I was recently asked to make a list of my favorite trails in the U.S. As a high school teacher, my summers allow for a lot of travel, a perk I have taken advantage of. I have had the privilege to explore some of the most beautiful areas of the country, though I prefer to spend most of my time in the mountains of Colorado. Asking me to pick 5 top trails was difficult, so I picked 10. Even that took a week of narrowing down my list, no small feat. For me, my favorites are the ones with the best views, though sometimes that view takes many miles and thousands of feet of climbing to reach. All the pain and suffering goes away as soon as I gaze out into the vast mountain wilderness. I’m a sucker for high alpine lakes, especially those that are lightly trafficked. So, here’s my list…
#10 – Blue Lakes/Blue Lakes Pass (Ridgway, CO)
We rented a house in Ouray in the summer of 2012, and I had the opportunity to explore the San Juans for 6 weeks. One of the first places I hiked was up to Blue Lakes, just outside Ridgway. There is a lower and upper lake, both of which I visited that summer. I have since returned and hiked all the way up to Blue Lakes Pass, which affords you great views of Mt. Sneffels and down into Yankee Boy Basin. It’s a lung-buster, but totally worth the effort. Take a book and sit by the lake. I didn’t want to leave.
(Lower Blue Lake As Seen From Upper Blue Lake)
(Relaxing At Lower Blue Lake)
#9 – Isabelle Glacier (Indian Peaks Wilderness – Nederland, CO)
The Indian Peaks Wilderness lies just 40 minutes up the canyon from Boulder, so it can get a little crowded during the summer. Snow often lingers late into July, so this area was one I hadn’t explored until this past summer. I’ve spent time in Nederland before (love this town), but last July was my first chance to explore (albeit briefly) the trails within the Indian Peaks Wilderness. I decided to do an out and back to Blue Lake (does every town in Colorado have a Blue Lake???) and then do the same to Lake Isabelle (carved out by the Isabelle Glacier). This 11.5 mile jaunt has 3,200’ of vertical change and tons of views, highlighted (for me) by the lakes on either end. There are numerous other trails that I’d like to explore here, with some bigger linkups available. I’ll definitely be back.
#8 – Sawtooth Lake (Stanley, ID)
Until a few years ago, I had never been to Idaho. While making my way to Oregon, I decided to kill a couple days in the Sawtooth Mountains. Not knowing where I should stay, I listened to a song (titled “Idaho” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vff-CCarBE) from one of my favorite bands, Yonder Mountain String Band. The lyrics mention 4 towns in Idaho, so I did some research and settled on Stanley. The Sawtooths are spectacular, reminding me a bit of the Tetons. Stanley was a neat little town, like a Colorado town with less people. I was able to find a natural hot spring next to the Salmon River, which was a nice treat after a long day of hiking.
#7 – Mohawk Lakes (Breckenridge, CO)
As I mentioned, I love lakes. Lakes are to me what waterfalls are to Chris Russell. So when we saw this hike listed in a magazine, we decided to give it a try. The first few miles wind up through the forest, eventually popping out next to Lower Mohawk Lake. A rocky scramble brought me to Upper Mohawk Lake, where I thought about stopping. Remembering that a local had told me about a series of lakes beyond this one, I continued on. What I encountered was one beautiful lake after another, separated by flower-filled tundra with smooth trails. The best part was I was the only person out this far, so I had the place to myself. This is a nice little 9 mile hike, and I’d recommend it for anyone visiting the Breckenridge area.
(One of the Many Lakes On This Hike)
#6 – American Basin (San Juan Mountains, CO)
I was told I couldn’t count the Hardrock course as one big trail, so I’m counting the American Basin section (including Handies Peak) as my #6 favorite trail in the U.S. I’ve been on this section of the course three times, including a spectacular sunrise and and even better sunset (in 2015 when I ran Hardrock). Any race that makes you scale a 14er, then descend to 12K, only to go back over 13K before dropping into an aid station 3,000’ below is sadistic, but that’s what Hardock does. I am particularly fond of the ascent up Handies in the counterclockwise (odd year) direction, as you are treated to spectacular views into American Basin when you summit the 14,048’ peak.
(American Basin Just After Sunrise - Hardock 2016)
(Descending Into American Basin @ Sunset - Hardrock 2015)
#5 – Bridge of Heaven/Bear Creek (Ouray, CO)
While some of the aforementioned trails offer more spectacular views, the Bridge of Heaven hike in Ouray, CO has a special place in my heart, as it was my “go to” hike (especially when adding Bear Creek Trail) when I spent a summer in Ouray. The “bridge” is a large grassy knoll that sits at 12,300’ and offers sweeping views of the Sneffels Range to the west, Red Mountain to the south, and the town of Ouray 5,000’ below. This hike can be done from the upper trailhead, or you can start from town and take the steeper approach. I’ve done it as an out and back (about 11 miles total), or as a longer outing that connects to Bear Creek Trail (part of the Hardrock course) before dumping out in Ouray.
