Missouri Lakes Basin in the Holy Cross Wilderness is one of the most beautiful areas in Colorado for hiking and camping that I have experienced. It is an area of lakes and streams filled with trout and large glacial boulders, surrounded by lush forest and tundra, and the gnarly cliffs of the Sawatch Range in the Holy Cross Wilderness. There is some of just about every type of scenery for every hiker to enjoy. The trailhead starts at 10,010 feet and climbs gradually to nearly 12,000 in four miles. This is a popular area as you can imagine, so it is best to avoid weekends. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 from 7:15am to about 3:00pm. Our plan was to take the Missouri Lakes Trail from the trailhead along Forest Road 704, and visit four lakes contained within the Missouri Lakes Basin. We would return along the same trail.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 7.75 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate Blaze: None, wilderness
Elevation Gain: 1800 feet Hike Configuration: Out and back
Trail Condition: Excellent, some off-trail
Starting Point: Missouri Lakes and Fancy Creek Trails Parking
Trail Traffic: We encountered four other groups of hikers and campers.
How to Get There: From Hwy 24 (north from Leadville or south from Vail), turn west on Forest Road (FR) 703/Homestake Rd., a washboardy dirt road, but easily passable with low-clearance 2wd. Go about eight miles and turn right on FR 704, which winds up the mountainside to the trailhead, roughly three miles after the turnoff.
View Missouri Lakes Trail, Holy Cross Wilderness in a larger map
My brother and I started early in Vail. There’s a good bit of driving on dirt forest road to get to the Missouri Lakes trailhead, about 11 miles total. The Homestake Road (FR703) turns off Hwy 24 between Minturn and Leadville and travels 8 miles into the backcountry where it meets FR704, and another three miles to the trail. We had to stop about 1/2 mile short of the normal trailhead because the forest road was washed out. It was crisp and cool at 10,000 feet, and foggy, something you don’t see all that often in the Rocky Mountains. I’m quite used to morning fog in the Blue Ridge Mountains
— not so much in the Rockies. It made a nice touch hovering among the tall spruce.
Back in the 1960s, Aurora and Colorado Springs won the rights to divert water from the Holy Cross Wilderness. You will know you are in the right place when you notice the diversion dams and massive water pipes alongside the trail for the first 10 minutes or so. Don’t fret however. It doesn’t last long. As the trail starts uphill, there is a very nice, small waterfall along Missouri Creek and the real scenery begins in earnest. Just past a mile, a bridge crosses Missouri Creek at the mouth of a small canyon, creating a roar of rushing water that drowns out all other sound. The trail follows this plunge of the creek for several minutes. There are a few spots where passage is a bit dangerous. Be careful not to slip into the creek.
The trail winds through stands of spruce and fir and crosses the creek several more times. One was especially dicey as there were about 10 saplings laid across the creek to form a makeshift bridge. There was a lump in my throat as I crossed, and a big gulp as I safely reached the other side. At about 10,800 feet we began to clear the treeline and could see the towering cliffs of the Sawatch Range that surrounded us on three sides. In particular, the 13,139 foot Savage Peak dominated the view to the west. It would remain in sight, watching over us, for the remainder of the day. We reached a lush meadow, and there were streams and small ponds everywhere. It is easy to see why the growing cities want this water. Let’s hope the state of Colorado will do the right thing and leave this wilderness pristine for future generations. The sight is simply beautiful.
There is another short, steep climb up to the basin that holds the Missouri Lakes. These lakes may have names, but they are not so designated on the topographic map we had. So I will call them lakes 1-4, in the order that we reached them on our hike. About three miles in we reached Lake 1, on the left of the trail. The water is crystal clear, casting reflections of the nearby mountaintops, and of us back to the sky. Soon after we left Lake 1, we had our first wildlife encounter of the day. A yellow-bellied marmot was watching us watching him, only 10 feet away. He popped in and out of his hole a few times as we futzed with our cameras. After a short 15-20 minutes we reached Lake 2, easily the largest of the Missouri Lakes. I also thought it to be the most beautiful. Nearing the center of the basin, it is surrounded by tall, rocky cliffs above, and fields of glorious wildflowers around its banks. We basked in the good fortune of our perfect seasonal timing as we saw paintbrush, buttercups, columbine, alpine avids and many others.
