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My Final Backpacking Trip of the Year: Blue Lakes, Colorado

Craving one last fair-weather trip before winter set in, I headed to Colorado to explore the Blue Lakes Basin in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness.

By: Sonja Saxe + Save to a List

In mid-October I took a quick trip to Colorado. I had been craving one more mountain getaway before winter set in so I decided to head to Colorado and complete an overnight hike I had been wanting to do for over a year. I called up one of my friend Chelsea, who lives in Colorado and asked if she and her boyfriend, Kyle, would like to join me. Despite the fact that they had completed many hikes in Colorado they hadn't visited Blue Lakes yet so they were happy to join! 

Blue Lakes is located in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness of the Uncompaghre National Forest between Ridgeway and Telluride. I flew into Denver on Friday night and Chelsea picked me up at the airport. The drive from Denver to the trailhead was 6 hours and we wanted to get a relatively early start on the trail so we set an alarm for 2:30am Saturday morning. What seemed like moments after I laid my head on my pillow my alarm was going off and just like that our adventure was underway! 

The drive was long, and most of it was done in the dark. We stopped often to stretch our legs and restock our energy drink supply but were still able to make it to the trailhead by 10am. The trail started at an elevation of 9,350'. Judging by my walk from the car to the pit toilet and back I could tell that the elevation was affecting me. My lungs felt as if they weren't pulling in enough oxygen and my heart was beginning to beat faster. This is going to be a tough hike, I thought, already nervous that I would fall well behind my seasoned Coloradan companions. 

We did one final pack check and hit the trail, which almost immediately began gaining elevation. I fell behind Chelsea and Kyle and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, slowly making my way up the trail. I didn't have as much trouble keeping up with Chelsea and Kyle as I had anticipated, but we took plenty of water breaks and I'm sure had I not been there they would have made ground more efficiently. 

At mile 1.5 we crossed into the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. Most of the trail was under the cover of spruce forests with a few open sections that offered sprawling views of the Sneffels Range. We stopped intermittently for water and snacks and then continued our hike upwards. At mile 3.5 we saw pieces of a brilliant blue through the breaks in the trees and, with our sights set on our destination, we excitedly picked up our pace until we were at the shores of Lower Blue Lake. It was a relief to finally arrive to our destination, but we weren't quite to our campsite yet. I saw a photo on Jack Brauer's website of a campsite overlooking the lower lake and we were eager to find that site so we continued up the trail that leads to the Middle and Upper Blue Lakes. We gained about another 400' when we found ourselves at a beautiful overlook of the lower lake. We still hadn't reached the elusive campsite, but we were all getting quite hungry so we decided to stop at this overlook for lunch. It was just the morale boost we needed: satisfying food and a panoramic view of the basin. 

After lunch we once again set out to find the coveted campsite. The very first corner we rounded on our resumed efforts brought us to a large, relatively flat expanse of exposed ground well off the trail. There was a social trail leading to it and evidence that it was an established campsite. It was blocked by trees from the back and had a beautiful view of the 14,150 foot Mt. Sneffels and Lower Blue Lake in front of it. We decided it was perfect so we set up camp. 

After we set up camp we returned to the trail and made our way towards the upper lakes. On our way we passed the campsite that I had seen on Brauer's website, but it was much too small to accommodate two tents.

The Middle Lake is 500' and a half mile hike above Lower Blue Lake and sits at an elevation of 11,500 feet. From there it is an easy quarter mile hike to the Upper Blue Lake at 11,720 feet. On this portion of the trail we were graced with commanding views of Mt. Sneffels. From the Upper Lake hikers have the option to continue up to Blue Lakes Pass and drop into Yankee Boy Basin. This section of the hike will give hikers a stunning view of all three lakes, Mt. Sneffels and the entire basin but we were already pretty tired and the hike would have taken us over an additional 1,000 feet to 13,000 feet so we decided to head back to camp for the night.

Back at camp we cooked up some Mountain House Lasagna and hot chocolate and watched the sun set behind the mountains. With the sun gone and darkness setting in the temperature quickly dropped and I decided to turn in and try to get some sleep before attempting some full moon night photography in the early morning hours! 

I hadn't even gotten to sleep yet when I heard Chelsea and Kyle outside, clearly in awe of something they were seeing. I poked my head out of the tent to see what they were so captivated by and my jaw dropped when I looked over at Mt. Sneffels and the lake. The rising Supermoon was so bright that it was creating alpenglow, at night! I quickly scrambled out of the tent and grabbed my camera and set up a time lapse. Chelsea, Kyle, and I all brought our sleeping bags out and laid them on the ground and quietly watched as the moon slowly illuminated the entire basin.

After the Lower Lake was fully illuminated I returned to my tent and tossed and turned until 2am when my alarm went off, alerting me it was time to take more night photos. I woke Chelsea up and we walked up the trail to a place we had scouted earlier and took a few photos. The wind was whipping through the valley and we were getting pummeled standing at an exposed spot. We didn't linger long. 

We returned to our tents. For the remainder of the night the winds howled and my tent felt as if it was being tested to its breaking point. There were moments a strong gale came through and bent the poles so much they were nearly touching me. Thankfully, the tent held strong through the night.

Finally, the sun began to creep over the horizon and light up the landscape.

We decided it was too windy to eat breakfast where we were camped so we packed up and headed down to the shores of the lower lake for a quick bite before we hiked back out to the trailhead. All in all we were in the wilderness for 24 hours. We saw very few other people on our hike but the scenery was on par with some of the prettiest sights I've seen in our national parks (Glacier immediately came to mind when I saw Mt. Sneffels towering over the brilliant blue Lower Lake). It's safe to say that our national forests hold some true hidden gems!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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