I arrived at Silverton’s Columbine Lake Trailhead on an ominously overcast afternoon with dull thunder rumbling overhead and cold rain sprinkling down. I started the high-elevation hike against my better judgment, unsure of what the weather would bring.
But the dark clouds above never cracked as I traversed through some of Southwestern Colorado’s finest backcountry. Intense inclines gave way to sprawling valleys full of wildflowers, which climbed slowly to the pristine Lake Columbine. I set my ultralight tent up on its shores and reveled in the undeniable glory of its royal blue waters.
Mother Nature had taken it easy on me this time, and I enjoyed some of San Juan National Forest’s most idyllic backcountry as a result. I’d made the right choice after all.
Are you planning your own hike or backpacking trip of the Columbine Lake Trail? Stick around, I’ll tell you how to prepare, what to expect, and all the other information you need to get your journey off on the right foot.
My step-for-step route
The best months to hike the Columbine Lake Trail are mid-July through mid-September. These three months are your sweet spot – high-elevation snowbanks will mostly have melted off, and fall snowstorms shouldn’t be a threat.
Start your hike in the morning and plan on reaching Columbine Lake by noon to avoid afternoon rain and erratic alpine thunderstorms.
If you choose to hike in the off-season, prepare for cold temperatures and the possibility of snow. Snowshoeing is possible on this trail, but the avalanche risk in this area is very high. Exercise extreme caution and get in touch with the San Juan Forest Service before you go.
To prepare for your hike, use my day hiking essentials checklist as you pack your bag. Utilizing a reliable packing list will ensure that you bring all of the gear and clothing you need.
Day hiking this trail should take at least four hours, so pack plenty of snacks and bring at least two liters of water. You can pack a water filter to purify water as you go, which will save you considerable weight. There are ample water sources beginning a couple of miles into the hike.
Typically, I use the free Maps.me smartphone app for offline navigation on my hikes, but as of writing this post, the Columbine Lake Trail isn’t available on their maps yet. Instead, use AllTrails Pro if you need an accurate offline map for your trip.
I created the trail map at the beginning of this article by tracking my location with my Garmin Instinct and uploading the data to Google Maps.
The trailhead is located on a 4WD dirt road just off the Million Dollar Highway
Getting to the Columbine Lake Trailhead is relatively easy. Take the Million Dollar Highway (US-550) to Forest Road 679 (Ophir Pass 4WD Road). Follow that dirt road for about a quarter-mile and keep your eyes open for a parking spot. The road is narrow and parking is sparse, so you might need to get creative.
The trailhead is marked with a single post reading ‘Trail 509.’ It’s easy to miss, so I included a picture below. (Though it’s a 4-wheel-drive road, I navigated to the trailhead safely in a 2-wheel-drive car.)
If you’re getting to the trailhead using a navigation app, download offline maps of the area first, as you’re not likely to have service once you get close.
The Columbine Lake Trail is about eight miles round trip and between 2,500 and 3,000 feet of elevation, depending on where you start the hike. This hike climbs in elevation at a rather steep 12% grade, which rates it as a ‘difficult’ hike.
Most of the hike takes place above 10,000 feet, so be sure that you’re adequately acclimatized to the high altitude before hitting the trail. If you start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness, take a rest, drink some water, and ponder whether or not you should continue your hike.
The intense inclines, sprawling alpine valleys, colorful Colorado wildflowers, and pristine Columbine Lake make this trail a must-hike. I preferred it to the far more popular Ice Lakes Basin Trail, mostly because I encountered far fewer people along my journey.
If you have the proper gear and experience, I recommend bringing along your backpacking gear and camping out near the lake, weather permitting. I can’t imagine many better landscapes to pitch a tent and soak in the solitude for an evening.
This trail is a bit of a glute-buster for the first 2.5 miles, so don’t expect many flat stretches in the early going. All of the huffing and puffing uphill will eventually bring you above treeline, where the hikes gets exponentially better, so keep that in mind.
The first mile and a quarter of the trail, highlighted by heavy tree-cover and countless switchbacks, is more or less uneventful. Traffic from the Million Dollar Highway will buzz in the background, and the views will be non-existent.
But the hiker traffic on the trail will be far less crowded than the nearby Ice Lakes Basin Trail, and pretty soon, the views will be open up to spectacular panoramic landscapes.
Once the forest cover abates, you’ll break out above treeline, and an idyllic alpine valley will appear. Stunning views will open up instantly, and the true beauty of this trail will begin to take hold. The elevation gain will continue through this valley and over a saddle for another mile and a quarter.
Imposing mountains — Lookout Peak and T-12 Peak in particular — loom on the horizon as you work your way towards the lake. The San Juan Mountains are jagged, sheer, and more captivating than the Rocky Mountains for which Colorado is known.
