Hiking near Ouray – North San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
Ouray is in another part of Colorado where you can find not only beautiful historic mining towns but also fantastic hiking trails. Located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains (which form the southwestern part of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains), Ouray is sometimes called “The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado”. It is also known as the Switzerland of America – there is a sign at the lookout point above town to confirm that claim. The mountains and canyons surrounding Ouray offer plenty of opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, not just for hikers and climbers who want to summit Mount Sneffels, the 27th highest fourteener in Colorado.
Coming to Ouray is essential during our Southwest Colorado road trips. One of these trips included visiting the historic town of Silverton, another beautiful historic mining town less than an hour drive from Ouray. We come here not only to hike but to explore the historic towns. We stayed at a camping cabin located between the towns of Ridgway and Ouray. Here, we met up with a couple of friends and hiked with each one on two separate hikes. One hike was the Blue Lakes Trail near Ridgway and the other was to the Chief Ouray Mine and the upper Portland Amphitheater in Ouray.
TO GET HERE
To get to Ouray from Denver is about a 5 hour and 30 minute drive, via U.S. Highway 285 going south and U.S. 50 going west. You can also drive via I-70 to Grand Junction, from where you can go south on U.S-50/550. Either way, you will find fantastic views along the way - the views get even better as you reach the mountains. Starting early is the best way to go since you will want to stop along the way. This is definitely not a one-day trip. Don’t forget to bring along your cameras because you will definitely need them.
- HIKING -
BLUE LAKES TRAIL – 10 miles round trip
There are many lakes named Blue Lake in Colorado, so make sure you are going to the right place. This Blue Lakes Trail is located in a glacial basin within the Mount Sneffels Wilderness area of the Uncompahgre National Forest. If you are staying in Ouray, from there to Blue Lakes Trailhead is about a 45-minute drive (24 miles) via U.S. Highway 550. Turn left to the town of Ridgway (State Highway 62), then west to County Road 7 (4.5 miles). At the end of this road is the trailhead to Blue Lakes, about 9 miles from SH 62.
This trail takes you to three lakes and it’s your choice if you want to go all the way to the top and beyond or just to the lower lake. This is not an easy hike. The trail starts out moderate but becomes more strenuous, especially if you continue to the upper lakes. You will see plenty of beautiful wildflowers, amazing mountain views and lakes. I'll say, it is worth huffing and puffing to the top. Admiring the wildflowers along the trail gives you a good excuse to rest and catch your breath. They were at their peak when we were there. Before reaching the lower lake, you will pass a waterfall near the trail.
Lower Blue Lake
Lower Blue Lake, at an elevation of 10,924 feet, is the largest of the three lakes. Its beautiful turquoise water and the mountain backdrop creates an amazing landscape. I could stay there for hours just looking at the view. In fact, we came back here again on the way down from the Upper Blue Lake and stayed a while.
Around Lower Blue Lake are several campsites where climbers to Mount Sneffels base their camp, as well as other campers who just wanted to commune with nature or catch some fat trout. Our friend decided to end his hike here while we continued on to the Upper Lake. Lower Blue Lake is impressive enough, but wait until you reach the Middle and Upper Blue Lakes.
On the way up to Middle Blue Lake, you will see an aerial view of the Lower Blue Lake. It's color seems even more enhanced looking from above.
Middle Blue Lake
There's a steep ascent to the middle lake with loose rocks on part of the trail. Take time to stop and look around, the view is incredible everywhere you look above tree line. Middle Blue Lake is at about 11,525 feet.
Upper Blue Lake
From Middle Blue Lake to Upper Blue Lake is not that far and not quite as steep. Before you reach the Upper Blue Lake, look down to the Middle Blue Lake, the incredible view from there is exceptional. The Upper Blue Lake, with an elevation of 11,744 feet, sits in glacial basin at the foot of Mount Sneffels. All the huffing and puffing will prove worthwhile as you see the view from here. The pictures here speak for themselves.
The trail does not end at Upper Blue Lake, it continues up to Blue Lakes Pass. Hermann would probably continue on all the way to Yankee Boy Basin on the other side of the pass, or even summit Mount Sneffels, if not for me. But I was content with the amazing views and gorgeous wildflowers at this lake. This must be the best lake and view I have ever hiked in Colorado.
PORTLAND CREEK TRAIL-CHIEF OURAY MINE – 8 miles round trip
This trail is just outside the town of Ouray. To get to the trailhead from the Million Dollar Highway, follow the Amphitheater Campground Road all the way to the end. The trail connects the Upper and Lower Cascade Creek Falls trails, Portland Creek Trail and the Portland Mine Road. For a shorter route to the Chief Ouray Mine/Upper Cascade Falls Trail, you can skip the Portland Creek Trail, but you will miss the view of the amphitheater. We took the longer route of course, hiking the Portland Creek Loop and then to Upper Cascade Falls Trail, almost to the end of the trail.
Before completing the Portland Creek Loop Trail, you will find a junction on the trail. Here is your chance to either go back to where you started completing the loop, or take a longer hike to the Chief Ouray Mine, an abandoned lead mine at the end of the trail.
The harder part of the trail begins from here. You will encounter a series of switchbacks to the top of the mountain ridge. The view from there is fantastic though. From the ridge, you will see Potosi Peak (13,786 feet), Whitehouse Mountain (13,492 feet), Teakettle Mountain (13,819 feet).
Hermann decided to end our hike by the ridge. We saw a thunderstorm developing and didn’t want to get caught in the middle of it up high. We turned around retracing the Portland Creek Loop Trail rather than following the Cascade Creek Trails from the junction, which is shorter going back. Hence, we hiked about 8 miles.
Below is the view from Upper Cascade Falls Trail, taken by Hermann during his previous hike here. The other one is an abandoned building at the Chief Ouray Mine.
Hermann always carries a GPS whenever we go hiking so he can map the trail and see how far we hiked. I captured this image from Google Earth.