Reaching the trails traversing the spectacular high alpine tundra of the Weminuche Wilderness usually requires a multi-day backpacking trip. The Highland Mary Lakes trail is an exception, providing day hikers quick access to this alpine wonderland.
The hike visits three of the seven Highland Mary Lakes as well as the Verde Lakes, all above 12,000-ft. Getting to the lakes basin requires a bit of effort. The trail climbs over 1,300-ft. in 2 miles through a diverse landscape of trees, willows and meadows interspersed with picturesque waterfalls to reach the high lakes plateau.
Upon arriving at the Highland Mary Lakes hikers are greeted with breathtaking views of the glistening lakes set amid a broad expanse of rolling sub-alpine tundra. A gentle climb through the tundra leads to Verde Lakes and wonderful views of the Grenadier Range punctuated by the distinctive pyramid-shaped Vestal and Arrow Peaks.
The hike can be done as an out-and-back or turned into a loop by following a short section of the Continental Divide Trail with extended views of the surrounding area.
Trailhead to Verde Lakes
Distance from Trailhead: 6.6 miles (round trip)
Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,310-ft.
Elevation Gain: 1,560-ft.
The Highland Mary Lake trails starts just beyond the 4WD parking lot at a sign with a large map of the Weminuche Wilderness. (See driving directions.) Before this sign there is an old wood sign pointing left (east) to the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) -- aka the Cunningham Gulch trail -- and right (south) for the Highland Mary Lakes.
The Highland Mary Lake trail wastes no time gaining elevation, ascending on moderately-steep grades through meadows and forest, staying to the left (east) of Cunningham Creek. Just beyond a waterfall reach a junction (0.2 miles) pointing left to the CDT and straight ahead for the Highland Mary Lakes trail. The trail to the left provides alternative access to the Cunningham Gulch trail.
The trail becomes rougher as it climbs, occasionally crossing minor creeks with pretty waterfalls along the way. An open area by one of the falls provides nice views to the north.
After climbing for about 35 minutes (1.2 miles) and gaining 860-ft., the trail cross to the right (west) side of the creek and ascends steeply up a small cliff. Trees give way to a picturesque basin with diverse ground cover and small copses of trees set amid rocky knobs. Follow the trail as it heads west through the basin and climbs a minor drainage, staying to the right (north) of the creek.
Soon the route turns south again, ascending a steep slope beside the stream. At the base of the talus field the trail forks. Either trail will get you to your destination.
The trail to the left climbs steeply up the drainage, hugging the right (west side) of the creek. About halfway up the hill rock cairns mark a crossing to the left (east side) of the creek for the remainder of the climb. The trail to the right climbs a talus field, making a wide swing to the west of the creek drainage and then crosses a small boulder field to meet the first trail.
A short distance beyond where the two trails meet the first Highland Mary Lake (12,080-ft.) pops into view (2 miles and 1,330-ft. ascent from the trailhead). The second lake is soon seen on the right (south) as the trail crosses the narrow strip of land separating the two lakes. This is a great spot for a rest with wonderful views to the north of the peaks lining Cunningham Gulch.
Continue the hike by following the trail as it swings around the left (eastern) side of the second lake. Soon views open to the left (east) to the third and largest of the Highland Mary lakes.
At the top of the third lake the path drops into a marshy area and becomes a little hard to follow as it crosses the lake’s inlet stream. To stay on track look for wooden post on the hillside above the marsh. As you head toward the post the continuation of the trail becomes evident in the boot beaten grass to the left of the post.
A second wooden post in the distance will help you navigate the path as it climbs gently south across the beautiful alpine meadows. The open landscape offers great views of the surrounding peaks and ridges.
From the inlet stream of the third lake the trail ascends a total of 215-ft. in 0.6 miles to a view point overlooking Verde Lakes (12,186-ft.) at 3.3 miles. To the south the Grenadier Range, with the distinctive pyramid-shaped Vestal and Arrow Peaks, rises above the lake.
Although this is a turnaround point for the out-and-back hike, the open alpine tundra invites exploration. A quick look at the map will show a number of smaller lakes within the vicinity worth visiting. Be sure to keep an eye on the weather. This is not a great place to be caught in a thunderstorm.
Loop option with Continental Divide extension
Distance from Trailhead: 7.8 miles (loop)
Ending/Highest Elevation: 12,630-ft.
Elevation Gain: 1,880-ft.
If you wish to do the loop hike, look up the hillside to the left (east) from the Verde Lakes overlook and locate wooden posts marking the trail to the Continental Divide. Climb the hill, following the posts until an obvious trail appears. On the ascent be sure to turn around and enjoy views of the Grenadiers with Trinity, Vestal and Arrowhead Peaks, easy to pick out on the skyline.
The trail reaches the Continental Divide trail at 4.6 miles after ascending over 320-ft. in 1.3 miles. Follow the trail north traversing rolling terrain on a beautiful green plateau for 1.4 miles to wooden posts and a large rock cairn marking the junction with the Cunningham Gulch trail at 6.0 miles. Cunningham Gulch (to the left) drops steeply down the west side of the divide, losing 1,350-ft. in 1.6 miles. Along the way you will reach an unmarked fork. The right fork leads to the trailhead with the old wooden sign seen just before the start of the Highland Mary Lakes trail while the left branch hits the Highland Mary Lakes trail 0.2 miles above the trailhead.
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This opinionated guide includes all the hikes in the Ouray, Telluride and Silverton sections of the website plus info on local services and nearby attractions.
Driving directions from Silverton: Head northeast through Silverton on Greene Street, the town’s main street. Pass the courthouse and bear right on County Road 2 to Howardsville (4 miles from the intersection). The road is paved for the first 2-miles and then turns to a good gravel surface. Turn right on County Road 4 (marked with a sign for the Old One Hundred Mine Tour). Follow CR 4, a good dirt road, for 3.7 miles up Cunningham Gulch to the ruins of a mine.
The road now becomes rougher (but still OK for 2WD vehicles), dropping down and crossing the creek on a bridge. On the other side of the creek the road starts climbing the right (west) side of the creek with the aid a long switchback. Follow the road for a little over 1.5 miles to an intersection with a road splitting off to the left. If you are in a 2WD, drive past this intersection to an obvious parking area on your left. Those with 4WD can turn left, following the road downhill and across the creek. The trailhead parking lot is just beyond the crossing.
Driving Directions From Ouray: Follow U.S. Highway 550 South from Ouray for 29 miles to the turnoff to Silverton and then follow the Silverton directions to the trailhead.
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