I’ve done my share of backpacking to insanely colored lakes, but backpacking Columbine Lake in Colorado was a real shocker. Sitting at 12,700 feet in the middle of the San Juan Mountains outside of Silverton, Columbine Lake’s deep blue color will stop you in your tracks if the thin air doesn’t.
At only 4.3 miles up, it’s a pretty attainable hike if you’re willing to work for it as you gain close to 3,000 feet over the short hike. Then, all you have to do is think about the swim you have waiting for you once you arrive. In terms of backpacking Colorado, this might take the cake!
If you’re looking for good hiking in Silverton, keep reading. This is the spot for you!
Hiking to the Breathtaking Columbine Lake in SW Colorado
Backpacking Columbine Lake, Colorado Trip Details:
- Length: 8.3 miles RT
- Elevation Gain: 2,900
- Starting Elevation: 9,900 feet
- Difficulty: Breaks will be a-plenty
- Beauty Level: Drop-dead gorgeous
- Water availability: Not much until the lake
- Trailhead: Ophir Pass turnoff
Hiking Questions about Columbine Lake, Colorado
Can you swim in Columbine Lake, CO?
Most definitely, yes, you can. I went in after my hike, and it was glorious. I was surprised to find it was not that cold for late August. With not much more snow melt coming in, as you can see by the photos, I’m sure the water in Columbine Lake was warming up in the summer heat.
How to get to Columbine Lake, Colorado?
Getting to Columbine Lake is accessible from Silverton, CO. It’s about a 15-minute drive to the Ophir Pass turnoff. Here, cross the bridge, and there will be a small parking area. Then, if you have a higher clearance vehicle, you can drive it to the actual trailhead about 3/4’s of a mile further up the road.
What should I bring to hike or backpack the San Juan Mountains?
- Light backpacking tent
- 15-30 degree sleeping bag
- Light, yet comfy sleeping pad
- 55L-65L backpacking bag
- Jet Boil Stove
- Water filter
- Hiking Poles
- Backpacking Chair
- Wide-Brimmed Hat
- Backpacking Meals
- 1x Hiking Pants, 1x Sunshirt, 1x Down Jacket, 1x Rain Jacket, 1x sleeping shirt, 1x leggings, 1x beanie and hat
- Backpacking Boots
Where should I stay before my trek?
The closest place would be to stay in Silverton, with Ouray and Durango being good second and third options. If you stay in Durango, you’ll have a 70-minute drive to the trailhead.
Hiking to Colorado’s Columbine Lake
Endless Switchbacks in order to reach Columbine Lake in Colorado
After parking by the bridge, I walked up the dirt road for about a mile. If you have high clearance, you can probably shave off 75% of this walk and save yourself some time. (You only walk on the Ophir pass road for a few hundred yards, then head right.) Over the next .75 miles, it’s a gradual uphill to the beginning of the trail, which you’ll find on your left-hand side. This is where the trail gets tough.
Over the next mile, you’ll gain 1,000 feet through a handful of switchbacks. The air thins on every step, making it exhausting, but the trail is nicely maintained. After the switchbacks, you’ll leave the shade and begin the next portion of the hike – an uphill push to the saddle above you.
The trail isn’t steep, but you’ll likely be forced to take breaks. This section is slightly under a mile, though it’ll feel longer. Thankfully, once you’re at the saddle, your hike eases up considerably.
Backpacking Columbine Lake – The final push to alpine heaven
Once you’re on top of the saddle, your view opens up, leaving you amazed. Your view will stretch for miles and miles, and you’ll be able to make out the faint trail as it winds its way across the tundra. The hike will be a gentle roller coaster for the next mile, taking you gradually up to the lake.
The final quarter-mile has a little more elevation gain, but you’ll be gazing longingly at the deep blue lake before you when your heart rate picks up.
Welcome to Columbine Lake!
Camping at Columbine Lake
If you plan on staying overnight, there are plenty of places to sleep. A quarter-mile to the right of the trail, about 100 feet from the lake, was my home for the evening. A nice rocky area had been made as a tent site.
I also saw people camp atop the hill to the left, where the trail and lake intersect. It also looked like there were some good spots on the far side by Milky Creek. It was a stunning night at Columbine lake, and got to shoot some Milky Way directly out of my tent.
Wrapping Up Columbine Lake – Hiking in Silverton and Backpacking Colorado
A reminder for hiking Columbine Lake and others in the area:
- Keep an eye on the weather forecast. The mountains can create afternoon storms when none are predicted
- It’s recommended to hike in the morning
- At elevations over 12,000 feet, it can snow even in late summer
- Remember the Leave No Trace principles.
- Even in the summer, it can get chilly. Pack like you would for fall weather in other parts of the country.
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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