McCullough Gulch Trail, White River National Forest

This trail follows the McCullough Creek drainage up the gulch beneath the massive summit of 14,225′ Quandary Peak. It starts on an old mining road south of Breckenridge, CO, then changes to single track trail as it climbs the gulch. You’ll pass through pine and fir forest, get splashed by White Falls, marvel at the colorful granite, and count the variety of summer wildflowers along the way. Watch too for mountain goats among the talus, a common sighting. Picturesque Upper Blue Reservoir sits at the top of the drainage offering a refreshing respite and a great spot for lunch and pictures. My brother Dave and I hiked McCullough Gulch Trail on Tuesday, July 18, 2017 beginning at 7:30AM and ending about 12:30PM. Our plan was to hike to Upper Blue Reservoir, then return. Depending upon energy reserve you can go farther.

Hike Length: 4.4 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate. Short, but it’s all above 11,000 feet and a steep climb.

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: None

Elevation Change: 910 feet Elevation Start: 11,030 feet

Trail Condition: Good. Some rocky and rooty areas. Some on old mining road. Some across granite surface. Be careful around waterfalls.

Starting Point: On McCullough Gulch Road at trailhead sign.

Trail Traffic: We encountered 200 other hikers. Very popular trail in the summer.

How to Get There: From I-70 take Exit 203, Frisco/Breckenridge, and travel south on Hwy 9 through Breckenridge. Travel approximately 7.4 miles past the last traffic light in Breckenridge at Boreas Pass Road. You will pass through the town of Blue River on the way toward Blue Lakes Road (FSR 850) where you will turn right. Turn right onto McCullough Gulch Road (FSR 851) approximately 0.1 miles from HWY 9. At the fork in the road in approximately 1.7 miles is the new trailhead sign.




It is my understanding that the trailhead for McCullough Gulch used to be at the dead end of Forest Service Road 851, then was moved back to the gate for awhile, and is now posted all the way back at the forest road fork. We were the first ones to arrive, so we just picked a place to park on the side of the FSR.

As we discovered through the morning, based upon the popularity of this trail, I can see why this was done. By the time we had completed hiking and returned to our car, there were more than a hundred vehicles parked for the next quarter mile on the service road. That would be totally unmanageable with the original trailhead. It would be a traffic nightmare. So I strongly recommend you arrive early to secure parking, even on a weekday.

As you walk the forest road, look to your left to see the ridge climbed by those hikers who are tackling one of Colorado’s fourteeners: Quandary Peak. The massive crest stands tall above McCullough Gulch and is never out of sight along this trail.

Now that the Forest Service has added an additional half mile to the length of this hike, walk the forest road until you reach the original trailhead, marked with a now dilapidated kiosk. Veer left at the kiosk and begin the climb that won’t abet until you reach Upper Blue Reservoir. Through a series of switchbacks, the old mining road crosses McCullough Creek providing an opportunity for pictures or a refreshing splash.

You will reach an old homestead on the left at the mile mark where the Forest Service is also doing vegetation remediation in hopes of returning the land to its native condition. Look for a crystal clear tarn another quarter mile beyond that is a captivating reflective pool. Unfortunately dead fall now litters this pond hampering its former beauty. I just caught the white tail of a deer leaping through the forest as we approached the pool.

There is a spur trail on your left that goes downhill to Lower Blue Reservoir. This lake is surrounded by willow thickets and is difficult to approach, so you may want to save yourself the exertion of reclimbing the hundred feet to the primary trail.

At the 1.5 mile mark you cross a talus field, then approach a large granite hillside that signals your arrival at White Falls.


This magnificent view of the pinnacles of Quandary Peak standing high above White Falls is a fine example of what Rocky Mountain scenery is all about.


Besides the rushing cascades of White Falls, this area is also home to an abundance of wildflowers including indian paint brush, bluebells, and the Colorado state flower columbine. You will walk on the light colored granite most of the rest of the way, so keep your eye out for the trail signs that aid with route finding.

For the next 0.4 mile the trail climbs very steeply alongside McCullough Creek. I don’t mind telling you I got quite winded through this stretch. There are, however, many overlooks along the way that provide a moment of rest and marvelous views back down the gulch, or of Quandary Peak high overhead. We reached unmelted snow at this elevation as we also passed through the treeline.

Two miles up you reach the relieving sight of Upper Blue Reservoir, a stunning alpine lake. We paused for a few moments to take in the splendid view, and to catch our breath after the tedious climb. There are a number of great view points along the boundary of the lake, so we walked around searching for a nice spot for lunch. Dave laughed and said it was obvious I wasn’t a skier when I slipped and fell on my keister while crossing a snow field.

Rock outcrops are all around providing ready-made picnic tables as well as great perches for time-lapse video. Dave went to another outcrop a hundred yards away so we could take ICU UCMe pictures of each other. Upon returning, he told me the story of his near demise crossing a creek on the way to the end of the lake.

You can continue hiking quite a bit farther. To reach the upper valley, follow the narrow trail along the north shore of the lake. It undulates ruggedly over outcrops and several marshy inlet streams to the far west side, where you’ll begin another steep, twisting climb that generally traces the lake’s main inlet falls. You can climb an additional 800 feet to another series of alpine lakes. We saw a few brave souls heading that way, but most of the other hikers seemed to be content with Upper Blue Reservoir.

When we got back to the east end of the lake there was a nice wildlife surprise waiting… two mountains goats, a nanny and her yearling. It was quite apparent they were used to people because there were some getting within 20 feet for that prize selfie. Me, I try to respect the space of wildlife, so I stayed about 75 feet away and used my zoom lens.

By now the sky was beginning to cloud up, so it may have been wise that we didn’t head to the upper lakes several hundred feet farther above. On the descent we took a few short spur trails that offer close viewing of fast cascades along McCullough Creek. The crowds of hikers were really coming non-stop now. We quit counting at 200. Pretty amazing really for a Tuesday.

Judging by the crowd we wondered if our car would be blocked in when we got back. Fortunately, that was not our fate. We were astounded by the number of cars that lined FSR 851 as we drove back toward Breckenridge.

Summarizing, McCullough Gulch is a short, steep climb along a whitewater creek that passes multiple waterfalls and winds through aromatic evergreen forest. The views both above (of Quandary Peak) and below (down gulch) are quite picturesque. Depending on your endurance, you can continue well beyond our destination to make a complete day of it. You may want to consider doing this hike in spring or fall as it is obviously overcrowded in summer.



This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.


The following are paid links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.