Date hiked: 9/09/16
Total: 8.5 miles; 3.5 hrs
Mill Lake: 4.1 mi; 1.8 hrs
Lamphier Lake: 5.6 miles; 2 hrs
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw):3 fisherman at Mill Lake.
Cradled inside a deep glacial cirque chiseled out of Fossil Mountain, Mill Lake is a true hidden gem of the Gunnison National Forest. And though the hike is short – only three miles round trip – don’t let that fool you into thinking this is just another walk in the park.
Leaving the trailhead at Gold Creek Campground, the first .8 miles from about 10,000 feet to the switchbacks at 10,500 feet pass easily enough, but as the altitude hits, so does the trail’s headlong approach to Mill Lake.
With each passing step, treeline becomes inevitable, but for one fleeting moment, the trail levels with a short-lived rest, and the dense tree cover recedes to views of the cirque’s western wall. Quickly ducking back into the woods, another set of switchbacks heralds the trail into its hardest push to the lake at 11,400 feet.
I was sharing the lake with three other fisherman, but with no motorized traffic in the Fossil Ridge Wilderness, silence is never far to be found.
Another popular Gunnison trail, Lamphier Lake, lies in the next basin over, and though you can backtrack all the way to the trailhead and head up CR-771 just a little further to the Lamphier Lake Trailhead, the two routes do run parallel to each other for a good portion of their mileage, so they can be connected with an easy off-trail shortcut through the woods.
Retracing the Mill Lake trail, I matched my GPS breadcrumbs against the map, waiting about one and a third miles until the two trails were closest. Then, following the earth’s gentle contours, I found the Lamphier Lake trail without so much as breaking a sweat.
Following Lamphier Creek, and crossing it more than once, the Lamphier Lake trail climbs another 200 feet of dense, rocky terrain. I noticed the map at the trailhead doesn’t quite match up to the actual route. If that’s what you’re using, it may be something worth keeping in mind.
Topping out at 11,700 feet, the route suddenly drops into Lamphier Lake, set against an easy backdrop of Gunsight Pass and Square Top Mountain. Fishing is a big draw to the area. Much like Mill Lake, Lamphier Lake is jam packed with native cutthroat trout.
This route also offers the best approach to both Square Top Mountain and Henry Mountain. Smack dab in the center of the Sawatch Range, the Sangres and San Juans, and the Elk Mountains, Square Top Mountain (just 15 feet short of a 13er) and Henry Mountain (13,254 feet) both offer great vantage points to nearly half of Colorado’s 54 14ers.
(From Gunnison): From Main Street, head east on Highway 50 for 11.6 miles. At Parlin, turn left onto CR-76. After 8.7 miles, turn left onto CR-771 in Ohio City. Follow this for 5.2 miles then turn left to continue on CR-771. The trailhead is 1.6 miles beyond this at the Gold Creek Campground. The road is rough, but the trailhead should be accessible by any car. Also, there isn’t really a parking lot, just a pullout in the grass. It’s kind of hilly in this area, so this could pose a problem in low clearance 2WD if you choose to hike this trail on a busy day.
27 miles; 46 min