Backpacking to South Colony Lakes

Back in late September, hubby and I took our first backpacking trip together. The weekend forecast was calling for several hours of rain starting Saturday afternoon, and even snow, in most of the higher elevations throughout Colorado. Worried that this would be our last chance to get in a camping trip before even colder weather took over Colorado, I wasn’t going to let the forecast deter us. Hubby was also game, but was worried that my first experience backpacking might end up being a bad one and scare me off from backpacking forever.

I was really determined to go backpacking to a particular magical spot in southern Colorado outside Silverton that had amazing waterfalls and teal blue alpine lakes. Silverton used to be one of our favorite areas to camp and hike in Colorado before we moved to Denver (and before all the social media crowds to started flocking there), but it was much easier traveling to Silverton when we were coming from Albuquerque rather than coming from Denver. I figured if we did a backpacking trip, this would allow us to combine camping and doing a long hike to one our favorite spots, Ice Lakes, all in one short weekend.

ice lakes trail colorado

Ice Lakes Trail near Silverton, Colorado

Unfortunately, Silverton was one of the areas of Colorado that was most likely going to get snow during the night we planned to backpack and I couldn’t help but think that hubby was right that this would ruin my first experience backpacking. Hubby suggested hiking instead to South Colony Lakes near Westcliffe, Colorado, which only had a slight chance of getting rain and would not take as long of a drive to get to, but I was not convinced this would be as exciting of a destination as Ice Lakes.

Friday night, hubby dug up all his old backpacking equipment and we sat everything out on our living room floor checking off all the stuff we would need to get through a cold and wet weekend in the mountains.

Saturday morning we woke up still not knowing whether we would go to Ice Lakes or South Colony Lakes or somewhere else, but we were otherwise ready for the weekend adventure ahead. . . until we hit a little snag that threatened to derail our plans.

One of our pups woke up Saturday morning not wanting to get out of bed or eat and I hadn’t thought much of it until it was mid-morning and she still seemed to be literally slugging around and breathy heavily. My first thought was that she had hurt her back again, a common ailment with dachshunds because of their long backs, but when I mentioned the issue to hubby, he casually asked if maybe she had gotten into something from our backpacking haul.

Light bulb!

We had set out all our backpacking gear and food on the living room floor the night before and left it there. Du-oh. Although I knew she could not have gotten into the human food because it was uninteresting, dry, packaged food, I quickly remembered that we had also portioned out dog food and treats (and plenty of extras) for our backpacking trip since our pups would be tagging along, too. Lo and behold, our pup had gotten up in the middle of the night and devoured two days and two pups worth of food without a single morsel left. No wonder she was sluggin’ around!

backpacking prep

Relieved that our dog was just a ham and not hurt, the backpacking trip was back on! We joked that maybe we wouldn’t even need to bring food for one of the pups, but we would likely need to bring lots of poop bags; and what better way for our naughty pup to work off her nighttime food binge than a backpacking trip, so we decided on South Colony Lakes and hit the road!

Approaching the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado, we could immediately tell what kind of weather we were getting ourselves into. Dark grey clouds stretched thin and low over the mountains with the promise of making our backpacking hike a wet one. We weren’t worried and we admired how the gloomy sky provided a beautiful contrast to the bright autumn trees that lined our bumpy drive up to the trailhead.

 

We had checked and rechecked the forecast all morning long and on our drive over and wondered if the forecast had been miscalculated when it was predicted that there would only be a slight chance of rain for a short period. Once we began our hike shortly after 2 P.M. though, it wasn’t long before the sun came out and we were shedding our 52- and 35-pound backpacks temporarily in order to peel off some of our long sleeve layers.

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south colony lakes backpacking in autumn.jpg

Just as I begun feeling a little disappointed that we wouldn’t experience any “fun” weather, about an hour into our hike, the clouds slowly crept back across the sky and a slight drizzly rain started.

The dachshunds were way less than thrilled about the rain. It seemed to soak them down to their bones and once the rain started, Roxie started whining and never stopped until will eventually reached our final destination and camping spot. Each time we stopped to snap a few photos, she dug at the ground beside fallen logs and boulders in a failed attempt to take shelter from the rain and cold.

By the time we reached the basin area two hours into our hike, we were surrounded by jagged mountains cropped by the fog, and we, too, were soaked to the bone. It felt like we were close to our destination, but even if we had been only one minute away from the end of our hike (we definitely weren’t), that still would not have been soon enough.

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Hubby and I were doing mostly fine in the rain, and I was only exhausted from carrying an ill-fitting backpack with a large frame meant for my hubby’s tall body, but the sound of our one pup whining from the cold rain was heart breaking. Then again, it was also hard to feel bad for our pup when she is often “cold” and whiny even in 90-degree weather. Our other pup was also hiking through cold mud puddles like a boss.

