Highland Mary Lakes - Hiking

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Summary

The Highland Mary Lakes hike delivers crystal clear lakes nestled in open expanses of wildflower-strewn meadows within the majestic San Juan mountains.

Written by

Liz Carrington

Distance

6.0 miles

There are many options to suit your ability and timeframe. It is approximately 1.75 miles from the trailhead to the 3 main Highland Mary Lakes, and 3 miles to Verde Lakes. Those embarking on the loop with the Continental Divide Trail will complete 7.5 miles in total. Other options are to hike beyond the Verde Lakes to the Lost Lake overlook, which will also add about a mile to your trip.

Destination Distance From Downtown

38.7 miles

Difficulty

3 of 5 diamonds

The first 1.5 miles climbs steeply on a loose, rocky trail through dense spruce forest. As you reach treeline and the lakes, the trail mellows out to gentle sloping meadows. Total elevation gain to the high point (12,300ft) between Highland Mary Lakes and Verde Lakes is around 1,800 feet.

Time To Complete

4 hours

Out and back to Verde Lakes is 6 miles total, and to go this far takes about 4 hours total. However, there is plenty of room to explore, try your hand at fishing in one of the lakes, or pick up the spur trail which takes you to the Continental Divide Trail (see explanation below). The lakes are a peaceful place to pack a picnic or a tent for an overnight adventure. Wide open meadows invite children and dogs to play, while the peaceful shores of the lakes invite time to sit and contemplate the beauty of the landscape.

Seasonality

Summer and Fall

Depending on the past winter, snow can remain in Cunningham Gulch late in the year. In early summer, take caution as the runoff in the streams is high, which makes the multiple stream crossings (both on the trail and driving to the trailhead) tricky. The photos provided were taken on July 4th weekend, and there was still significant snow above 12,000ft. Late July through August is ideal for wildflower viewing, as the open grassland is filled with colonies of paintbrush, columbine, king's crown, alpine blue violet, alpine sunflower, and many more. Be mindful of summer thunderstorms, as the majority of this hike is exposed and well above treeline. Get an early start and keep an eye out for clouds forming, as storms can appear very abruptly.

Dog Friendly

Yes

Dogs love this hike!

Fees Permits

No

Topographical Map

Highland Mary Lakes - Hiking

Review

Intro

There is a reason people talk about Highland Mary Lakes with awe. This hike is the quintessential San Juan mountain experience. Hike to three of the main lakes set in an idyllic expanse of green meadows and wildflowers in all directions. Spend the day at the lakes or venture further along wide open, rolling tundra to the two Verde Lakes, with views of the mighty Grenadier Range looming so close it looks as though you can reach out and touch their jagged points. 

Explore to your heart's content, then return the same way you came, or bear west on the well-marked trail leading to the Continental Divide Trail. This route will curve north and romp along the height of the divide before plunging you back down into Cunningham Gulch and your car for a 7.5 mile loop.

What Makes It Great

The trail begins immediately uphill on an old gravel double-track with rusty mining ruins scattered along the way. A roaring creek makes itself known as you climb higher into the spruce forest, and there are several large creek crossings to keep your attention. Hiking poles are invaluable for extra security crossing on the slippery rocks. As you climb, the trail narrows into soft dirt with social trails leading to nice camping spots. Stay on the main well-worn trail.

After about 1.3 miles of steady climbing, you will cross a large creek with a log bridge, and emerge out of the trees into an open canyon. The trail continues along a sidecut and soon the dirt gives way to dark gray rock. Here the trail becomes a maze of large boulders; hop your way through keeping an eye out for cairns to lead the way. Just past the boulders pass through a stand of willows and regain a firm trail which will bring you to the first and smaller Highland Mary Lake at mile 1.75.

Here the climbing lessens and the world opens up to vast fields of green, wildflowers, and alpine lakes. Walk along the western shore of the smaller lake, while the larger Highland Mary Lake comes into view to your left. High mountain ridges encircle the lakes to the west, and if you turn around, you can peer far back down where you came from in Cunningham Gulch.

Take time to explore the main lakes, or keep following the trail up another 300 feet to a high tundra shelf. The views from here are breathtaking: Highland Mary Lakes behind you and Verde Lakes ahead, with 12- and 13,000 feet mountains all around.

At the saddle above Verde Lakes will be a post marking the turnoff to hike west on the CDT. It is possible to make a longer (7.5 mile) loop back to your car on this trail with more breathtaking views, but it takes you away from the lakes. Instead, our route involves walking along the north shore of Verde Lake on a well-defined trail, then leaving the trail, and traversing south across a low wetland. Hike south up the gentle slope to a saddle overlooking Lost Lake and the Grenadier Range comes into stunning view. When you are ready to return home, simply retrace your steps.

Who is Going to Love It

The hike starts out with a strenuous climb for the first 1.5 miles, but the effort is worth the reward. The trail is sturdy enough for children or slower-paced hikers to take on the challenge, and there are plenty of good resting spots along the way. The elevation (10-12,600ft) can be a challenge for people not acclimated to the thin air.

The beauty of this hike makes it a popular destination in the height of summer, especially on weekends. Everyone from backpackers to fishermen to families, dogs, even llamas make the trek to the lakes each year. Take your time: stop to catch your breath and enjoy the panoramic views which open up with each step you take. 

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From downtown Silverton, drive north along Greene Street, then merge right onto paved County Road 2 and continue north. The road turns to gravel, and in 4.2 miles, it reaches the "town" of Howardsville. Turn right on County Road 4 and follow this road past the Old Hundred Mine into Cunningham Gulch. There are many dispersed camping spots and old mine ruins in this flat valley. 

From here, the road gets steeper and rockier with some narrow switchbacks as it climbs above the valley. At the top, the road to the trailhead forks left down a short steep ravine with a stream crossing. Only high-clearance vehicles should try to get across. For other cars, or in early summer when the water is high, there is a pullout above the ravine with ample parking. The start of the trail is 1/4 mile from this point in the obvious parking area.

Location

Cunningham Gulch, Silverton, CO

37.780956, -107.579758

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