Posted: Jan 26, 2015 by Sam Szarka
Visit three alpine lakes perched atop a high rolling plateau in the northwest corner of the rugged Weminuche Wilderness backcountry of Colorado
The Highland Mary Lakes is a short backpacking loop hike located in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado. The Highland Mary Lakes area has wide open feel with broad gradual grassy slopes surrounding three high altitude lakes. The twin Highland Mary Lakes are encountered first, but only a short trip to the south serves up Verde Lake and just beyond… the Continental Divide Trail and a stunning view of the Grenadier Range.
The nearest town is the town of Silverton, right off of Highway 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway. In fact, the trailhead is only 8.4 miles from town. and is easily accessible by car (although an SUV is recommended). A narrow gravel county road offers easy access to the trailhead at the edge of the wilderness.
The trail follows Cunningham Creek for awhile heading south and gaining elevation as it climbs toward Highland. After about 0.6 miles the trail enters the open and traverses a wet meadow populated by willow brush. In 1.0 miles, the trail finally crosses Cunningham Creek. At this point the trail veers to the left heading west and continues to climb. Further ahead, the trail curves back toward the south and in 1.5 miles, traverses a section of talus (boulder field). Not far beyond, the first lake appears on the left. The trail traverses a short section of dry land separating this smaller lake from the larger Highland lake just to the south.
Continue south following the well established trail and eventually the largest Highland lake comes into view on the right. For better views, head to the Continental Divide trail south of Verde Lake. Continue on the trail as it follows a general southerly path leaving the lakes behind and climbing up over some low grass covered hills to the south. Eventually the trail crests the hill and Verde Lake will appear below. On a clear day the not too distant Grenadier range’s rugged peaks will appear above the low hills behind the lake. Descend to Verde Lake, or continue south-east on the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is marked by tall posts spaced so that you can always see at least one post ahead and one post behind you. The CDT climbs southeast, away from Verde Lake up and over a saddle between two low peaks. It then traverses the side of a ridge beyond the saddle to connect to the Colorado Trail heading north. The junction of the Colorado and CDT trails occurs in 4.3 miles. At this point excellent views open up to the east as well as of the rugged Needle Range to the south. Head north following the Colorado / CDT trail to the Cunningham Gulch Trail (#502) junction. At the junction the Cunningham Trail forks to the left and the CDT heads for higher ground to the right. Take the Cunningham Trail and descend back toward the trail head. The Cunningham Gulch trail descends into Cunningham Gulch and offers a path back to the Highland Mary Lakes Trail and the trail head from where you began.
Exit the Million Dollar Highway 550, and head into the town of Silverton. The highway exits onto Greene Street. Follow Greene Street through town then make a slight right onto Cnty Rd 2 and head up valley. In Howardsville, take a right onto Cnty Rd #4 toward Stony Pass. Follow Cnty Road 4 for 3.4 miles to the trailhead. Be sure to stay right. Two separate roads fork to the left, but these will take you to mines. As you get closer to the trailhead, the gravel road narrows and heads up steeply around two hairpin switchbacks. Continue through the switchbacks until the trailhead appears at the bottom of a ravine. Passenger vehicles should not drive further, due to a water crossing that will cause problems for all but high clearance vehicles.
Trail length: 7.6 miles