Hike Summit: Missouri Lakes Trail in Colorado’s Holy Cross Wilderness Area
Special to the Daily
The Missouri Lakes Trail is one of the most popular in the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. Due to heavy snowpack, which does not completely melt until the middle of summer, the flat valley in which the lakes reside has soft, damp wetland mats that allow wildflowers to flourish. After the mass blooms of globeflower and marsh marigold are burned by the summer sun, bog orchid, elephant tusk, king’s crown, queen’s crown, sky pilot, penstemon and paintbrush erupt into blooms that cover the slopes of the Missouri Creek watershed.
From a trailhead at 10,000 feet, the Missouri Lakes Trail climbs through a narrow, steep gulch, providing splendid views of the tumbling snowmelt from Savage Mountain and the Holy Cross Ridge. Missouri Creek has worn deep chasms into the sharp rock walls beside the trail. I began my climb to Missouri Pass this summer on a warm summer afternoon, knowing that a storm was likely to blow across the mountains by the time I arrived at Missouri Lakes. I was prepared with a full outer shell of rain gear and a fleece to layer over cargo pants and a short-sleeved shirt. My daypack was filled with my other usual gear, such as a liter bottle, water filter, two headlamps and trail food. I was dismayed that I passed many casual hikers dressed for a warm afternoon without supply packs.
After a climb of 3 miles on well-trammeled trail and three crossings of Missouri Creek, the Lower Missouri Lake appears at 11,400 feet. The trail continues north through reflective pools that invert the amphitheater of ragged peaks surrounding the valley. The dense forest falls away as the path continues to the higher water bodies.
Stunted krummholz and boggy wetlands surround Upper Missouri Lake, 4 miles from the trailhead at 11,500 feet. Marmots forage, romp and burrow around every turn of the trail. Dispersed campsites are scattered throughout the valley. Campfires are banned in all seasons to protect the fragile vegetation and preserve the beautiful landscape. North of the lakes, the trail leads another mile upward to 12,000 feet on a blanket of snow in early summer or rocky switchbacks once the snow recedes.
Every summer, I normally return to the Missouri Lakes area to enjoy the views from Missouri Pass. North of the pass, I look across the Cross Creek watershed, with Treasure Vault Lake immediately below the pass, Blodgett Lake to the west and Fancy Pass to the east.
In the past, I have hiked down into the Cross Creek Valley to observe the ruins of old mining camps that reveal the amazing efforts that must have been involved in carrying heavy processing gear over these mountain passes. I often complete a loop by hiking another 8 miles, passing Treasure Vault Lake and hiking up to Fancy Pass on the eastern ridge of the valley.
After descending from the ridge, I found Fancy Lake back at tree line, with a junction leading north to the abandoned mining town of Holy Cross City. From Fancy Lake, I descended on a path following Fancy Creek back down to the road leading to the Missouri Lakes trailhead.
As I climbed to Missouri Pass, more than two hours from the trailhead, a modest hailstorm poured down on me. I was damp, but sufficiently protected from the force of the thundering clouds above. While I began a casual descent, I pondered over the fate of those hikers retreating from the sanctuary. I had the pleasure of a silent descent to the trailhead; neither the chirps of marmots nor the chatter of squirrels entered the cool, wet air. Humans and their barking dogs had fled long before me, but the gurgling of streams followed me down the trail and away from the Missouri Lakes.
How to get there
The Missouri Lakes trailhead is 50 miles from Copper Mountain (about an hour-and-a-half drive). Drive west on Interstate 70 to the Minturn exit beyond Vail. Exit right to go under the freeway and past the Holy Cross Ranger District office, found about halfway to the trailhead. Proceed 13 miles south over Battle Mountain Pass to a switchback located a few miles past the Red Cliff bridge overlooking the Eagle River. Turn right onto Homestake Road. (All of the mountains in sight to the west are part of the Holy Cross Wilderness Area.) Continue on the gravel road for 8 miles and turn right on Missouri Creek Road. After 2 miles of ascent, the trailhead parking area is on the left.
Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails in Colorado. His writing includes, “Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties,” and Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness,” both available from Amazon Kindle books.
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