In my last post I told you that the Goulding Creek Trailhead was hard to find.
I was a fool.
Ah, those blissful, bygone days of yesterweek when we thought a trailhead a few hundred yards off of a major highway was elusive. One day later, we sat in my Subaru Crosstrek at a hairpin turn on Road A63, somewhere in the San Miguel Mountains south of Telluride. Waze, my usual navigation app (I’m rethinking that), showed the Hope Lake Trailhead about one mile away. Problem was, it showed no road going there. It didn’t even show the A63 continuing past the point where we sat next to an idyllic train trestle over Groundhog Gulch. There was more to the A63, but it looked as if it would take us away from our destination. The only road that seemed to go in the right direction was gated and marked “Private”. Seeing no alternative, we continued around the hairpin turn and off of our GPS map.
Just around the bend was a rutted dirt road on our right. We turned and started uphill, but this route also seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. We backed up. We noticed a road sign partially hidden by foliage: “Hope Lake Road”. Lisa, who was driving, looked at me with raised eyebrows. I nodded. That was all the impetus she needed to put the hammer down, taking the Crosstrek up to the maximum safe speed on this barely-more-than-a-jeep-road road. I watched the needle on the speedometer soar – to about six MPH. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the Hope Lake Trailhead.
Pro Tip: Google Maps would have solved this problem. It not only includes Hope Lake Road, but will navigate directly to the trailhead. While Waze alerts drivers to speed traps and roadside hazards, Google may be a better option for navigating to backcountry locations. Enter “Lake Hope Trailhead” (instead of Hope Lake) and enjoy your drive. We make these mistakes so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Packs on, we stepped into the Uncompahgre National Forest. The trail was perfect – rising gently through a colonnade of tall, straight pines, the relatively rock-and-root-free path covered in a bed of soft duff. The bone-jarring trip up Hope Lake Road was forgotten.
A quarter-mile in, as we crossed a rushing creek, the view opened to the west and the surrounding mountains came into view. They stayed with us as we traversed the foothills of Vermillion Peak. The beginning of this hike was relatively level, and we stayed close to 10,800 feet for the first mile or so.
Every bit as incredible as the views were the wildflowers. There were the usual Coloradan suspects. Mountain bluebell and bittercress lined the creeks; columbine and alpine sunflower burst forth from talus fields. The less familiar faces that greeted us from beside the trail included purple tufts of silky phacelia, which poked up here and there, while deep-red western roseroot crept about at our feet. Whitemarsh marigold was everywhere!
We crossed three talus fields in that first mile, and each one coincided with sweeping views down the Lake Fork Valley to Trout Lake, a large recreational lake some two and a half miles to the northwest. Behind the tarn, in the Lizard Head Wilderness, two fourteeners, Wilson Peak and Mount Wilson, dominated the skyline.
Ahead, to the south, a snow-runoff waterfall tumbled down multiple rocky tiers as it carried the last of the snow off of San Miguel Peak. Just as we passed the one-mile mark. we came to a sharp bend in the trail at the confluence of two effervescent brooks.
The larger of these watercourses was the Lake Fork, which feeds Trout Lake. The other was a smaller and unnamed tributary. The Lake Fork flowed out of a small canyon, and up the gorge we could see the creek cascading down a rocky incline, the water white against the dark rock of the gully. The smaller creek splashed and danced down a staircase of stone right next to the trail, and we marveled at a single stalk of vibrant pink fireweed that stood at the water’s edge. Then we turned our attention to the trail. The ascent was beginning.
Over the next mile and a quarter, we would climb a thousand feet. Switchbacks were the name of the game, and there were a lot of them. It was pleasant hiking though. The traverses were mostly wooded and replete with mosses and wildflowers; the cut-backs often afforded us exceptional views of the San Miguels. When we swung west, our view was still down the valley to Trout Lake; Vermillion Peak was our constant companion to the east.
Soon, trees became scarce and we found ourselves passing through thick patches of meadow willow. The treeline in southwestern Colorado is between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, and the last few scrubby pines had just disappeared when we cozied up to that small tributary of the Lake Fork. We were heading up a shallow draw. This is always the toughest part of the hike for me. I could clearly see that we were approaching a sizable basin, and it looked like it was just over the next rise. Over the next rise, however, was another rise. I was starting to feel a little cranky when at last we came to …
… a puddle.
A hiker going the other direction called out wryly, “You made it!” jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the small, muddy pool. Then he laughed hysterically. We were less amused, if only because we were climb-weary and ready to be at our destination. We found enough humor in our hearts to dub it “Little Hope Lake” before pressing on. Fortunately for my mood, Hope Lake really was just over the next rise from its tiny-tarn wannabe. We might have been able to see it from the puddle had the water level not been alarmingly low. A local hiker said it was the lowest he’d ever seen it although TripAdvisor reviews have been characterizing the lake-level as “low” since 2018. At the southeast end of the reservoir (where we arrived) there were several acres of exposed lake bed, reddish beige sand and rock contrasting with the surrounding green.
Low water level aside, this was still a stunning mountain pool. Charcoal-grey mountains towered over the far side of Hope Lake, covered in patches of snow and dark green foliage. The lake itself was a rich aquamarine, fluctuating in spots from deep blue to a viridescent green. The beige-y band of exposed lake-bed added to the rich palette of color that spread out before us, and we hiked partway around the south bank looking for the best angle for pictures. Then we sat down on a rock and ate some trail mix. Neither of us realized how hungry we were until we started eating.
While we rested, a man who looked to be about our age began stripping off his clothes. Odd, we thought, he can’t possibly be going for a swim, can he? The answer, of course, was yes. We judged the current temperature to be in the mid-fifties – we had each donned a puffy when we stopped moving. We could see the that lake was being fed by snow and ice run off. The man, who was with a group sitting not far from us, was hollering back and forth with his friends. From what we could gather, this was something he did regularly on hikes. His friends seemed to think he was as crazy as we did. He was in and out of the water within the space of about forty-five seconds. He looked cold. We sympathized, having waded through glacial rivers in Iceland during days three and four of our Laugavegur hike (read here and here).
Eventually we pried ourselves away from the pleasant repast we were enjoying by the lake and headed back down. Vermillion Peak was on display for the first half mile as was the entire Lake Fork Valley all the way to Trout Lake. We had gotten an early start and were glad we did. We shared the hike up and the lake with only a handful of others; now, we were passing other parties, and social distancing was becoming exhausting. Hope Lake was a popular hike and it showed. We passed one group that, when we commented on the delightful weather, replied that when they had hiked it the day before it had been quite windy. We were a little surprised that, with all the great hikes in the area, they were hiking the same one two days in a row. It was, however, hard to argue with the broad grins on their faces.
Hope Lake (or Lake Hope as it is frequently called) is undoubtedly worth the effort it takes to get to the trailhead. It’ll take you forty-five minutes to go the eighteen miles from Telluride; it took us two hours from Mancos. The hike is moderate, the views amazing, and Hope Lake is a shimmering jewel nestled in the San Miguel Mountains. You will probably be happier if you come in a high clearance vehicle, but the road is navigable in almost any car. The best things are often the hardest to get to – this is one of those things. Make it easier by using Google. ♦
Date: June 28, 2020
Location: Ophir, CO
Trailhead: 37.804872, -107.851485
Distance: 5.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,225 feet