"I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud's illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all"
~ Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell
Lost is maybe too strong a word. We were off-trail. There was some bushwhacking involved. This included scaling a steep embankment and fighting our way through a hedge of meadow willow. But lost? Perhaps in our thoughts.
We had gotten an early start. Relatively. It was twenty after eight when we stepped onto the Rainbow Trail from the Gibson Trailhead. We would have to put in almost a mile and a half on this ATV route to get to the Lakes of the Clouds trailhead. The Rainbow Trail is lovely, but you do run the risk of being passed by noisy recreational vehicles.
As our path traversed the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, we had sweeping views out over the Wet Mountain Valley toward Westcliffe, the nearest town. Closer to the trail was the usual riot of wildflowers springing up from the brown grass that flanked the trail. Yellow salsify, and purplish Lewis flax dotted the fields, complimentary colors on a neutral canvas. Royal penstemon stood tall while harebell hung its head – two similarly colored flowers with divergent countenances. Mariposa lily blossoms seemed to float upon a khaki sea. Beardtongues, clematis, blanketflower, and wallflower bespeckled the landscape with dabs of color. A distinctly different bloom caught our eye: starvation prickly pear cactus. These pale-yellow, diaphanous flowers contrasted sharply with their spiky hosts.
We passed a junction with the Swift Creek Trail (our return route) and then crossed Swift Creek via a double wooden bridge. The Rainbow Trail was wide and relatively smooth, and there were no ATVs to annoy us as we hiked. Soon, we were at the junction with the Lakes of the Clouds Trail (No. 1349). After signing the trail register, we turned toward the lakes and began our climb. Moments later, we entered the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.
The first thousand feet came gently, over three and a half miles. It also came bisected by a change in flora. At first, we strode through a forest of tall and impossibly straight lodgepole pines. I love me some pine forest – it usually means relatively soft, rock-and-root-free trail. That was not strictly the case on the Lakes of the Clouds Trail, but the going was fairly easy. The pines, however, were not to last, and soon we trod amongst similarly unswerving aspens. The aspens came with a side order of underbrush – and a different subset of wildflowers. Columbine and multiflora rose were king and queen on this section, where the trail became more rocky. We didn’t know it yet, but, in that respect, the trail would get much, much worse.
Suddenly, the view ahead opened up. The trail had tracked sharply south for a quarter mile before delivering us to a promontory that looked out over the Swift Creek Valley. We chose that spot to rest; more than half the climb was behind us. We had less than three miles to go to reach the first of the three cloud-bound lakes, and another 1,200 feet of elevation. We snacked on trail mix, then bent to the remainder of our task. Happily, over the next mile we would climb a paltry 200 feet. This easy section of trail was lined with roses; fritillaries and field crescents fluttered between their blooms. We relished the undemanding mile, knowing we’d regret it when the uphill started again in earnest. There was ample climbing left in the ascent to get to the basin where the Lakes of the Clouds were nestled. The moment arrived. The trail steepened; our pace slowed.
We came to a junction. To our left was the Swift Creek Trail. (We would return on that path later.) Our route was to the right; it quickly turned into a jumbled rocky wash. From the junction, we had a mile and a half to go and a little over 700 feet to climb. At the junction, two young women rested. One had an enormous backpack – think of Cheryl Strayed’s “Monster” from the book Wild – only this pack looked … unconventional. It contained a disassembled paddle board that they were hauling it up to the lakes to, well, paddle board. We silently wondered why anyone would do this with so many Colorado lakes that didn’t require lugging heavy toys up a mountain, but they looked like they were having fun so … who were we to judge?
The next mile and a half was tough. The trail was rocky, and uneven, and there were occasional obstructions. As I mentioned in previous posts, we were a little out of shape so, as we approached the six-mile mark of our ascent, we were starting to flag. Finally, the trail relented, and we once again strode through pine forest on soft, rockless duff. And then we were there.
