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Hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness: South Colony Lakes

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South Colony Lakes may be the most popular destination in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. That's because it's the home base for many people looking for a place to camp before climbing the three 14ers in the area -- Humboldt, Crestone and Crestone Needle.

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However, there are two very important pieces of information you need before visiting this area -- you need to know about the 2010 road closure and you need to know about a confusing sign on the trail. Let's start with the road.

The South Colony Lakes trailhead is south of Westcliffe (directions below). There are two trailheads -- one for 2-wheel drive vehicles in the valley and a second trailhead for high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles 2.75-miles up the road. There are places along the road to pull off, but the first 1.5 miles of the road is private property and the owners don't want you to park there.

Before 2010, visitors could actually drive another 2.6-miles up the access road, but the road was closed to reduce visitor use adding about 5.2 miles roundtrip to all hikes in the area.

At the upper trailhead, walk to the sign boards and the beginning of the trail. Walk a short distance through the trees and you'll come to the new South Colony bridge. Cross the creek on the bridge, turn left and you'll be on the old road.

There's not much to say about the first 2.6 miles of the hike. You're hiking on a "Jeep" road. It's quite rocky and a bit steep at times. The road gains about 1,100 feet.

At 2.6 miles, you'll come to another set of signs that talk more about the peaks in the area. Humboldt at 14,064' is considered easy/moderate. Crestone Peak at 14,294' is rated as difficult. Crestone Needle at 14,197 may be shorter than its sister peak, but it's considered very difficult. From here, it's just a few steps to a trail split.

At this trail split, you'll find a very important sign. In 2014, the sign said South Colony Upper Lake and Humboldt Peak to the right. Lower Lake and Crestone Needle to the left. IF you want to go DIRECTLY to the Lower Lake (and the Upper Lake), do NOT go left. GO RIGHT. The sign is correct if you're planning to hike the 14ers in the area. I did not.

Because I was only hiking to Lower South Colony Lake, I did go left and did a loop hike. I am going to describe that here because it only adds about a half mile. However, if you want a more direct route, go the other way.

OK, onward. The left trail stays on the old access road. It crosses the creek and comes to a big gate that says "Rescue Access." Go through or around the gate and continue hiking the road. It's not too far along this road when the trees open up and you get a chance to enjoy the incredible views in this basin. While folks on the other trail are in the forest, you're enjoying incredible views of the South Colony Basin. That's Crestone in front of you. The Crestone Needle is the pointy mountain to Crestone's right. Humboldt is on the other side of the valley to your right. When you need a break, look for waterfalls cascading out of the snowfields on the sides of the mountains.

While most would describe the road you're hiking on as a "Jeep" road, I think technically, it's an old mining road. As you get closer to the mountain, the road/trail drops down about 20 feet in elevation, then comes back up. A short distance away, it turns right, bending around the valley. At the bend, look up the hill and you should see the old Crestone Mine. You may even spot a metal cable up there still. Continue hiking around the bend, and soon the road becomes more of a single-track trail. The vegetation/willows along the trail get a bit thick at times, but keep going.

Soon you'll be back in the forest. About 1.35 miles from that trail split for the upper and lower lakes, you'll pass a sign that tells visitors they are entering the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness.

Follow the trail as it continues through the forest turning west. Soon you'll start seeing a scenic cascade. That's the outflow from the lakes. About a third of a mile from the wilderness sign, you'll come to a trail split with a sign for "Crestone Needle Standard Route." Look up at that ridge above you and you'll easily understand why climbing this mountain is considered "very difficult."

From here, it's just another tenth of a mile or so until the trail turns slightly north, crosses the outflow of the lake and you arrive at South Colony Lake. This is an incredible place. The lake sits at the foot of Crestone and Crestone Needle.

Before you go too far, you'll need to do a little visual scouting. If you go to the left/southeast side of the lake, you'll be able to find a place along the lakeshore to enjoy this spot. If you go to the right/northeast side, you'll find lots of willows and a trail to the Upper Lake. If you're only going to this lake, I recommend finding a nice spot top enjoy the scenery. If you're going to the upper lake, I recommend crossing the outflow and hiking up to the Upper Lake as quickly as possible. The weather in this area can change quickly and due to the high mountains, it can be hard to see a storm coming. If you're debating whether to go to the upper lake, one of my hiking buddies said it was stunning and it's only about 0.6 - 0.7 miles from the lower lake.

I stayed at the lower lake taking in the scenery and enjoying lunch. I also watched a storm move over the peaks and quickly cover the cirque in a blanket of clouds. If you want to "loop" back, you will have to cross the outlet stream, climb up the hill a bit toward the Upper Lake/Humboldt to find the unmarked trail split and the trail going right/back down the valley.

The trail on the north side of the valley is a bit steeper because you're covering 600 feet of elevation in about 1.2 miles instead of 1.8 miles. The trail on the north side winds through the forest and down some steep rock steps at times before returning to that spot with the not-so-accurate sign.

From here, you'll have to hike 2.6 miles back down the road to the trailhead.

Details: The hike from the upper trailhead to Lower South Colony Lake is about 8.2 miles with 1800 feet of elevation gain if you do the loop. Deduct a half mile if you do an out-and-back hike to the Lower Lake. Add about 1.2-1.4 miles and another 400 feet of gain if you hike to the upper loop. Add another 5.5 miles roundtrip if you have to park at the lower trailhead. (Got all that?)

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Fee: The Forest Service has been considering a $10-$20 fee for this area since 2007. It had not been implemented in 2014, but bring cash just in case.

Directions: From Westcliffe, take Highway 69 south 4.5 miles to County Road 119(Colfax Lane). Turn right on CR 119 and follow it to a "T" intersection. Turn right and drive 1.4 miles to the lower 2-wheel drive trailhad. The road beyond this point requires 4wd and high clearance. It continues another 2.75 miles to the "new" South Colony Trailhead.

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