Backpacking at South Colony Lakes Colorado

backpacking south colony lakes at the 2WD trailhead

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If you catch me daydreaming, I’m either contemplating my next artwork or planning my next adventure. And really the two go hand in hand – when I’m creating, I’m drawing from that store of inspiration that time spent in nature seems to always refill. Both creating and exploring have a way of bringing me back to the best parts of myself, so I want to start documenting those adventures here too.

The first on the list is the most recent, when my friend Heather and I went backpacking at South Colony Lakes Colorado last month. Check out my other post on my first time backpacking tips for technical/gear info, but this one is really about the experience of the magical South Colony Lakes. Also check out Heather’s travel blog where she shares her account of hiking Humboldt peak.

South Colony Lakes is located near Westcliffe, in South-Central Colorado, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. I hadn’t yet visited this area of Colorado but let me tell you, the drive over the pass revealing the Sangre de Cristo’s was one of the most spectacular views I’ve experienced on a drive to Colorado. It made the 11-plus hour trip from Kansas City so worth it! I’m sure my photo won’t do it justice, but in real life it made my heart go pitter pat!

sangre de cristo mountain range

South Colony Lakes has two trailheads – one suitable for 2WD vehicles (where we parked in Heather’s Prius), and another one 2.5 miles up the access road only suitable for high clearance 4WD vehicles and reasonably skilled offroad drivers. We opted to hike up the road to the 4WD trailhead, and then planned another 3 miles in to setup camp. While I had every intention of making that 5.5 mile hike, we took advantage of some trail angels we met just as we started, and hopped in their truckbed for a ride up the road to the main trailhead. I didn’t think twice about it, but will be forever grateful as I realized how long and difficult that hike in would’ve been without a ride!

The Hike in to South Colony Lakes

We thanked them with some mini Fireball shot bottles, and set out on the trail to find camp. It was late afternoon, with three miles of gradual uphill on a rocky road. The sun fell into that perfect place where it filtered through the golden aspens, and we kept stopping to take in the beauty, and take in the photos. Heather had her good camera, and I had my iPhone. You can guess who’s photos were better but I’m still impressed with what cellphone cameras can do these days!

Heather on the hike up to South Colony Lakes

The slightly excessive weight of my backpack began to take it’s toll as we moved at a snails pace of around 1.5 miles per hour. As beautiful as it was out there, it was my first time moving this much weight around at altitude, and it was no joke! I had a highly reviewed backpack that fit well, it was just an all new experience for me. I didn’t hate it, but it was something to get used to as we strolled through the wilderness.

Thankfully, I had been training for high altitude hiking, and the wilderness never ceases to provide lovely distractions – we were met by a huge mule deer buck crossing the path in front of us, and later by a doe and two fawns grazing as we passed through a meadow where the views began opening up.

deer grazing in South Colony Basin

Camping at South Colony Lakes

Our goal was to camp at the lower of two alpine lakes in the basin, but at 3 miles into our on-foot hike, when we passed a sign that said “Lower Lake 1.5 miles”, I began to panic a bit as I looked at the setting sun and felt the pack weighing down on my hips. We spotted someone camping next to the creek on our right, and noticed a few more reasonably civilized camping spots along the creek. I had not expected actual firepits with grills and cleared tent areas with stumps for tables and benches, so I was thrilled to find this setup out there! We made a split decision to go ahead and snag one of the sites so we could get camp setup before dark, which was fast approaching.

campsite at South Colony Lakes Colorado

I had no issue setting up the tent I borrowed from Ronnie, but I was bummed when the zipper on his sleeping bag got snagged in the open position and I couldn’t close it around me. While the late September day had been mild during our hike (we wore T-shirts), as the sun went down, the chill set in. We ate a quick dinner of Mountain House meals and headed to bed. Humboldt Peak was on the agenda for the next day so rest was a priority!

I crawled in my tent and stripped to my polyester-cotton blend base layer top and pants, and into the sleeping bag that wouldn’t zip. I tucked the open edge under me lengthwise in hopes to seal off the air, but it was hard to keep that way as I tossed and turned throughout the night. My pillow situation was not working out (a packable travel pillow filled with memory foam that did not properly inflate in the short time I’d unpacked it in thin mountain air). I struggled to get warm, so put on my stocking cap, and laid my down puffy coat over the top half of my sleeping bag.

