Blue Lakes Trail shuttle hike from Yankee Boy Basin to the Blue Lakes Trailhead
6.7 miles one way
The Blue Lakes Trail is located in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness in the Sneffels Range in southwest Colorado between the towns of Ridgway, Ouray and Telluride. Yeah, you've probably seen one or two pictures from here elsewhere on my site!
So, how did this trip come about? Well, it’s a pretty cool story for me, actually. A couple days prior on the 24th, I was shooting some falls along the South Fork of Mineral Creek out of Silverton when a guy comes up to me and asks if I am Darren Kilgore. To make a long story short, the guy, John, has been a regular reader of my site since 2003, the year I launched it. He is a big fan of the site, so since he saw my 4Runner parked above en route to trying a find a place to camp, he decided to stop and track me down. We talked for quite a bit about our respective interests and became acquainted. Somehow during the discussion we began to talk about Blue Lakes and how we both really wanted to see them. We figured we should both make use of the situation and plan to do a shuttle hike some time during the week. I easily persuaded him to forego camp along the Mineral Creek road in favor of Kendall Mountain above Silverton. I finished shooting the falls and we headed to Kendall and made camp near the end of the road at 12,800’.
We spent the next day driving Corkscrew, Hurricane, California and Engineer passes since he had never been. After Engineer, we headed down CR 7 to the Blue Lakes Trailhead out of Ridgway where we arrived around 5:30 PM. We used the remaining daylight to prepare for the hike the next day.
Thursday morning came way too early, and after getting out of the truck around 6:00, I was treated to some clouds that had turned pink directly overhead. Naturally, I wasn’t in any place to photograph them, but I don’t think it was that big of a cloud bank anyway, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I woke John up around 6:15 and we both got in my truck. Actually, this part was a point of question when we were first talking about doing this as I had taken all my seats out for my Canadian Rockies trip that ended a week prior and I hadn’t put them back in. So, I had made a makeshift seat by using four kneeling pads. We left the trailhead around 6:45 and headed back around through Ridgway and Ouray and up to the trailhead on the other side in upper Yankee Boy Basin. We set foot at 9:17.
We made it to the top of the pass at 9:51, which is a short one-mile, 500-foot gain. I made it up here a year ago at this time, which was my first time, but the view was no less than mind-blowing the second time around. It took me about 15 minutes to find a good perch to shoot from where both lakes were totally unobstructed by the foreground slope. I took a few digital shots early on with decent, but not great, cloud and lighting conditions, but it didn’t take long for a thin layer of clouds to build overhead and diffuse the sunlight. So, that meant playing the waiting game atop the connecting ridge of Gilpin Peak just above the trail. I really wanted the sun to come out to reveal more color of the upper and middle Blue Lakes below and saturating the forest greens on the far hillside along with the reds on some of the peaks. I sat there anxiously and nervously perched for about 35 minutes before the clouds finally cleared considerably to where the sun was shining on the full scene once again. I had been a little nervous due to the daily storms that the region had been seeing, with some of them starting super early. There were a couple of thunderheads that had started to form not too far to the west a little after our arrival to the top, and I knew we were going to be on the trail for a long time yet. The clouds were taking just short of forever to clear in front of the sun, which I never knew if it would ever really happen again, but I had the 4x5 camera ready if and when they did. The clouds finally opened up about 35 minutes after I got initially set up and I fired off a number of shots. SWEET! I knew right then one of those shots was going to end up being my first 40x50-inch print. Even if I didn’t use the 4x5 the rest of the way down, the added weight already paid for itself in gold. I shot a few more on the digital and we heard the first thunder of the day. Gotta get off this mountain! I packed up as quickly as I could and headed down just a bit ahead of John and his cute little dachshund he had brought on the trip. There was another somewhat distant thunder again just as we had started down. “Okay, sky, you can stop that now!” The Blue Lakes Trailhead and the shelter of a vehicle seemed impossibly far away! Of course, we could've headed back down the way we came and went back to my truck, but then this whole trip report never would've happened and that wouldn't have have been any fun! The whole way down I knew I got some good pictures at the top, but I couldn’t help but hope that I’d be able to live to see them! Switchback after never-ending switchback, we didn’t seem to be making any progress distance-wise! Thankfully, the skies kept quiet and the apparent impending storm seemed to slow. That helped ease the mind a bit and we enjoyed the colorful variety of flowers that were covering the hillside. They really added a lot of life to the walk down.
1,100’ feet below, we finally leveled out at the upper lake and our brakes (read, legs) could cool a bit. Ah, that feels good! I would’ve more than loved to spend some time at the upper lake to shoot around, but safety had been the top priority since the pass and we gotta keep heading down for the trees as we know the storm seemed like it was just waiting on the other side of Dallas Peak. I only took the time for brief pauses long enough to fire some snapshots off at the upper lake. A short while later we were walking along the trail above the middle lake which sat a hundred feet below and to the right of the trail. I would’ve loved to set up the tripod along here, too, but we gotta press on for tree line.