We ended up not reaching South Colony Lakes until another 40 minutes later, making our hike a total of two hours and 40 minutes and approximately four and half miles in distance. “Leave No Trace” rules dictated that we were not allowed to camp within 300 feet of South Colony Lakes or any of the nearby streams, so we technically didn’t even reach South Colony Lakes that first day.

Once we reached the area we assumed was South Colony Lakes, we began scouring for a good place to set up the tent. The temps were suddenly and quickly dropping, so we needed to get out of the cold rain before we literally froze our butts off.

The entire basin area we were tucked into was surrounded by fog, but not far off the trail the ground cliffed out with a lush stream below. I was easily distracted by these gorgeous views while we were looking for a dry camping spot. We could hear campers on the other side of the stream in the far distance, but other than that group, it seemed like we had the whole area to ourselves.

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In trying to set up the tent, the dogs kept crawling onto it in a desperate attempt to get in it before it was erected. Hubby was tasked with setting up the tent all on his own (which was not easy with frozen hands) while I tried to keep the dogs occupied and sheltered as much as possible from the cold rain. It felt like an eternity before we were all in the tent and shedding every rain-soaked article of clothing.

We had lugged a bottle of wine in our overfilled backpacks and wasted no time opening it. The first hour in the tent went by quickly as we drank our wine and listened to the rain tapping on our tent.

When it sounded like the rain was beginning to stop, we unzipped the tent and peeked outside for the first time. We were blown away to find a thin layer of snow and ice now covered the ground. We had no idea that the entire hour we were warming up in our tent, it was cooling off outside and rain was turning into sleet and snow.

We couldn’t resist sacrificing our warm sleeping bags to snap a few photos in this snowy wonderland. The feeling of seemingly being all alone in the middle of this mountain basin with snowy weather and only the protection of a thin piece of nylon was both blissful and scary all at once. The weather hubby had feared would ruin my first backpacking experience ended up making it magical and surreal.

 

That night, I shared my sleeping bag with both dachshunds and didn’t sleep much, but the restless night’s sleep was worth it for what we woke up to the next morning. Not much more snow had fallen overnight, but the skies had cleared just in time for us to wake up to the most glorious alpenglow on the snowy peaks that surrounded us.

 

While we admired the towering mountains around us that fog began to cover again, hubby boastfully pointed out all the nearby 14er peaks he had summited, including Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson, and Humboldt Peak. This was just a reminder that I needed to step up my game.

I had it in the back of my mind that perhaps if the conditions were right, we could summit Humboldt Peak on day two, which was said to be a fairly easy and straightforward 14er trail that the dachshunds could probably handle. We had passed two sets of hikers the day before that were coming out while we were going in and both groups had said the wind was fierce on top of Humboldt and only one guy had made it to the summit. Those reports, coupled with the recent snow and ice, made the decision not to go easy.

None of our clothing had dried overnight and the few extra clothing items I had brought became wet either from wearing them in our humid tent overnight or from touching the chaotic mess of wet clothing and gear spread out inside our tent. We were both eager to get back into dry, warm clothing, so we didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked exploring the basin area before we decided to pack up and head out. We never even saw the second, upper lake of South Colony Lakes, but this was okay because the mountain scenery was more than enough to satisfy our visual appetite.

Setting up our tent the day before had been challenging and miserable and packing up everything the next morning was no different, and if anything, worse. It didn’t help that the sun had only made a brief appearance that morning and was long gone by the time we began packing up. Hubby was tasked again with packing up the tent while I kept the dachshunds occupied and distracted from the bitter cold. It was a literal scramble to pack up and avoid frost bite.

Worried that the dachshunds would not tolerate walking through cold mud puddles on our hike out, I made hubby carry one dach while I stuffed the other one in my spare day backpack. Luckily, we only had to carry them about 30 minutes out to the start of the basin section where the temps began to warm up again and snow was no longer covering the ground.

south colony lakes backpacking with pups

On our way out, we marveled at how the surrounding peaks the previous day had been bare and mostly covered in fog, but on our second day leaving, they were all covered in snow.

 

Just as we had started our hike in sun, we ended it in sun as well. It was as if we had traveled from one season to another with the change in elevation; starting in autumn, walking into winter, and then back to autumn.

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Driving away from the Sangre de Cristo mountains, now capped with snow, we all, pups included, had seemingly already forgotten how cold and miserable we had just been and we were only left with some cheesy memories of an awesome first backpacking trip together (and a lot of dog poop we needed to dispose of).

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