to do in the morning was change clothes and eat breakfast and grab our backpacks, and we were ready to go!
The trail to Columbine Lake is not easy to find. There are no signs along the road and the trail simply starts climbing a hill next to a small signpost. But because it’s not well advertised, this is a fairly undiscovered hike (ssshhh, let’s keep it that way!). There’s room for maybe 15-20 cars at the trailhead and that’s it.
This hike is as brutal as it is amazing. The trail begins in the trees with 15 grueling switchbacks that gain 1000 feet (305 m) in 1 mile (1.6 km). From here, the forest opens into a meadow and the switchbacks come to an end. But don’t be fooled; you still have another 1100 feet (335 m) to gain over the course of the next 1.2 miles (2 km).
During the ascent some of the surroundings were obscured by lingering fog, an after-effect of the previous two days of heavy rain. But even with the mountaintops in the clouds, the scenery was gorgeous.
Once we cleared the ridge, the trail was mostly flat for the remaining distance to the lake. In the aftermath, we’ve enjoyed comparing the differences in our photos from our morning ascent (‘before’ in the photos below) and our early afternoon descent (‘after’).
This final stretch of trail might just be one of the most beautiful I’ve ever hiked. Never in my life have I seen so many wildflowers. Add in the cascading waterfalls and the jagged mountains, and it was utterly breathtaking. I don’t even have the words to describe it.
And then there’s the lake.
Columbine Lake sits at an elevation of about 12,750 feet (3885 m). It’s an exceptionally large lake for this elevation. It’s also exceptionally clear. So clear, in fact, that it perfectly reflects its surroundings. When we first arrived there were some clouds overhead so the colors were a little duller. After a few minutes, the sky began to clear and the reflections turned bright blue.
A trail encircles about 180° of the lake and we walked the entire thing, enjoying the reflections from so many different vantage points. We also walked up the short hill on the north edge of the lake to find a small turquoise tarn.
We spent an hour and a half at the lake, feeling fortunate that the weather allowed us to do so. It was calm and partly sunny; I like to think this was the weather gods apologizing for the awful weather of the previous two days.
And thus concludes part 2 of our San Juan Mountains saga. We spent the night camped along South Mineral Road, about 10 minutes from the trailhead for the final hike of our trip… which will be the topic of the next post. Stay tuned!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the trailhead is unmarked and located on an unnamed road off Ophir Pass in the San Juan Mountains
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: 7.5 miles (12.1 km) and 2400 feet (730 m) elevation gain round trip; almost all of the gain is in the first 2 miles (3.2 km), making this a strenuous hike
- Where to stay: this is national forest land so there are numerous established and dispersed camping options in the vicinity, and the towns of Silverton and Ouray aren’t too far away and have many lodging options
- Other: as I mentioned above, Leave No Trace principles should always be adhered to, but especially in a place as magical as this; it’s the only way this pristine beauty will be preserved for the future