Highland Mary Lakes, Continental Divide Loop

Date hiked: 07/09/16

Mileage: 9.3 miles; 4 hrs

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 6-7 groups at the lakes, 1 group hiking the loop

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The Weminuche Wilderness, a remote and rugged parcel of southwestern Colorado wild lands. Sitting at an average elevation of 10,000 feet, and with over five-hundered miles of trails and few roads traversing it’s 488,210 acres, entering the high alpine tundra of Colorado’s Largest wilderness usually involves an overnight backpacking trip. But Highland Mary’s Lake is a spectacular exception that can be reached in just a short two or three mile excursion through the high country. Add in a return trip along the Continental Divide Trail, and you can find hours of unspoiled backcountry all to yourself.

Blazing out from the trailhead, the Highland Mary Lakes Trail follows a curvaceous path along Cunningham Creek. Snowmelt rages down from the high peaks, filling its banks and yielding vivid fields of blossoming wildflowers. After 2.6 miles, the trail reaches a junction with the Continental Divide Trail.

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In a state widely recognized for its snow, blue skies and mining history, the Rocky Mountain Columbine is a perfect embodiment of Colorado with its blue petals, white cup and golden center; and why it was chosen as the state flower. It takes no leap of the imagination to understand why this wildflower is so revered (and threatened) by collectors. So much so it was made illegal in 1925 to uproot the flower on any public lands.

 

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Turning left at the junction, the elevation climbs, and the trail strains to reach treeline, garnering some 1,000 feet before settling again. Brilliant grasslands of the high alpine tundra stretch out from horizon to horizon.

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The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail share the same path for 200 miles. At this intersection, continue straight.

The terrain pulls out of the rolling plateau towards a rocky stretch still trying to shed its winter coat. Already feeling the effects from the elevation, the going gets tough as the climb logs another 100 feet before leveling again in the midst of a number of small ponds. With one last intersection, the trail finally begins its descent towards Verde Lakes.

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The wooden stake in the upper left corner denotes the Continental Divide trail, but what you’re looking for is the faint unmarked trail which forks off to the right in the foreground. Keep your eyes peeled, because it would be a long, taxing day of backtracking to miss that turn.

At its exit from the Continental Divide Trail, the route heads westward towards Verde Lakes. Dramatic views of the 13,000 foot monoliths of the Needle Mountains subrange unfold beyond the grassy hillsides. While wooden stakes do keep route, this primitive trail is hard to follow, growing faint to nonexistent at times.

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From left to right: Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak, Graystone Peak, Electric Peak, and Mount Garfield.

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Getting there.

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The trail wraps west and descends towards Verde Lakes. The true route then turns to the north well before its banks, traveling between three of the seven Highland Mary Lakes. But off-trail exploration touches the waters of all. IMG_6879 (2).JPG

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If you do decide to go the way of off-trail exploration, The Continental Divide Trail continues west beyond the smaller of the two Verde Lakes. Don’t be fooled: rather than keeping to the trail, forge a path through the undergrowth towards Highland Mary Lakes. I turned right after this hillside and eventually stumbled across them.

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The largest of the Highland Mary Lakes.

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The same lake as above from a different view.

From the largest lake, the Highland Mary Lakes Trail then stretches on towards two more lakes before wrapping back around to the south. Another option takes off from the northern mouth of lake three and follows the Cunningham Creek scree field (this is the way I went).

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Where Cunningham Creek hits a sharp dropoff, head towards the hillside nearer to the trees for a safer passage.

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A closer look.

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A faint trail then hugs the cliff…

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…before dropping down this face. Bushwack along the creekside until you can find a calm spot to cross a major offshoot of Cunningham Creek.

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Back on the main trail.

Tracing easier grades along Cunningham Creek, the trail finds its way back to the trailhead in time.IMG_6979 (2).JPGIMG_6981 (2).JPGIMG_6989 (2).JPGIMG_7026 (2).JPG

Trail Map

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Directions

(From Silverton): From Highway 550, turn left into Silverton. Follow Green Street through town for .9 miles, then turn right onto CR-2 (this road is closed during the winters). After 4.1 miles, turn right onto CR-4. In about 3.7 miles, there is a pullout for 2WD vehicles, and I could only get my car to the second switchback half a mile beyond this point before my wheels started spinning out. The road ends at the upper 4WD trailhead .9 miles beyond the 2WD trailhead.

9.6 miles; 41 min

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