Judging by the name, one might assume this hike would pass by Missouri Lakes en route to Fancy Pass before looping back to the trailhead… which is somewhat accurate. You do hike past the Missouri Lakes. And you do climb Fancy Pass. And also Missouri Pass. Plus, you hike to Fancy Lake and Treasure Vault Lake, with additional views of Blodgett Lake off in the distance.
This is an ambitious hike, but also one where you get a lot of bang for your buck. Which is good, because it took some convincing for me to persuade Pat to come with us. Us being me and our hiking friends Blake and Savannah. The drive to the trailhead was just over two hours each direction. We don’t usually drive quite so far for a day hike… but some trails are worth the extra distance and I’d argue this was one of them.
There are many variations of this hike, as it connects two trails that depart from the same parking area; the Fancy Creek Trail and the Missouri Lakes Trail. Some people opt to hike one or the other, or to only go as far as the lake(s) and skip the passes. Some people also backpack this trail, and I did note a couple excellent tent spots at Fancy Lake and some possible options at Missouri Lakes.
The four of us set out at about 7:45am Saturday morning on the Fancy Creek Trail. It was a chilly morning – a reminder that it was October now and I probably should have packed one more layer – but warmed up quickly as we climbed through the pine forest and entered the Holy Cross Wilderness. The first 3 miles (4.8 km) were in the trees and we only emerged into the subalpine/alpine boundary zone (and the sunlight) as we reached Fancy Lake at around 11,600 feet (3535 m).
Fancy Lake is a clear, pretty greenish color, nestled in a bowl at the base of a couple mountains that don’t seem to have names – at least, not ones that I can find.
Most accounts of this hike suggest going up the Fancy side and down the Missouri side – thus hiking the loop in a counterclockwise direction – due to the fact that the climb up to Fancy Pass from Fancy Lake is brutally steep and rocky. We heeded this recommendation and I’m glad we did. The ascent was plenty challenging, but descending this way would be a steep, slippery, rocky mess.
From Fancy Pass, we now had a view over into the Cross Creek drainage. Reddish tinted mountains formed the opposite wall of the basin. Missouri Pass was visible off to the left, just above Treasure Vault Lake. And Blodgett Lake could be seen in a hanging valley across the way.
It was windy at the pass, so we didn’t spend too much time there before following the trail down into the basin. Just shy of Treasure Vault Lake is a junction with the Cross Creek Trail; bear left for Missouri Pass.
The climb up Missouri Pass was much mellower than the climb up Fancy Pass – not nearly as long, steep, or rocky. Once we crested the ridge we found ourselves gazing down over the Missouri Lakes Valley, including two of the five lakes.
Our descent from the pass was punctuated by the insistent, high-pitched squeaks of a marmot who really didn’t approve of our presence. Had we not been outdoors, we’d have thought our smoke detector battery needed to be changed.
We took our time meandering through the Missouri Lakes Basin. The trail passes right by four of the lakes, each of which is a different size, shape, and color. It’s a pretty expansive area, and next time I think I’d like to backpack this trail and spend some time exploring the basin and relaxing at each lake.
From here, it was all downhill back to the car. About halfway there, we reached the path of a massive avalanche from two winters prior. This wasn’t the first time I’d ever hiked through the aftermath of an avalanche, but this was by far the largest one. Only recently had the trail even been cleared of debris. From the looks of it, the trail got completely obliterated.
After lunch and an unsuccessful attempt to locate the nearby ghost town of Holy Cross City, we began the drive back to Denver. Our entire drive to the trailhead that morning had been in the dark, but now we could see what remained of autumn. Even a few days past peak there were still entire hillsides painted yellow, including this one surrounding the ghost town of Gilman. What remains of the town is on private property and not open for exploration, so all we could get was this view from the road. Apparently it’s been designated a superfund site due to contamination from mining operations, particularly lead mining, so I don’t think I’d want to explore it anyway.
Speaking of environmental contamination, we ran into a woman at Missouri Pass who was doing some water sampling. I forget who she worked for, but they test backcountry lakes for various types of contaminants. She was headed over to Blodgett Lake, the one we’d seen off in the distance. Apparently there was a vague trail to it for the first time ever in 2020, thanks to the huge pandemic-related increase in outdoor recreation. She also told us they’d seen an increase in water contamination – again, mostly from human presence at these lakes, but also pollution and ash from wildfires, and even microplastics, which are now being found in pretty much every environment on Earth.
It was really heartbreaking to hear that even the most pristine of Colorado’s environments are feeling the effects of human behavior. And it really reiterates the importance of educating people on not only how to behave in the outdoors, but also why these behaviors are so important. So before you head off to the Missouri Lakes-Fancy Pass Loop trailhead, please take a moment to review the principles of Leave No Trace and ensure that you’re prepared to venture into the backcountry in the most low-impact way possible. Let’s prevent these lakes from further contamination and allow these ecosystems to heal.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the Missouri and Fancy trailheads are side by side at the end of Missouri Creek Road (FS 104), about 45 minutes SW of Minturn, Colorado. It’s a rough dirt road and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. We could have done it in our Subaru but having a truck made it much easier
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: 9.5 miles (15.3 km) and 2820 feet (860 m) elevation gain for the entire loop; going up Fancy Creek Trail is shorter but steeper, while the Missouri side is slightly longer but more gradual
- Where to stay: for lodging, the closest option is the tiny town of Minturn; for camping, there are a handful of established campgrounds in the area and multiple options for dispersed camping along the way to the trailhead; for backpacking, pitch your tent near Fancy or Missouri Lakes
- Other: both passes are above 12,000 feet (3660 m); thunderstorms are uncommon in the fall, but from May-August you’ll want to keep an eye on the weather and make sure you’re over both passes and back down into the trees before noon