The terrain along this trail has a more rugged and backcountry feel than the nearby Ice Lakes Basin Trail. Out here, I slipped completely into my hiking and backpacking element, and let my surroundings take over my psyche.
If you hike this trail during the right time — typically late-July to mid-August — you’ll be rewarded with endless fields of Colorado wildflowers. Indian Paintbrush, Fireweed, Columbines, and countless other species will pepper the landscape as you work your way through the backcountry.
Wildflower junkies should also hike the nearby Ice Lakes Basin Trail, as there seem to be more wildflowers (and far more Columbines) than on the Columbine Lake Trail.
Colorado has a look but don’t touch policy in regards to wildflowers, and this should be taken seriously. Picking or disturbing wildflowers is illegal and can disrupt the local ecosystem. Tempting as it may be to pick the gorgeous wildflowers, respect the rules, and take photos instead.
After you enter the majestic meadow, you’ll catch views of a saddle in the distance. Yes, you’ll be traversing over it and piling up some more elevation gain along the way. The higher up the saddle you hike, the more stunning the backcountry gets.
The journey up the saddle is steep, and there is some loose scree to contend with, but the trail should be safe if you’re paying attention to your surroundings. The saddle is the last bit of ass-kicking before the terrain starts to level out.
Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with views of the valley below and glimpses of more drastic peaks in the distance. Broad alpine valleys, winding creeks, and distant jagged mountain ranges make up the entirety of your surroundings. The scenery here is as good as it gets.
Life after the saddle gets a bit easier, as the last one and a half miles are relatively flat. The hike to the lake is a slight climb in elevation, but nothing compared to what you just went through.
The closer you get to the lake, the more unforgiving and unearthly the terrain becomes. Keep a close eye on the weather above you, as you’ll be completely exposed to the elements as you near 13,000 feet in elevation. Scenery-wise, the stretch from the saddle to the lake was my favorite portion of the hike.
Before you know it, you’ll arrive at the tranquil Columbine Lake. The lake water is a shimmering royal blue, which reflects the majestic mountains in the background as the wind blows faint ripples across its surface. Like Ice Lake Basin, the lake is strikingly blue due to glaciers eroding rock flour into their runoff.
The hiking trail thins out and wraps around the lake in both directions, and I highly recommend following it. Feel free to bring your fishing pole, cast out a line, or even take a bone-chilling dip in the ice-cold water.
If you’re interested in staying the night anywhere in San Juan National Forest, camping is legal, and you can almost always do so without a permit.
Keep in mind that Columbine Lake sits at 12,700 feet in elevation, and even in the dead of the summer, temperatures can dip below freezing at night. Weather at this elevation is unpredictable and volatile as well and can take a turn for the worse at a moment’s notice.
Only camp at such elevations if you are an experienced backpacker with the right gear. Check out my ultralight backpacking gear list to see what kind of equipment I used for this hike.
I camped on the west shore of the lake near a calm, babbling brook. The views of the lake and its surrounding mountains were incredible, but the night was quite windy and chilly. Would I do it again? Definitely, I just might bring a warmer sleeping bag.
- Pets are allowed but must be leashed at all times
- Campfires are prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, or trails
- Camping is prohibited within 100 feet of lakes, streams, and developed trails
- Camping is allowed for up to 14 continuous days and 28 days total in a 60 day period
- Fireworks are prohibited
- Anglers must possess a valid Colorado fishing license
- Target shooting away from the trail is legal, but only with a proper firearm license
- Do not shortcut switchbacks
Throughout my hike, I didn’t see any litter along the trail. To continue keeping this trail in shape for other hikers, pack out everything you pack in and do your very best to leave no trace.
For more information on leaving no trace, visit LNT.org.
Though I only spent 24 hours hiking and backpacking along the Columbine Lake Trail, my adventure into the breathtaking San Juan National Forest was unforgettable. Mother nature held back its worst, and I soaked in the beauty of Southwestern Colorado as if I were living in a postcard.
My heart pumped through my shirt as I marched through valleys of wildflowers, ascended alpine saddles, and settled in along the pristine shores of Columbine Lake. My jaunt down one of Silverton’s best hiking trails reinforced what I already knew: life is better in the backcountry.
Now it’s your turn.
Gather your gear, lace up your boots, strap on your pack, and get moving. Some of Colorado’s best hiking is waiting, and it’s up to you to go capture it.
Click here to view the complete essential day hiking gear checklist.
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Have you ever hiked the Columbine Lake Trail? What are some of your favorite lake hikes around Colorado? What’s the highest elevation you’ve ever camped out? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Last Updated on July 12, 2023