A few months before our month-long road trip, Joy and I did some research to create a list of places to hike, camp and backpack. Seeing all the National Parks around the Pacific northwest and southwest were give-ins. However, after years of reading a lot of Backpacker Magazine, I was fairly determined to see stunning turquoise lakes of Mount Sneffels, a “fourteener” located in the southwest corner of Colorado.
So after our visit to Mesa Verde National Park, we made our way along some stormy mountain roads towards the City of Ouray.
We arrived in town around 10 pm. Since everything was closed, we crashed a local campground to rest up and prep for our trip the next day. All I remember was that our “campsite” was a small, rectangular plot — similar to a large parking spot — that was covered in rocks and gravel and had a picnic table and a grill. I made a beef and bell pepper stir fry (my typical quick dinner for this trip) before we went to sleep in our tents. We were out by 6 am the next morning.
Joy is much more adventurous than me, so she was immediately down to backpack Mount Sneffles. I’m a much more cautious backpacker (AKA: scared shitless), so I made sure to visit the ranger station and get a map of the area before venturing out into a wilderness that I had absolutely no knowledge of.
SIDE NOTE: As a California native, I never even knew that storms and monsoons could happen in the middle of the U.S. during the summer. Backpacking the Blue Lakes of Mount Sneffels was our first introduction to this regional seasonal phenomenon. While we weren’t doing an “alpine start” (we didn’t plan on hiking the entire Fourteener) we knew that we needed to end our hike before 12pm in order to avoid Colorado’s summer lightening storms.
But of course, we were lagging behind as usual. We parked at the trailhead and prepared to make the 3.5 mile trek to the first Blue Lake. It wasn’t far, however we knew that we needed to hurry since storm clouds were already beginning to roll in above us.
As I had predicted, the hike was absolutely gorgeous. Nothing but wildflowers, vibrant green trees and colorful mountains around us. Everything was lush and glistening from the constant rains. Just check out the photos:
The rain started to hit us about halfway up the hike. We knew that we only had a short amount of time before the lightening would start. We rushed to find a clearing away from the lake and quickly set up camp. After digging a trench around our rain fly to funnel the water away, we spent the next few hours huddled inside our shelter, listening to the thunder and lightening crash all around our area.
IT. WAS. INSANE. We pretty much spent the next two hours huddled and screaming in our tent. We knew that the strikes were close since the flashes of light and the sounds of the thunder were almost simultaneous. We did the only thing we thought we could do: take naps and do camping yoga on top of our sleeping pads.
Apparently, in the middle of it all, our rainstorm had turned into a hail storm. Hail balls the size of green peas piled up on the ground around our tent. When the storm finally stopped, we emerged from our tent to check out Lower Blue Lake.
In our rush to pack our backpacks for our overnight trip, Joy somehow forgot her hiking pants–or any pants, for that matter. Luckily, Colorado summer storms are surprisingly warm and humid despite all the rain and hail. Joy used her quick dry towel to create a makeshift camp skirt while we made our freeze dried food and ate dinner.
In the morning, we awoke to crisp mountain air and the sun peaking through the trees. Despite the fact that another group of young people were camping near the lake, the air was soft and still. There was hardly a sound in the wilderness.
After a quick breakfast of dried fruit and oatmeal, we started our hike towards Middle and Upper Blue Lakes.
One of the highlights from our trip was seeing a big, fluffy pika running up the mountain while carrying a long stemmed flower, apparently storing up food for the winter. I’ve come to have a great appreciation for these animals. Very cute.
As we made our way up, we got a great view of Lower Blue Lake’s deep teal waters. It was just as vivid as the photos in the magazine.
Middle and Upper Blue Lakes were smaller and thinner, but still beautiful. In order to fulfill my pledge to “swim” in every lake that I see, I made sure to dip my feet into both lakes. Here’s a bunch of photos from our trek:
Around 11 pm, we turned around to make our way down the mountain before the lightening storms began to hit.
Just before we left however, we had to swim (AKA, take a quick plunge) in Lower Blue Lake. The youth group that had camped across the lake from us watched from afar as we took turns jumping into the lake — and screaming.
Once again, the late start on our descent got us caught up in yet another midday lightening storm. Filled with a greater sense of urgency this time, Joy and I raced down the mountain with our backpacks in tow, hiding under every tall tree we passed by to gain some cover. I remember learning in Backpacker Magazine that the safest thing to do during a lightening storm is to go in an area where all the trees are uniform in height and evenly spaced. Of course, there was no field of “medium sized trees” that could provide us with refuge during our hike down the mountain.
Halfway through the hike, we encountered two other backpackers that were also making their way down the mountain. I asked them what we could do to avoid lightening strikes. One of the guys just looked at me and aid, “Uh, just don’t hike during a lightening storm.”
Another unfortunate discovery: our rain jackets were faulty. Last year during my trip to South America, I had purchased some knock-off outdoor gear in Bolivia for both me and Joy. Despite the North Face logos, our jackets were obviously not very waterproof. During our hike down, we actually encountered a woman who noticed our jackets and enthusiastically told us that she worked for GoreTex. “Oh, our jackets aren’t real GoreTex,” we told her. She looked confused and appalled at that statement.
In the end, we safely made it down the mountain without getting struck by lightening. However, Joy did get hit in the eye by a very large rain drop, right as I took the following photo below:
After exchanging our soaking wet clothes for some dry ones, we got back into the Highlander and headed towards Denver. We had people to visit and hot showers to find.
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P.S. I couldn’t decide on which photos to post for this blog entry, so I’ve included a handful of others below. Enjoy.