We noticed there was still quite a bit of snow up here above 11,500 feet. The farther into the basin we went, the more snow we encountered. On the north side of Lake 2 we had to cross a very large snow field for about 100 yards. As we neared some rocks jutting out from the snow, I turned to warn my brother not to sink near the rocks, just as I promptly proceeded to sink knee deep in the snow near the rocks. Kerplop! First my right leg went down, and as I struggled to pull it up, down went my left leg too. Now what to do? After a short struggle I was able to pull myself up onto a rock and survey my next solid step. Needless to say, I avoided that area on the way back later.
Beyond the snow field, it’s a short climb of maybe 100 feet gain to the level of Lake 3. This is the smallest of the lakes, and nearest to Missouri Pass, the way to the Fancy Creek Trail. There were some large glacial boulders near the lake that were perfect for a picnic table as we enjoyed our lunch in the high alpine tundra. There was a group of five young people on the other side of the lake animating like they were thinking of sliding down the snow above the lake right into the frigid water. One brave (or maybe crazy) guy stripped down to his shorts, took a run and slid right in with a mighty splash. As he pulled himself up on the bank, we could hear his yelp all the way across the lake. Apparently he convinced his companions it wasn’t so bad, because for the next 15 minutes we were treated to a hilarious show, as one by one they stripped to their skivvies and acted like polar bears. Who knows? If I’d had some dry drawers in my pack, I might have given it a go. Naw, too dignified. 🙂
There was one more lake we wanted to visit on our way back down. We had to pass back by Lake 2 to get there, so we took a spur trail around a cove at the southern end. There we saw the most amazing snow overhangs right above the water. It was similar to a cornice on a mountain, but this was like a snow cave just above water level. With Missouri Pass and a threatening sky in the background, it made a remarkable sight. Don’t ask about the two campers we encountered who asked if we had seen a guy with a llama. From above Lake 4 there is no trail to it, only from below. We knew the general direction, southwest at the base of Savage Peak. So we headed out, off-trail. We had to practice our broad jumping skills a couple times as we leaped across streams, and weaved around boulders and trees. It was entirely worth the effort as Lake 4 was stunning. We found a spot on the south bank with a field of fuchsia wildflowers and just sat for 20 minutes soaking in the scene. The sky even cleared to reveal some royal Colorado blue with puffy white clouds hanging above Missouri Pass. That is the photo at the top of this post.
To get back to the main trail, we had to cross several streams and wetlands, as well as Missouri Creek. We new we wanted to be headed in a generally southeasterly direction, but being Meanderthals as we are, we proceeded with reckless abandon. There were a couple places we had to walk up and down the creek bank looking for a spot suitable and narrow enough to leap across. Amazingly, we managed to find the trail after about 20 minutes
— not to mention injury free, and with dry feet. Not too shabby for a pair of 50-somethings. Once back on the Missouri Lakes Trail we retraced our steps down out of the basin. There was a spot we had only briefly noticed on the way up that caught our attention as we paused for a short break. There had obviously been an avalanche there in recent years as everything was simply tossed aside like toothpicks. Quite the devastation. We reached the trailhead after nearly 8 hours, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a guy with a couple llamas.
Best HikeI stopped at the trail sign to take note of everything that was said of this remarkable hike, because I absolutely loved it. I think I would like to return some day and cross Missouri Pass to the Fancy Creek Trail on the other side of the loop. It took us nearly 8 hours to do only an 8 mile hike. Why? Because we were in awe! We dawdled so much to look at scenery. I don’t know that I have ever been on a hike that combined great forest and meadows, streams, creeks, and lakes, and breathtaking mountains, all in one. This is a superb hike that isn’t especially difficult despite the elevation gain. Be sure to allocate a full day to be able to experience the wealth of sights and sounds found along the trail. I highly recommend the Missouri Lakes Basin hike and rate it as one of the best hikes I have done out west. I know you will enjoy it too.