The first lake came into view surrounded by subalpine fir and grey stone. The surface was rippled by a light breeze which turned the reflections of sky, mountain, and pine to a mottled smear. Fluffy clouds floated lazily out from behind charcoal peaks as we sat down to a well-earned lunch of sausage, cheese and crackers. Moments later, the paddle boarders showed up and set about assembling their board. When the first of them pushed off into the glassy lake, we again found it hard to criticize their decision to schlep the fifty-pound watercraft six miles into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Our repast complete, we rose for the hike to the next lake, of which there are three. They do not bear individual names, but collectively are The Lakes of the Clouds. All three are small – around five acres each – and are within a couple hundred yards of one another. Our trek from the first to the second lake was a delightful jaunt through pines and wildflowers.
Lake two quickly became our favorite. More protected, its surface was nearly mirror smooth, and the surrounding mountains and sky were more crisply reflected on its veneer. Whereas the first lake had been flanked by sharply sloping alps, lake two had more gently rising banks and was surrounded by lush green vegetation. A fringe of subalpine fir ringed the lake. Following the pines was a wild-flower dotted trail that also appeared to circle to the lake. We set off among sierra shooting star and alpine daisies to circumnavigate our second lake. There was no bad side to this lake, and we took way too many pictures as we tramped. When we were three-quarters of the way around the mountain tarn, the trail veered west, exactly in the direction of the third lake.
On we trekked. Up and over a knoll we went, then down into a marshy floodplain criss-crossed with reed-filled rivulets. Ahead, we could see a basin that assuredly contained lake number three. A few yards further, we climbed another small hummock, and the final lake came into view. It was less than a hundred yards from where we stood. The trail began to narrow. Meadow willow closed in around us, but we pushed on. It was no use. The trail was gone.
With over seven miles behind us, we cringed at the idea of traipsing a full half mile back around one lake just to get to a lake we were standing 200 feet away from. We backtracked a short ways and struck out to bushwhack across the marshy floodplain. It wasn’t too bad until we had to scale a six-foot embankment topped with a thick, wiry hedgerow of meadow willow. We clambered up and through, and then, after hopping a few streamlets, found a bit of social trail that carried us to our final lake.
Lake three was the least impressive of the triplets with fewer flowers and trees. We felt it lacked the charm of its siblings. Or maybe it was that we had already eyed up two stunning mountain pools and this one just didn’t stand out. There was also a large group of campers there who were milling around, drinking beer, and chatting loudly. Whatever the reason, we cut our contemplation of lake three short and headed back the way we (should’ve) come. We took time to renew our appreciation of lakes one and two as we passed.
We retraced our steps to the junction with the Swift Creek Trail and bore right. The Swift Creek Trail had been described as a “bone jarring descent” but “better down than up”. We were surprised then to find it not nearly as grueling as we expected. There were indeed steep sections choked with near-boulder-sized stone that were steeper than those we encountered on our ascent, but there were also long stretches of smooth, level trail to enjoy. The climb down was beautiful, but we wouldn’t have traded in the Lakes of the Clouds Trail for Swift Creek – the views had been better on the former. We had covered a little more than nine miles when we crossed Swift Creek itself and continued down the west side of the stream. Two miles later, we reconnected with the Rainbow Trail. From there, it was an easy half mile back to the car.
Lakes of the Clouds is a great hike. Three splendid mountain lakes, bountiful wildflowers, and lots of Colorado wilderness make for a great day on the trail. In terms of return on investment though, Willow Lake (read here) with its added waterfalls and abundant views throughout the climb, is the better choice, if one must choose! Willow Lake, however, is on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. On the east side, Lakes of the Clouds is a solid hike with a stunning payoff. If you want to shorten this hike, taking the Swift Creek trail out and back will trim nearly three miles off the round trip but, as I’ve said, you’ll miss some truly delightful hiking. We though lake two was worth the climb in and of itself. And that’s saying something. So next time you’re in Westcliffe, CO, head on up to the Lakes of the Clouds. Enjoy the lakes, but try not to get lost in the clouds. ♦
Date: July 3, 2020
Location: Westcliffe, CO
Trailhead: 38.138293, -105.600661
Distance: 11.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,564 feet