How to backpack to stunning Blue Lakes in Colorado

The San Juan’s are still America’s hidden gem and home to the best Colorado backpacking trails. And backpacking Blue Lakes, Colorado, is to die for. Because of the terrain and views, this is considered one of the best Colorado backpacking trips in the region.

Located in the southwest corner of Colorado, the San Juans are surrounded by small ski towns tucked away from the rest of the world. The largest metro areas – Albuquerque, Denver, and Phoenix – are six to seven hours away. Due to this, it helps protect this treasure trove of mountains and lakes from being entirely overrun by people. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s well above most people’s comfort level for hiking elevation.

Blue Lakes is nestled north of Telluride and is a spectacular-looking lake with two sibling lakes above it. While there’s a long dirt road approach, it’s generally easy and accessible for all cars. However, it is rocky, and I have seen flat tires on the drive. The parking lot is broken up into two areas but isn’t too large. If you’re visiting on a weekend, you best get there early.

A Guide to Backpacking Blue Lakes in Colorado

Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest
Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest

Key Details to know about Backpacking Blue lakes, Colorado

  • Miles: Lower Blue Lake: 3.1, Middle Blue Lake: 3.5, Upper Blue Lake: 3.9
  • Elevation Gain: 2,519
  • Starting Elevation: 9,342 ft
  • Highest Point: 11,732
  • Beauty Level: Holy Shit! (I actually said this walking up.)
  • Blue Lake Trailead location

Get your free Backpacking FAQ Guide

How to Plan a Trip to the San Juan Mountains

How long does it take to drive to Blue Blue Lakes in Colorado?

  • From Phoenix: 9 hours
  • From Denver: 6 hours
  • From Telluride: 1.15 hours
  • From Santa Fe: 6.5 hours
  • Salt Lake City: 7 hours
  • Las Vegas: 9.5 hours

Can I fly a drone at Blue Lakes?

Negative. You cannot fly a drone at Blue Lakes as it resides in the Mt Sneffels Wilderness.

Gear for backpacking Blue Lakes

Related: Tips to travel with camera gear

When should I try to camp at Blue Lakes?

Mid-June to whenever snow starts to accumulate, is the perfect time to camp and spend time backpacking to Blue Lakes. I remember the lakes being pretty cold (there was an iceberg floating in the upper lake the first time I went if that’s any indication), so swimming may not be the most enjoyable.

Just remember that these areas are prone to afternoon mountain storms. Make sure to have a rain jacket on on your for afternoon hikes.

What is the weather like during the summer?

You should have highs in the 60-70s at 11,000 feet in the mountains. As for lows, lows in the 40s are also pretty common. Or, some would say this is perfection!

How will the elevation affect me?

You’ll notice it hiking in, as it’s a pretty steep middle mile. Just go slow and make sure to drink lots of water before and after the hike. Also, keep getting enough electrolytes to make your time enjoyable.

Do I need permits to backpack to Blue Lakes?

As of May 2023, you do not need permits for backpacking Blue Lakes in Colorado. Keep in mind this is a popular hike, and the parking lot will fill up on the weekends. Best to get there early or arrive around 2-3 pm when people are heading out.

Backpacking Blue Lakes

I started a little after noon on Sunday, which meant I was one of the few people hiking in versus the steady stream of those who were wrapping up their early morning hike. With a trailhead over 9,000 feet, you’re starting at a point higher than nearly every state minus 3-4. Due to this fact, along with carrying backpacking gear, I was quickly winded.

To fight the altitude and slow me down, I took So. Many. freaking. Photos.

Okay, and because the scenery was so damn beautiful. At some points, I literally sat down on the ground – backpack still on – to shoot the brilliant wildflowers.

After doddling around taking photos (I was in no hurry), I finally got to lower blue lake in 100 minutes. As I saw it for the first time, I let out an audible, “Holy shit!” I’d literally never done that before.

It was that breathtaking.

Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Gregory Packs Backpacking San Juan National Forest
Wildflowers Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest

I was floored. A little tired, I headed to the water’s edge to drop my pack and take in the sights. The water’s blueness, coupled with the towering peaks surrounding it, made me understand why this was one of the top destinations in the state world.

Once I refueled, I continued towards one of the upper lakes – whichever one would give me easy access to water and camping conditions. That ended up being the upper lake, at 11,700 feet. I couldn’t believe I was actually backpacking Blue Lakes.

Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest Big Agnes

Amazing wildflowers on the Colorado backpacking trails

The final uphill, less than a mile, took forever because I kept stopping to take photos of the wildflowers – this time with lower blue lakes in the background. Mindblowing is an understatement for these views.

Best colorado backpacking trips backpacking blue lakes
Wildflowers Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest
blue lakes colorado Best colorado backpacking trips
backpacking blue lakes and flowers

finally reached my home for the night around 3:30 on the corner of Upper Blue Lake. Post set up, which is now a quick endeavor, I settled in, munched on food, and figured out where I wanted to watch the sunset.

While I did this, Rob (new friend alert) walked over and asked if I would be hiking Mt. Sneffels tomorrow morning. Of course, I said yes, and asked if he would mind if I tagged along, and he said definitely.

Once that was settled, I told him I’d be heading to the opposite ridge for sunset and invited him and his wife, Libby. Even in the backcountry, there are ample opportunities to meet new people.

Sunset at Blue Lakes

As golden hour approached, I headed up the ridge – which, at close to 12,000 feet, was a little more than just a quick scamper. But it was worth it. We had Lower Blue Lake below us and towering mountains directly ahead. Pure stoke ensued. The view here convinced me this was definitely one of the best Colorado backpacking trips.

I, per usual, bounced around, getting random shots here and then. Then, I sat and enjoyed the view. Always enjoy the view.

easily one of my best Colorado backpacking trips
upper blue lakes san juan Best colorado backpacking trips
backpacking blue lakes
Sunset Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest

~ I’m purposely skipping the hike to Mt. Sneffels to keep this at a normal length. Please read it here.~

After completing Sneffels, I packed up and headed down. I got all of 100 yards before I saw some sweet-looking flowers and decided to, again, literally sit down on the trail. But, honestly, the entire experience of backpacking Blue Lakes blew my mind.

The rest of the way down was pretty normal until I got near a meadow and thought, “Hmm, I wonder if I’ll see a bear,” and not a hundred feet later, BOOM, a bear. So that was pretty fucking cool!


Thank god I brought my 70-200 lens to get up close and personal with it…from afar.

After what was probably far too long shooting a single bear just eating (I mean, I guess that’s what a celebrity must feel like when they go to eat), I continued onward and finally reached the Blue Lakes trailhead.

I’m not sure how many Colorado backpacking trails have bear encounters, but I was pretty surprised by how popular this hike is. Years later, I’m sure there’s even less bear activity unless people have turned the camping area into a garbage lot.

Blue Lakes Colorado Hiking Backpacking San Juan National Forest Bear

Wrapping up – Backpacking Blue Lakes

It had been a whirlwind trip backpacking Blue Lakes, Colorado, but also one of amazement and growth. I had never slept so high before and completed another 14er – my hardest to date. Plus, I could cross off another bucket list item from my list.

Overall, this is one of the most incredible Colorado backpacking trails the state has to offer and will blow your mind. And I hope you enjoyed reading about one of the best Colorado backpacking trips.

Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.

You can follow along the journey on Facebook and Instagram 

To view my entire photography collection and purchase photos, click here

Are you interested in other backpacking opportunities in the San Juan Mountain? Here you go!