Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Columbine Lake, 12,685', Via Porphyry Basin

Essence: A seldom traveled route to Columbine Lake--walk in solitude. Start hiking at 12,360 feet. Cumulative elevation gain is 1,200 feet less than the standard trail. However, the drive into Porphyry Basin requires 4WD and some nerve. Well above timberline for the distance, walk through lush wildflowers, tundra flats, fellfields and talus. Slip in and out of three high basins. The unmaintained trail is faint and more of a route for long stretches; know how to navigate. A variant is described. And the lake? Nothing on the planet compares. Rhapsody in blue. Before committing to this unconventional route please consult my post detailing the standard trail to the lake.
Travel: Measure distance beginning in Silverton at the southwest end of Green Street where US 550 makes a sweeping turn. Head north toward Ouray. Drive 9.3 miles to mile marker 79.5 (0.8 mile south of Red Mountain Pass) and hook a sharp left (almost a 180 degree turn) onto FSR 822. This is a hanging shelf road requiring 4WD. In 2015, the road was widened for a reclamation project but some drivers (and passengers!) will find it frightening. Cross a stream and park at a turn-around 2.6 miles from the highway. The road is blocked from further travel at the Bullion King Mine ruin.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 8 miles; 1,300 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 6:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate--know how to read a topo and follow cairns; no exposure
Maps: Ironton; Telluride; Ophir, Colorado 7.5 USGS Quads or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 23, 2017
Quote: Wonder is the first of all the passions. René Descartes, 1649

Henry David Thoreau wrote, "The bluebird carries the sky on his back."...and under his wings while flying over Columbine Lake. (THW, photo)

Route: The blue line is FSR 822 from US 550 to the end of the track. Walk south and then west up an abandoned mining road to Bullion King Lake. Climb off-trail (black line) or on-trail (purple line) to 12,800 feet west of Point 12,848'. Notice the black line splits on the map below. I recommend taking the high route on the way to the lake and returning on the low route, the slightly more established trail. Either way, essentially follow the 12,800 foot contour east of Points 12,375' and 12,228' while bearing southwest. If you are not entirely confident in your navigation ability take the standard trail initiating off the Ophir Pass road.

In 2015, FSR 822 was closed to the public while the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety reclaimed the Bullion King Mine site. The mine closed in the early 1900's. A massive 20,000-cubic-yard heap of mine waste left behind threatened the Mineral Creek (and Animas River) watershed. As it was, 10,000 feet of tunnels leaked about 10 gallons of acid mine drainage per minute. You will notice evidence of reclamation.

In contrast, an idyllic feathery waterfall plummets over a cliff beside the road. It is the outlet stream from Bullion King Lake located in Porphyry Basin. (THW, photo)

A trail leads out of the parking circle at 12,360 feet and onto an old mining track. If you look around you might find some pyrite cubes eroding out of the San Juan explosive volcanics. We had the best luck searching the walls in the narrow squeeze on FSR 822.

Stay with the two-track while it makes a couple of bends and then swings west and enters Porphyry Basin. It is immediately apparent why locals who have been to Columbine Lake multiple times on the standard trail chose this alternative route upon occasion. The alpine basin rests beneath Point 13,375' and Three Needles, image-right. The landscape radiates brilliancy. (THW, photo)

In just over half a mile the old road ends at Bullion King Lake. We met a couple of four-wheelers who drove up FSR 822 on a lark and walked to the lake in search of beauty.

As you approach the lake look south and locate a social trail (purple-line route), shown, that climbs 200 feet to the bench west of Point 12,848'. Take it if you want to feed onto the more heavily tracked standard route to Columbine Lake. This path favors tundra rather than talus. 

For the high route, walk around the north side of the lake into Porphyry Basin which is loaded with cottongrass mid-summer. (THW, photo)

Roam freely in the basin, hopping from one flat rock to another. This image looks back on two of the smaller tarns in the basin.

Off-trail, climb south to 12,800 feet west of Point 12,848' and locate cairns and a wildcat trail high on a rocky bench at the base of Point 13,375'. At 1.1 mile you will be under this first east-running ridge. Circle the head of a small, enclosed stone basin on a social trail that plows through a scree slope, shown.

As you approach the next eastward ridge be sure to find a deliberate trail through a boulder jumble. The footpath winds playfully around obstacles. This is one of the best segments of the hike and reason enough to take the high route. 

As you round Point 13,228' at 2.3 miles, shown, you will rejoin the standard trail on the 12,800 foot contour. The track isn't obvious. No worries. You can free-style hike (holding this elevation) to the lake from here.

Use Point 13,300' as your guide--the lake is at its base. Actually, after rounding the corner the sharp-eyed will locate a radiant disk. Let the lake guide you. (THW, photo)

Overlook the lake at 3.9 miles. Wassily Kandinsky, Russian painter and renowned color theorist, said, "Color is a power which directly influences the refers to the domain of abstraction and immateriality." We come here again and again because this mysterious color, which no one can explain, elicits joy. (THW, photo)
Color is a power which directly influences the soul.
Read more at:
Color is a power which directly influences the soul.
Read more at:
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To indelibly alter your state of consciousness, climb Point 13,300', image-center-right, and look over the resplendent alpine lake. You will find a guide for summiting Point 13,300' by linking to the Slidepath Route or Standard Trail to Columbine Lake. (THW, photo)

On the return we found many Arctic gentian beside the standard route in the tundra swath between the lake and Point 13,228'. (THW, photo)

Upon rounding Point 13,228', the standard route descends to 12,560 feet to dodge a talus runout. (THW, photo)

Regain the lost elevation, ascending to the bench below Point 13,375'. You can see the faint trail making a rising traverse in this image. The return trail disappeared briefly in the tundra just as we topped out. Travelers going south to the lake will need to search around for it.

In late August of 2017, the paintbrush and orange sneezeweed were sill blooming full-heartedly. We located big patches of moss gentian. Walk west of  Point 12,848'. If you didn't explore Porphyry Basin initially, don't miss the opportunity.

This image of FSR 822 was snapped from the end of the road. If you don't like the looks of it, four-wheel websites advise where you can park and start walking.

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