Not very far after passing the middle lake, the view opens up into a beautiful basin to the west and the even more amazing lower lake’s colorful waters stood out like an oasis in the desert. We were both blown away all over again! Man, what a sight! The turquoise was present in this one whereas the two higher lakes were basically just a deep blue on this day. We stopped probably for the better part of 20 minutes while I took pictures at the perch above the lake which served as a perfect resting spot. We were just at tree line at this spot, so that and the fact the sky stayed quiet and calm helped to ease our (at least mine) tensions a bit regarding the lightning factor. I shot what I wanted from here and had to stop again to unpack the camera a couple switchbacks below as another view of the lower lake opened up with flowers in the foreground. A couple hundred feet down the trail, I had to do it all over again! More flowers! As the camera was in the process of taking the third shot, a loud thunder rolled through the mountains. GO! I think it means business this time! I again packed up my camera as quickly as I could and walked down the trail at a brisk pace. We were still in a thinner patch of trees at this point, and I wanted to have a lot more of them around me so the lightning would have a better selection to choose from! It started to sprinkle. Through a stream crossing and down the hill where we finally made it into a forest as the rain was picking up. After walking through the forest a bit and reaching the level of the lower lake, the rain was coming down hard enough that we decided to take shelter under the trees for a bit. Then it really let loose! Man, it was coming down good! A few more thunders sounded. Then, a flash that filled the sky reflecting off the solid light gray clouds followed by the closest thunder of the day, though still a couple miles off somewhere. This was the first time that I’ve been out in the open when lightning was around. It was a bit uncomfortable, but where are you going to go now?! Still, I wasn’t nearly as nervous as I thought I’d be. The rain came down in buckets for at least 15 minutes. It let up a bit and we decided to head down the trail again. We walked for a few minutes before the rain picked up again and we stood under another tree for about 15 minutes. The rain slowed a bit and we decided we’d make another break for it.
The rest of the trail pretty much stays in the forest, but comes out a couple of times into open meadows, and was fairly uneventful. There were a few more thunders and we enjoyed a fairly light but steady rain for the duration, which wasn’t a problem as there weren’t any further photo opportunities to speak of past the lower lake. We passed a few sets of hikers and backpackers. At one point on a steeper downhill section, the trail was a slippery clay where I had fell and slid a couple feet. My left leg was caked with mud and looked like I had just slid into third base. My legs were getting weaker as the miles passed with all the nothing-but-downhill walking. I was ready to sit down for well over a couple hours ago by now!
We pressed on, and finally at 3:36, we reached the end of the trail. But before we went to John’s 4Runner, we took a quick detour to Dallas Creek nearby so he could wash his dog and so I could wash my leg off. I walked calf-deep into the stream. At first, I just tried scooping water up with my hand and washing my leg off, but that was taking a bit longer than expected. Then, I had the bright idea of kneeling on my left leg thinking it would get immediately washed off. Sounds good in theory, but the stream current actually rolled me over and I ended up sitting better than waist-deep in it now! Great! The water was cool, but not anywhere near cold. More refreshing than anything, I guess. Well, my legs were so weak at this point and the near 40-pound weight of my pack made getting up nothing short of impossible as I grunted a bit wile trying to get up. After I did something that sort of resembled standing on two feet, I immediately did the Bambi routine and I was back sitting down in the water and rolling around again! It took all the energy I had trying to get up again, and as I was moaning, John heard me this time and looked my way. No doubt trying to hold his laughter, he didn’t even offer to lend me a hand! He was probably wondering what the heck I was doing. Well, it wasn’t exactly playtime—I just wanted to sit down and rest! Miraculously, I finally made it standing up and I walked down the trail and back to his truck. Despite looking like a fool those last few minutes, the scenery and hike was so incredible that all we could both think about, including the whole way down, was our next trip back here. We (I believe I speak for both of us) were so in awe of the scenery the whole way through that even the presence of lighting couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
John gave me a nice big bottle of cold Gatorade upon our return which really hit the spot. He also had given me a bag of those awesome beef jerky nuggets on the ride out. Mmm! We eventually made it back to Yankee Boy Basin to pick up my truck. We were planning on parting ways back out on Highway 550, but as we neared the filling station in Ouray, I thought it would be cool to see if he wanted to cap off the day with a stop at the popular True Grit Café in Ridgway. He agreed. We ended up sitting out on the deck enjoying a very tasty meal with perfect Colorado weather.
[I have another report from a 2008 backpacking trip included here.]