Columbine Lake

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 7 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
MTB Skill level:
Elevation: 10,406 - 12,678 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 5 hrs.
Trailhead: Forest Road #820
Fee: none
Attractions: Beautiful alpine lake




The Columbine Lake trail is located in the San Juan National Forest between Ouray, Colorado and Silverton. The trail begins off of Forest Road #820 a short distance from Highway 550, on the south side of Red Mountain Pass. From there the trail climbs steeply up a series of switchbacks through a coniferous forest for more than a mile. The trail remains steep for another mile as it climbs above timberline to the saddle of a ridge where at the 2 mile point the elevation reaches 12,448 feet. From the saddle the elevation gain moderates considerably and the trail turns into a pleasant hike into the upper basin of Mill Creek. The trail ends up climbing along Mill Creek until it reaches its source at Columbine Lake where the brilliantly sapphire colored waters of the lake award hikers for all their effort.


There are 2 routes to get to the trailhead. One is to drive south on Highway 550 for about 17 miles from Ouray or north from Silverton for 6 miles and turn west onto Forest Road #820. After turning onto the highway the road splits. Stay to the right at the fork and follow FR #820 as it crosses the creek and climbs steeply up the side of the mountain where the Columbine trail begins 1 mile from the highway. The other route is via the Ophir Pass road which is almost 3/4 of a mile closer to Silverton. The advantage of the Ophir Pass road is that there is a bridge for crossing the creek.


The trail begins near the 1 mile point from the highway taking the non Ophir Pass route. There isn't a parking area at the trailhead so you have to find a wide enough spot in the road where you can pullover out of the way. This can add a mile or more to your round trip distance depending on how close you end up parking.


The side of the mountain is very steep so the trail makes use of a series of switchbacks as it begins quickly gaining elevation. Be careful not to kick any loose rocks down the mountain to avoid injuring anyone that might be below you. If you do dislodge a rock the common practice is to yell 'ROCK' as loud as you can.


It seems like there is no end to the switchbacks but if you bother to do a count there are only about 15 of them. There are also short stretches that are only moderately steep that come up along the way where you can catch your breath a little.


Just past the 1 mile point at an elevation of almost 11,500 feet the trail comes out of the trees.


As the trail continues the route up ahead comes into view leading all the way up to the 2 mile point where the trail crosses the saddle of a ridge that is almost another thousand feet higher in elevation from the spot where you are standing.


Right before reaching the ridge the trail crosses a cut that some prospector probably blasted out of the mountain so he could get is mule up to his dig. The cut seems very solid and remains comfortably wide for the short distance it takes.


Upon crossing the ridge the mountains above the Mill Creek drainage provide a breathtaking view that makes you glad you persevered.


From the ridge the hiking becomes much easier as the trail traverses around the south side of the basin where the trail eventually begins paralleling Mill Creek as it makes its final approach to Columbine Lake.


Columbine Lake, with its crystal blue waters, doesn't come into view until you get within about 50 feet or so. The rocks in the lake and in Mill Creek are stained white from carbonate much like those at the nearby Ice Lake. The blue color is similar to a glacier lake but it is so brilliant that it almost seems to glow in places. Lookout Peak is the highest point of the ridge in the background at 13,661 feet.


There were maybe a couple dozen other hikers on the trail the day we were there for this post. Parking along the road was at a premium. We had arrived early as the sun was coming up and were able to park about a half mile away. Three of the other people that we saw were mountain bikers. Of course, going uphill they were hikers that had the added treat of pushing their bikes up the mountain. However you decide to make the trek Columbine Lake is well worth the effort. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.