Navajo Lake

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 10 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 9341 - 11,325 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 6 hrs.
Trailhead: Navajo Lake
Fee: none
Attractions: Forest hike, scenic lake and waterfalls




The Navajo Lake trail is located in the San Juan National Forest and Lizard Head Wilderness Area near Telluride, Colorado. The trail begins off of Forest Road 535 and climbs the drainage of the West Dolores River to Navajo Lake which is nestled in an alpine setting where surrounding ridges and peaks tower above 13,000 feet. Backpackers and climbers frequently use the trail to gain access to the 14,000 foot peaks in the Wilson Group of Colorado's 14er's. The trail continues past Navajo Lake and eventually comes to an end at the Rock of Ages trail. Enroute it is intersected by the Kilpacker and Woods Lake trails. For this post we follow the trail to Navajo Lake before turning around.




To get to the trailhead from Telluride measure 16.5 miles from the roundabout on Highway 145 and turn right on Forest Road 535 just past MM 54. Follow the graveled road as it switchbacks up the mountainside passing the Kilpacker trailhead just before the 5 mile point and reaching the Navajo Lake trailhead just past the 7 mile point. The road is normally easily passable by passenger vehicles with normal road clearance. The section of the road between the Kilpacker and Navajo Lake trailheads isn't open to vehicles pulling trailers due to several very narrow spots.


There are only 1 or 2 good primitive campsites around the Navajo Lake trailhead. Upon departing from the trailhead there is a junction where the Groundhog Stock trail, that connects to the Kilpacker trail, joins in on the right. After continuing a little further the Groundhog Stock trail departs on the left where it crosses a bridge and heads on to  Forest Road 611. The Navajo Lake trail continues ahead staying on the south side of the river.


It is only a short distance past the Groundhog trail junction before the Navajo Lake trail crosses into the Lizard Head Wilderness Area.


As the trail continues it alternates between open meadows and wooded areas.


There is a nice footbridge that conveys the trail over the West Dolores River. Immediately upon crossing the river the trail begins a sharp climb that lasts for a short distance before moderating somewhat.


As the trail continues the 14,160 foot bulk of El Diente can be seen ahead. El Diente is Spanish for 'The Tooth'. As you continue hiking the rusty colored hump below El Diente's summit ridge will completely hide the summit from view for the rest of the hike.


Around the 2.3 mile point the Navajo Lake trail is joined by the Kilpacker trail.


At this point the trail has topped the 10,100 foot mark. For the next mile or so the elevation gain will continue at about the same pace as before.


Off to the right a cascading waterfall that appears to be making at least a 100 foot drop attracts the gaze. Since Navajo Lake is the source of the West Dolores River it is plain to see that the trail is going to have to get at least as high as the cliff the waterfall is spilling over.


From here the trail begins getting much steeper as it winds its way up a series of switchbacks to get to the level above the falls.


As the trial nears its highest point before reaching the lake it is met on the left by the Woods Lake trail.


After passing the Woods Lake junction the trail begins descending into Navajo Basin. As the trail approaches the lake there are numerous primitive campsites scattered through the trees. Backpackers should be careful and pick a campsite that is within the trees and out of the open where they can end up being targets of the daily thunder and lightning storms that pass through the area. We were briefly pelted by hail and driving rain on our trip up to the lake and experienced a light drizzle on the way down and yet it was mostly sunny.


For those that are headed up to climb the 14 ner's the trail continues around the north side of the lake where it angles over the saddle before meeting up with the Rock of Ages trail. That is Gladstone Peak, 13,913 feet, that is filling the horizon beyond the saddle. This is the turnaround point for this post. Just in case you are wondering there are fish in the lake although we can't say much about them other than we saw a few of them jump.


There are a couple more waterfalls that are worth checking out on the way back down the mountain. They come up about 2 miles from the trailhead. The trail leading down to them is incredibly steep but you can get back to the main trail afterwards by a different route. The most obvious waterfall is from a cascade the West Dolores River makes over a series of drops. Around the point on the right and partially hidden back in the trees is another cascade made by Kilpacker Creek right before its confluence with the Dolores.


Most of the hikers on the Navajo Lake trail are backpackers but not all of them. There are a lot of interconnecting trails in the area that provide a lot of multiple day routes which might or might not include bagging a 14ner or 2 or 3. Some like to bag Gladstone Peak, which reaches 13,919 feet, while they are in the neighborhood. Considering that there are at least 4 or 5 other trailheads by which the same area can be accessed visitors can choose a different route every time they come up. Even with all the activity in the area it still manages to maintain its wilderness feel. Those with a good set of legs and the urge to explore will find Navajo Lake well worth the effort. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.