Horizon Drinkware

Just as I was warming up and finding a comfortable position, the wind began to pick up and rustled my tent a bit. I had read that the wind in South Colony Lakes could get pretty crazy and thus to camp below the tree line for some cover, so I wondered how the tent would hold up as the wind increased. And then I heard the strangest noise – which was actually a familiar noise, but seemed out of place – the sound of cars travelling fast on a highway nearby, speeding closer and closer. Except there was no highway or cars nearby – we were tucked in the South Colony Lakes basin surrounded by several 14,000 foot peaks only accessible by a gnarly road for forest service and emergency vehicles only. So I realized it must be the wind, and it was headed my way. It gusted through the tall pines and whipped at my tent as it passed through, and then circled around the basin, bouncing off the peaks, swirling through over and over and over. My tent shook and swayed and rattled, but it never failed. I laid awake listening to the roars and whistles of the wind, unable to relax. I was afraid.

I felt so very exposed and alone. What if the tent failed? Would I just wrap up in it anyway to shield me from the elements? Would I crawl into Heather’s for the night? What if I couldn’t hear a bear exploring our campsite over the sound of the wind? What if I never fall asleep tonight and spend the rest of the weekend dragging and don’t have the energy for our hike tomorrow? I never sleep well at altitude or camping, but I was hours into this night with no sleep in sight.

I’d like to say that at some point I drifted off to sleep and woke up to a peaceful morning feeling warm and rested. But that didn’t happen – the wind howled all night and into the morning, and I was there for ALL of it! I finally turned my phone on to check the time, and when I saw it was 5:30 I figured it was morning enough to wake up and start the day. At least being up for the sunrise was worth it!

Hiking Humboldt Peak Colorado

After a slow moving breakfast and coffee, we lightened our packs for just the basics we needed for our Humboldt Peak hike, which would be about 6 miles round trip and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. We were camped at about 11,000 feet and this trail looked similar in length/gain to several we’d done before. I felt like total crap, and even considered offering up the idea that we just hike around and explore the lakes instead, but my obsession with fourteeners was too strong so we forged on to the Humboldt Peak trailhead.

The first part of the trail wound through the forest, around the creek and through some small boulder fields. It was a gentle but steady climb around the base of the mountain that eventually cleared out to a nice view of the lower lake. The scenery was beautiful, but I was hurting. Between gaining about 10,000 feet in the last 24 hours and getting zero sleep, this ascent seemed like the worst idea ever. But with frequent breaks for photos and deep breaths, we continued on, slowly but surely.

Lower South Colony Lake in front of Broken Hand Peak
Broken Hand Peak and Lower South Colony Lake

The wind from the nighttime continued to gust, though no longer sounded like a freight train, and it was otherwise a beautiful day. My attitude improved slightly as we hiked up the side of the mountain and the views of the alpine lakes and surrounding peaks became vast and breathtaking (or was that the thin air?). However every step was effort. I borrowed a trick from Heather’s book and began counting steps. Every set of 50, stop and take 5 deep breaths. I felt significantly less in shape than I had when I hiked Mt. Yale just five weeks before. Granted, work had been nuts and I hadn’t kept up with my workouts as faithfully.

Humboldt Peak trail  climbing to ridge
Heather working the switchbacks to Humboldt ridge

There were very few other hikers on the Humboldt Peak trail, unlike some of the more popular fourteeners I’d done. It was a blessing and a curse – not having to navigate narrow paths when encountering hikers going the opposite direction or worrying about being passed by folks moving faster (I’m usually the slowest!). And obviously the magic of nature is more enjoyable with fewer interruptions from other humans. But there were parts of the trail as we began the rockier scramble above 13,000 feet that really didn’t feel like trail at all, and we had to choose our own adventure. Without others to follow, our confidence wavered. Heather finally threw in the towel around 13,200 feet, with trembling legs and exhaustion from battling the constant strong wind gusts. I had more gas in the tank and chose to forge on and meet her back at the ridge just below once I had summitted.

