The Utes, as far back as 12,000 years ago, inhabited what is now the San Luis Valley sandwiched between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountain ranges in Colorado. It’s an 8000 square mile valley that is home to wildlife preserves and North America’s tallest sand dunes. Due to the intense clarity of the blue skies, these Utes were known to visiting tribes as the Blue Sky People. Contrast these skies against the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains directly to the east for an unforgettable image. The grandeur is impossible to erase from the mind.
Intense clarity is the perfect way to describe the experience and it’s also what many of us seek as we hike into these mountains up to any one of the dozens of alpine lakes. The water in these lakes is typically a brilliant aqua blue, each surrendering their excess bounty to eager streams that feed the thirsty and grateful plains a couple thousand feet below.
I can’t think of many moments over the past decade outside of these mountains within view of an alpine lake where I have been at greater peace or had such uncluttered time in contemplation and introspection. These places steal away any burden of modern life abandoned at the trailhead.
One could be satisfied with simply marveling at the beauty of these lakes, that is if it were just a two-dimensional picture. But actually being there is like the soul finding its home. It’s a physical and psychological involuntary reaction. Our mere presence in these places arrests any nonsense about work, politics, traffic, mean people, investment performance... it gains our undivided attention. The moment becomes the most important dimension of our existence. Resistance is futile. The clarity is indeed the most intense I have ever felt.
Here are six of these places:
South Colony Lakes rests at the feet of the Crestones (Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak) in addition to Humbolt Peak, Broken Hand Peak, Marble Mountain, and Milwaukee Peak. They are more easily accessed from the east side of the range. From the lower trailhead just outside of Westcliffe off of Country Road 120, for those without a four-wheel drive vehicle, it’s an 6 mile hike to the lakes. For those who can drive to the upper trailhead and wilderness boundary, it’s a 3.6 mile trek. The lower lake is fantastic, but the upper lake has the most astonishing views. It’s a place of humility. Surrounded by sharply rising 14,000-foot peaks on three sides, one feels insignificant and vulnerable.
Unlike South Colony Lakes and contrary to its name, South Crestone Lake has no view of the Crestones. However, the name does correspond to the location of its trailhead just a couple miles outside of Crestone, Colorado. From this trailhead one can go to Willow Lake as well. Both are fantastic hikes with great views. My overnight backpacking trip to South Crestone Lake allowed me a sunrise view of the lake, with pristine reflections of the surrounding peaks on the near flawless glass lake. It was absolutely the most perfect morning I’ve ever had in the wilderness! See my YouTube video of this trip.
Lakes of the Clouds is a group of 3 bodies in the basin below Spread Eagle Peak and several other surrounding unnamed 12 and 13,000-foot peaks. The access trailhead is due west of Westcliffe. A 6.5 mile trek will take you to the furthest lake in the group. This is a popular place for anglers, a great day hike, or with plenty of camping spots should a person want to backpack in for the weekend. I’m one who seeks solitude when I go to places like this, so you’ll find me here on a weekday to avoid the company. And solitude is what one can find up here as there are many secluded places to hide away.
Macey Lakes is for those with a hefty appetite to get away. The out-and-back distance is around 15 miles with 3000 feet elevation gain. This destination also contains a trio of lakes with Little Baldy Mountain (12,944ft) to the northwest and Colony Baldy (13,695ft) to the southeast. Upper Macey Lake is the furthest up and offers a peaceful setting at 11,800ft. South Macey Lake takes some bushwhacking but is well worth the birds eye view of Lower Macey Lake and a closeup of Colony Baldy. All three of these lakes are magical. The effort to get to them adds credence to the spender.
Stout Lakes are named for a 1000-ft-per-mile reason. The hike is up, but the effort is handsomely rewarded. The first lake is amazing, but the second lake is where one can truly surrender any thoughts that obscure the clarity these places bring. More north in the Sangres of the other lakes mentioned here, this one can be accessed via Kerr Gulch Trailhead between Coaldale and Howard. The weather turns fast in the early afternoon during the summer here, so get an early start if spending some time at the lakes is on the agenda.
Sand Creek Lakes is one of the most scenic alpine lake hikes I’ve taken so far in the Sangres. The road to the trailhead requires a high clearance vehicle in places along Forest Service Road 119. The first obstacle is a thousand foot climb to Music Pass - but what a view from the pass! And then there’s a drop into a valley and then another rise to the lower lake. From the north side of the lake is an ominous view of Tijreas Peak (13,613ft). The upper lake is another mile and a half up the trail where one is surrounded by several other 13,000-foot peaks: Music Mountain, Milwaukee Peak and Marble Mountain. There’s enough to keep the mind in wonder the entire time.
Over the past 12,000 years, the skies above the Sangres seems to be as brilliant as described by those ancient visitors. And the description of this place as one of intense clarity is as poignant as can be expressed in language. Yet words and pictures cannot contain the intensity of a place that captures us as deeply as these places do. Until a person has the privilege and joy of seeing and experiencing something so sacred, this little blog post is all I can offer.