A fairly popular route in the Mt. Sneffles Wilderness, the Blue Lakes Trail winds its way up to three jewel-tone pools just below the summit of rugged 14er Mount Sneffles. About a 45-minute drive from the town of Ouray, the hike to Blue Lakes can be tailored to hikers of varying abilities. An out-and-back to the first lake is about 6.5 miles with around 1,600 feet of elevation gain, while a round-trip to the third lake is roughly 8.2 miles with about 2,400 feet of vertical gain. If you want some awesome views and are comfortable with some additional mileage and steeper, scree sections, you can make the 11-mile roundtrip (~3,600’ of vertical) to Blue Lakes Pass. Additionally, with a number of campsites along the trail, you could do a multiday excursion or use it as a base to summit Mt. Sneffles1.
The Blue Lakes Trailhead is about 24 miles northwest of Ouray or about 44 miles (just over an hour) from Telluride. For us, it was a 2.5-hour drive north of Durango via the scenic Million Dollar Highway. After turning off the highway, the 9-mile drive up County Road 7 is over a nicely graded dirt road, so most cars should be able to make it without incident. I must also add – as picturesque as the San Juan Skyway is, the views from County Road 7 are pretty impressive in their own right.
As previously mentioned, this trail can be hiked as an out-and-back to any of three high-elevation lakes – Lower, Middle, and Upper Blue Lake, which sit at elevations between 11,000 and 11,700 feet. The route can also be hiked as an out-and-back to Blue Lake Pass (12,970’). Alternatively, the other side of the pass drops you down to Yankee Boy Basin, the standard route for summiting 14,150’ Mt. Sneffles, so it could be hiked as a thru or multi-day route to bag the peak via the south slope.
Beginning from Blue Lakes Trailhead, the path climbs steadily through the forest, roughly following the contour of East Fork Dallas Creek. After about 3 miles, the trail reaches a camping area at Lower Blue Lake where a handful of small paths skirt the lakeshore. To really get a look at the lake’s vibrant, sapphire hue, however, you’ve got to get up higher. About half a mile further up the trail, a small overlook gives a nice view of the lake, now 400 feet below. Just beyond the lake’s northwest shore hangs the craggy crest of S4 (Sneffles 4 Peak).
From the overlook, it’s just a short stroll to Middle and Upper Lakes. We found the lakes to be quite picturesque and fairly quiet. While there were a handful of other hikers up there, the crowd had thinned significantly from the busier first section of trail. Wanting a bit more from the hike, though, we continued past Upper Lake toward Blue Lake Pass.
From Upper Blue Lake, the trail gains another 1,250 vertical feet over 1.4 miles to the pass. This section of trail is gorgeous, affording sweeping views down to Middle and Upper Lakes, and out to 13,809-foot Dallas Peak and the surrounding summits. Although a fairly steady grade, the trail is mostly solid as it follows a series of about 16 switchbacks up to Blue Lake Pass. About two-thirds of the way up the pass, however, the trail turns into some seriously slick, loose dirt on the exposed hillside.
Regrettably, we ended up stopping about three friggin’ switchbacks and 200 vertical feet shy of the pass. Although the trail was mostly a series of well-defined switchbacks, there were a few fairly sketchy parts with annoyingly loose scree. I was mentally struggling a bit with the exposure and unsteadiness already and, after an incident Sanchez had with an out-of-control, off-leash dog, I was done. My nerves were shot, my cortisol was through the roof, and I was shaking with so much frustration that I couldn’t force myself up one more slick switchback. I felt like a huge loser, but after seeing a couple of other hikers easing themselves down the more precarious sections on their butts, or just similarly struggling to cope with the seemingly unstable track, I felt like I wasn’t alone in my trepidation.
The route back down from the ‘pass’ (from 90% of the way up the pass, sigh), although wildly scenic, was mostly filled with frustration. As I fought to keep my footing on the looser sections, I was both pissed and disgusted with myself for letting a combination of emotions keep me from the last quarter mile and couple hundred feet. I was completely unable to let it go and just enjoy the views. Failed target aside, the hike was stunning, and if we again find ourselves in the San Juans again, you can bet your butt we’ll be back to make the pass.
Total distance: 10.4 miles
Elevation gain: 3,479 feet
1For more information on hiking class 3 Sneffles, check out detailed route information on 14ers.com. The standard route is via Yankee Boy Basin, which can be easily accessed from the other side of Blue Lake Pass.