Heather on the final ridge to Humboldt Peak, somewhere above 13,000 feet

The tundra gave way to piles of rocks and boulders, and even some small snow patches. I stepped in the footsteps of others hoping the snowpack would hold and not send me post-holing into a crevice. Every few steps I braced against the wind and tried to rest, and struggled to keep going. Another couple and their dogs hiked near and said they’d stay with me, offering encouragement. But they moved much quicker than me, and as I came to a row of boulders around 13,700 feet that were as tall as me, I hadn’t seen how they got over them and I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to get up there. What frazzled brain I had left wasn’t thinking to check the route photos and tips I’d downloaded from , and with tears, I gave up and began my descent. I would later look at the route photos and see that this was the crux of the route, and I was supposed to go around to the right of those boulders and find my way up. I’ll remember that next time – the mountain isn’t going anywhere.

I found my way back to Heather who had found a sunny place to sit below the ridge that shielded her from the wind. We shared our disappointments and snacks, officially renamed the mountain to “Humble Peak,” and took a long rest before heading back down. We were passed on our descent by two young fellas who jogged around us. We asked how the summit was and they said “great! It’s our third one today – we got up and did the Crestones first!” Insert eye roll emoji here.

Upper Soith Colony Lake and Crestone Peak
Crestone Peak rising above Upper South Colony Lake

Our Last Night

Back at camp in the early afternoon, the wind had calmed and the sun was warm. We each retired to our tents for some rest and recovery, and time to process the mental and physical beat down we had just voluntarily put ourselves through. My backpacking pillow had finally properly inflated, and I found it amazingly comfortable, though my standards at that point may have been questionable. I opened the fly of the tent to let the sun and breeze pour in through the screen. The sun felt amazing on my wind-chafed skin, and I had one of the most peaceful light naps of my life.

When I got up and around, Heather was napping still, so I grabbed a snack and went down by our creek to soak in the sight and sound. It was a wonderful water source and easy to access – we pumped all our water needs with a Ketadyn filtration system and realized we hadn’t needed to pack in as much water as we did.

Creek side camping in South Colony Lakes

Our dinners that night were met with heavy appetites – I had the Mountain House lasagna and she had a southwestern casserole meal. We talked about our Myers Briggs and Enneagram personality types (she’s an ESTJ / 1, and I’m an ISFJ / 5) while swigging our travel sizes bottles of Fireball that we didn’t get to enjoy as Summit Cheers. Bedtime was early as the sun went down and the night got cold, and my tired but peaceful body actually slept.

We broke camp in the morning and began our hike out of South Colony Lakes back to the 2WD trailhead – 5.5 miles with full packs since we didn’t expect to be able to catch a ride at the trailhead again, but it was downhill. We met a couple Search and Rescue vehicles along the way (and saw the helicopter circling), and were asked if we’d seen the 72-year-old gentleman in the photo who went missing on Crestone Peak on Friday, two days earlier. We wouldn’t have crossed paths, but our hearts broke as we considered his fate. We later learned he was an accomplished climber and had fallen to his death on one of the most difficult routes in the area. Though tragic, I considered heavily that dying while doing something you love has got to be the way to go.

We discussed our successes and failures of the trip, and our desire to return back to South Colony Lakes; perhaps another summit attempt with milder wind and route finding, or perhaps a relaxing time to explore the lakes, do some fishing, and enjoy the wilderness casually without purposefully kicking our own butts. But the best part for me, by far, was going backpacking for the first time, as a woman with only another woman. I’ve spent so much of my life having men for protection and assistance – my dad and my brothers and my husband; it was so empowering to do this with another woman and no men to rely on. Heather was a wonderful backpacking partner. We were well-prepared and capable, and while I definitely learned some things and faced some fears, there’s no doubt I will do it again.

Photo cred: Heather Physioc. This is my favorite photo of our trip at South Colony Lakes Colorado. We crossed this creek 4 times and somehow our technique and confidence got worse each time. This was my first attempt and actually looks skilled, unlike our last attempt when hiking poles, boots, and Nalgene bottles ended up in the stream.

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