Columbine Lake is a siege of ever-changing, iridescent color that will not be pinned down: cobalt, indigo, sapphire, turquoise. On each visit, it seems the lake dons a new hue, from shadowed to dazzling.
Climb on a celebrated, high-elevation trail to the astounding lake with an off-trail option to Peak 13,300. The sign for the Columbine Lake Trail is across the road and up a few paces from the parking pull-out at 10,360 feet. The zigzag track is steep from the get-go, pitching up 1,000 feet per mile.
The forest, thick with conifer, limits visibility. Mid-summer, a spectrum of woodland flowers distract from the effort: myrtle blueberry, heart leaf arnica, geranium, mountain parsley, osha and Whipple’s penstemon.
Timberline in the San Juan Mountains is typically around 11,500 feet. Reach that elevation in 1.2 miles and emerge from the forest. I always experience this as a heart-leaping moment. If anything, the time spent in the shrouded woods accentuates the thrill.
The high basin topped with thirteeners carries a tributary of Mineral Creek. The route uses this small watershed to attain Mill Creek Basin which is even more spectacular.
Given our record wet spring, snow was still melting in late July. Still, the path weaved through a thick mat of alpine avens, ubiquitous tundra producer. Adding to the chromatic palette were geyer onion, kittentails, columbine, rosy paintbrush, corn husk lily, veronica and snow buttercups. By early September, frosty nights had taken out the bloomers.
The footpath crosses a slanted slope to arrive at a 12,520-foot pass at 2.1 miles. Enter a new world. The Three Needles are hemmed in by a ridge of spires. Incredulous with wonder at the rawboned vista, I am in love with this trail. Most of the climbing is accomplished as the treadway crosses over the divide into Mill Creek Basin.
Follow the path carefully as it bends to the west. The trail divides twice. Take the left fork at 2.4 miles. At 2.6 miles, the choice is up to you. The standard trail veers right. Upon reaching Mill Creek, it turns left and ascends to the lake. This is the popular choice, a better way for navigation doubters. Trust the trail, even though the lake remains hidden until you are upon it.
The left fork is the high route. Fragments of track are visible in talus as you head southwest and then west. Cairns are occasional. If you have a decent sense of direction, this segment is dramatic and rewarding; the bench that cradles the lake is visible all the while. The trail is easier to cypher when sheets of snow have melted out.
Columbine Lake remains a mystery, so anticipation builds until 3.1 miles when blue jolts your visual field. The botanical name for our Colorado blue columbine is Aquilegia caerulea. On a cloud-free day in fall, crystalline cerulean will envelop your entire being. It is a new definition of blue.
In 1810, Goethe wrote that absolute knowledge was not vital for joy or even contentment. The highest goal that man can achieve is amazement. For most, spending the day at the lake – elevation 12,685 feet – is astonishing enough. When the land is free of snow, walk around to the south side at lake level.
Peak 13,300: If you are confident in your route-finding skills and enjoy a fun scramble, climb the peak. Your world-view will be altered indelibly for an additional 2.4 miles roundtrip and another 700 feet of vertical.
Cross the dam at 3.4 miles and walk beside the lake to the inlet on the west side. Climb about 100 feet onto a prominent bench and contour around to a mixed grass and scree incline south of the lake. It is a quick, relatively easy ascent to the surprisingly thin saddle at 13,100 feet. From there, mount 120 feet up a scrabbly west-facing slope.
Continue east to the base of the summit block. There are three routes to the crest, climber’s choice. The east approach is Class 2-plus with some exposure and loose rock, typical of San Juan volcanics. The west wall is a more protected Class 3 scramble. Or, scale the challenging center crack. Top out at 4.6 miles.
The peak affords an unobstructed view of cobalt Columbine lake, window to another world. Stone and water are intertwined in a union of opposites.
For a playful alternative, after down-climbing the summit block, return on the beguiling rib of stone that swirls down to the lake.
When you can, or must, tear yourself away from turquoise waters, rejoin the standard trail. It leaves from the east side of the dam. It swings east and holds the contour back to the pass at 12,520 feet.