Highland Mary

Round Trip Distance: 7 miles
(CDT Loop - 7.9 miles)
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 10,774 - 12,280 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 6 hrs.
Trailhead: Highland Mary
Fee: none
Attractions: Alpine lakes and views

The Highland Mary trail is located in the San Juan National Forest near Silverton, Colorado. Beginning at the end of County Road 4 the trail climbs steadily along the cascading Cunningham Creek to the Highland Mary Lakes with spectacular alpine views of high mountain peaks and numerous waterfalls to be seen along the way. The hike can be extended a short distance to Verde Lake where hikers and backpackers have the option to loop back to the trailhead via the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). This post ventures a little past Verde Lake to the shoulder of a ridge for a breathtaking view of West Trinity Peak (13,765 ft.), Vestal Peak (13,864 ft.) and Arrow Peak (13,803 ft.)

Drive east from Silverton for 4 miles and turn right onto County Road 4. At the fork just before the Old Hundred Gold Mine you can go either way as both routes eventually rejoin each other. Stay to the right at the next fork where the Stony Pass route branches off on the left. Around the 3.5 mile point of CR 4 the road passes through the free Highland Mary primitive camping area where a privy serves as the restroom facilities. The campground can accommodate both tents and RVs. Right around the 4 mile point the road becomes more or a 4wd route mostly due to a few places that are a little steep and require a bit more traction. There is a 2wd parking area at that point that will add about 1.4 miles to the overall round trip distance. Many people that intend to hike the Highland Mary/CDT loop choose to park on the hill between those two trailheads. For this post we dropped off the hill, crossed the creek, and parked at the actual Highland Mary trailhead. For turn-by-turn directions you can enter Highland Mary trailhead into your driving app and since there is no cellphone signal after leaving Silverton be sure to download the directions for offline access.

From the parking area the trail climbs pleasantly up the lush forested drainage along Cunningham Creek. The creek cascades continually down the mountain where occasionally it finds a cliff overwhich to plunge. The trail enters the Weminuche Wilderness Area where certain regulations apply. If at all possible backpackers should try to setup camp out of sight from the main trail and never within 100 feet of a water source.

As the trail continues up the drainage it makes use of a notch that was blasted into the cliff for the original purpose of holding the metal pipe that ran water down to a nearby mine. Some of the pipe still litters the ground reminding hikers of earlier days when gold was king and was to be had at the expense of everything else.

The Highland Mary trail can momentarily become confusing in places where alternate routes have emerged. Most of the alternate routes reconnect but one or two, probably made by confused hikers, lead to nowhere after a short distance. A little over a mile from the 4wd trailhead the trail crosses the creek that drains the largest of the Highland Mary Lakes. Those that come to this crossing early in June might find the flow to be over the top of their boots and quite swift. Immediately after crossing this branch of the creek there is another crossing for the branch that drains a couple of the smaller lakes. After that crossing find the main trail that begins with a switchback that leads on up the right hand drainage.

After the double creek crossing the trail gets slightly steeper as it climbs above treeline. Just below the first lake the crux of the hike that makes the trail unsuitable for stock comes up where it crosses a field of basalt boulders. There are a couple of shorter boulder crossings that are less tedious if you pick a spot closer to the start of the boulders. You might notice a large flat top cairne that points out what might be the best crossing.

The first smaller lake comes up at near the 1.9 mile point from the 4wd trailhead where the elevation is right around 12,060 feet. There is a spectacular view here looking back over the lake to the north that helps to appreciate the high summits and deep rugged canyons of the San Juan Mountains.

The next lake with a background of alpine verdure and patches of snow that have lingered to July presents a beautiful scene under the clear blue sky where clouds are beginning to gather for the typical late afternoon rains that are so common in the San Juans.

It is hard to appreciate the largest of the Highland Mary Lakes without hiking past it and gaining a bit more elevation. While the air is thin at this altitude the hiking is easy and the distance is short.

And most of all the breathtaking view tends to leave one in awe and makes it all worthwhile.

From the spot the last photo was taken, looking back over the lakes, it is only another half mile to Verde Lakes. As you approach Verde Lakes there will be a line of posts where the Highland Mary trail meets up with the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Going to the right at this point commences the Verde Lakes section of the CDT. Those wishing to loop back to the trailhead via the CDT will want to follow the line of posts to the left.

For this post we continued on down to the larger of the Verde Lakes along what is supposed to be part of the Whitehead trail.

From the south end of the lake we climbed up to the shoulder of a hill to get an unobstructed view of some of the higher peaks to the south. We kick ourselves now for not having climbed to the top of the hill where we should have also been able to see the three 14ner's Windom Peak (14,087 ft.), Sunlight Peak (14,058 ft.) and Mount Eolus (14,083 ft.).

The round trip distance of 7 miles was going all the way to Verde Lakes and climbing to the overlook. Turning around at the first lakes will make it less than 4 miles round trip. Besides the extra mile of hiking from the 2WD trailhead there is also an additional 335 feet of elevation gain. We always like making the last photo of each post one of the actual trailhead so people can get an idea of the types of vehicles that were able to get there. There is one green car that is barely in this photo that may have been a Subaru. There were 4 more Subarus parked at the parking area in the background of this photo on the right. While hiking we came across a couple that were backpacking with 2 small girls that appeared to be 6 or 7 years old. I remember when we hiked Mt. Elbert with our youngest at the time that was only 5. We won't go as far as to label Highland Mary as a family hike but parents know best what their children are capable of and if you are bringing yours up in that fashion they are sure to love this hike. On this day the fish were active in the larger Highland Mary Lake and we saw at least three fly fisherman that were headed that way. Other than 2 or 3 groups of backpackers everyone else were day hikers. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.