(Looking South Towards Red Mountain)
(Bear Creek Trail)
#4 – Scarp Ridge/Blue Lake/Oh Be Joyful Trail (Crested Butte, CO)
Crested Butte is my favorite town in Colorado, hands down. It has something for everyone. You can get big vertical or cruise buff singletrack through the wildflowers for hours on end. I love the place and go every summer. The views from high on Crested Butte’s peaks are hard to beat, offering sweeping vistas of the Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells to the north, and numerous valleys all around. One of my favorite views is from the top of Scarp Ridge, a narrow path that cuts across the top of peaks from town out to Lake Irwin. There are numerous linkups you can put together, but one of my favorites is to cross Oh Be Joyful Creek and head up the OBJ Valley. The initial climb out is fairly gradual, but you are rewarded with huge views up the valley with peaks on either side. After several miles, you have a few options, but I recommend climbing up for Blue Lake for a dip, then making your way up to the pass and the top of Scarp Ridge. From here, take the narrow (and at times a bit sketchy) path over Gunsight Pass and back down towards town. You get a little bit of everything on this trail – steep climbs, high alpine lakes, smooth dirt trails, and of course the wildflowers that make Crested Butte so famous.
(Hiking Up the Oh Be Joyful Valley)
(Looking at the Maroon Bells From Gunsight Pass)
(Green Lake Below and the Elk Mountains Ahead)
(Descending the Ridge)
(A Cold Dip In Blue Lake)
#3 - Sneffels Highline Trail (Telluride, CO)
After my first year of teaching, I decided to take advantage of my summer and go check out the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. As soon as I hit the San Juans, I was hooked. If you’ve ever been to the festival or seen the San Juans, you understand. It’s hard to describe the beauty of this area, but it feels like home to me. I like all mountains, but the rugged beauty of the San Juans are at the top for me. While Crested Butte has become my favorite town in Colorado, the sheer beauty of Telluride is hard to beat. Nestled in a box canyon with 13,000’ peaks on 3 sides, Telluride is a slice of heaven. If you don’t enjoy steep and nasty, stay away. Don’t like waterfalls? Telluride isn’t for you either. I spent that week waking up early to play in the mountains all morning and listen to bluegrass all afternoon into the night. Talk about heaven.
It took me several trips to Telluride before conditions were good for exploring the Sneffels Highline Trail on the north side of town. The bluegrass festival is in June, and typically there is still too much snow in the high country to attempt this run. One year I got lucky, as it was a low snow year, so I set off on the 14 mile loop. It was spectacular to say the least. I found myself all alone, feeling like I was hours from civilization. There were huge peaks, cascading waterfalls, and wildflowers bursting with color. I was hooked. Although I have yet to run this trail since, I rank it as one of my favorites of all time.
(Mt. Wilson in the Distance)
#2 – Island Lake/Grant Swamp Pass (Silverton, CO)
If someone wants to know what Hardrock looks like, just show them a picture of Island Lake. If they want to see if Hardrock is for them, take them to the top of the Grant Swamp Pass at over 13,000’ and look over the other (north) side. It’s steep. Actually, steep doesn’t do it justice. It’s ridiculously steep, and the rocks and dirt move with every step. You don’t run down so much as ski/slide/surf. It’s a scary feeling at first but is actually a lot of fun. Runners hit Grant Swamp at mile 15 (clockwise) or 85 (counterclockwise), and they are often greeted by a cheering section of people who have hiked up to watch from the best seat in the house. I try to run this section every time I’m in Silverton, and it never disappoints.
(Steep Side of Grant Swamp Pass)
(Sunset Over Island Lake)
(Jason Showing Off His Scree Surfing Skills on the "Easy" Side of the Pass)
(A Still-Frozen Island Lake During Hardrock 2015)
(On Top of grant Swamp Pass @ Mile 85 of Hardrock 2015)
#1 – Columbine Lake (Silverton, CO)
This hidden gem is tough to find, and even tougher to run (round trip is 9 miles with over 6k vertical change). Situated just north of Silverton, between Silverton and Telluride, most people have never heard about it. I had never heard of it until, after pacing a friend at Hardrock in 2012, another friend suggested we check it out. After fording a creek in my car and parking on the side of a rutted-out road, we began the steep (over 1,000’ of small loose rock in the first mile) climb to the first saddle. From here you traverse across snow and ice (this was mid July) into a huge basin. Upon entering the basin, we lost the trail and couldn’t figure out where we needed to go. After locating Columbine Pass high above us, we figured we would cut across the tundra (through water, snow, and mud) and gain a better vantage point. From the pass you can see across into one of the many valleys leading down into Telluride, and the majesty of the San Juans is on full display. Figuring we had somehow missed the lake, we turned to head back down. Upon doing this, we were greeted by views of the bluest lake I have ever seen in person. I have since shown pictures of Columbine Lake to friends, who inevitably give me grief about having photoshopped an image. No, it truly is this blue. We saw no one on the way up or the way down, got big views of the San Juans, and hung out by the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. For these reasons, the Columbine Lake trail is my favorite trail in the U.S.