A Tent with a View: Backpacking to Colorado’s Blue Lake

Above Blue Lake

We were compelled to do the Blue Lake hike outside of the southwest Colorado town of Ouray after seeing a Backpacker Magazine article touting it as having “one of America’s best secret campsites.” Blue Lake also happens to be located just below 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels, which is named after the Snaefellsnes peak in Iceland. At the time, we had just returned from six weeks in Iceland, and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to do this particular hike based on that fact alone. What can I say? I guess we’re suckers when it comes to travel nostalgia…

The 4-mile trail into Blue Lake climbs steadily from the trailhead at 9,350 feet before it opens into a wooded group campsite right on the shore of the jewel-colored lake. Sitting at 10,940 feet and surrounded by 13,000 foot peaks, the location of Blue Lake is certainly idyllic. We would have been very content camping right there with everyone else, but our Backpacker article advised us to press on another half mile and 500 vertical feet to find a lone campsite with an amazing view of the lake below. We took the bait and headed uphill to discover a truly gorgeous vantage point. We set up our tent, cooked some dinner, poured some vino and enjoyed a glorious sunset from our private campsite. What an amazing spot to call home for the night!

Above Blue Lake

Above Blue Lake

Sunset above Blue Lake

And, while this vista would be hard to beat, it was a visit in the middle of the night by an uninvited guest that made this hike one we will never forget.

Unfortunately for Matt, no matter where we are camping, one of his required husbandly duties is to escort me to “the bathroom” if I wake up to nature’s call in the middle of the night. For the most part, he’s a pretty good sport about the whole thing, and he wakes up without too much fuss. I guess he figures it’s a small price to pay for having a wife who is willing to spend so many nights in a tent instead of a hotel room.

This particular hike, however, happened to be our first ever backpacking trip in the United States. Although the US has some of the most beautiful alpine scenery anywhere in the world, we also have bears, and so our backpacking adventures have led us to places further afield like Chile, Argentina and Iceland where predators are non-existent. Spending the night in a tent in the middle of nowhere in bear country has been a real mental hurdle for me. This little overnight hike to Blue Lake was intended to help break that barrier. So, when I woke up a few hours before sunrise in the pristine wilderness of Colorado, I decided I needed to be brave and go it alone.

I ventured a very respectable twenty feet from the tent, and, to my delight, all went well. Feeling super-proud of my accomplishment, I ducked back into the tent without incident and tried to fall back asleep. But just after settling back into my cozy sleeping bag, I heard a loud thump! on the ground, not too far away from where I had just been. I wasn’t sure what it was, but, from the sound of it, I was certain it was an animal dropping out of a tree.

I woke up Matt to tell him the highly disturbing news when whatever it was started moving, right near our tent. I could clearly hear it shuffling around and sniffing our gear, but Matt insisted it was nothing and assumed his favorite form of overnight camping defense: playing possum. Somehow the husbandly duties stop at bathroom escorts.

The intruder’s next move was to do a drive-by under Matt’s side of the rainfly, and, despite actually feeling the animal brushing his arm (he admitted later), Matt insisted that it was “just the wind” making the noise and rustling that we heard. It wasn’t until the bold pest came under my side of the tent and started gnawing on our boots that Matt finally changed his tune. If there is one thing Matt won’t tolerate, it’s mistreated camping gear. He jumped upright, yelling at the intruder to go away. It obeyed, disappearing into the darkness before we could get a look at it. Hearts racing, we laid back down only to have the exact same scene played out again. This time, Matt grabbed the flashlight and sat quietly in anticipation.

A few minutes passed while we waited for the next visit. When we heard the rustling again, Matt was ready, and he lit up the intruder with his torch. To our surprise, it was a porcupine! Luckily for us, he kept his needles to himself and trundled on his way. We quickly unzipped the fly, grabbed all of our gear and brought it into the tent with us. With no more tasty boots to chomp on, the porcupine let us be, and we managed to fall back asleep for the rest of the night.

The next morning, we had fun exploring more of the Upper Blue Lakes area before retracing our steps back to the trailhead. We felt triumphant for surviving our first State-side backpacking trip, and, despite the visit from our persistent porcupine pal, we hope to have many more State-side backpacking adventures in our future. Here are some of our favorite photos from the hike.

Click to enlarge photographs and view as slideshow.

How about you? Have you ever had any visits from uninvited guests in the middle of the night when camping? What did you do?

24 thoughts on “A Tent with a View: Backpacking to Colorado’s Blue Lake

  1. Playing possum!! Too funny, but that is totally what I do. I’ve had a hyena, a mountain goat, and a skunk outside my tent before and each time I just stayed as quiet as possible wishing it away (and now make sure I have a ‘special’ bottle in the tent with me to avoid midnight encounters).

    How is it possible this hike is even more stunning than the last? And a great tip on the camping site. Backpacker Magazine is great, isn’t it?

    1. Playing possum is usually my go-to form of defense, too, but that porcupine was way too close for me to keep up the charade! We just started subscribing to Backpacker Magazine a year ago or so, and we are so happy that we did. With so many amazing hikes to choose from in Colorado, I am not sure we would have stumbled across this one without their recommendation. Blue Lake truly is a beautiful place!

    1. We felt really fortunate to have the inside scoop on this hike/campsite. We would love to go back again and spend some more time exploring the area. The pass from Blue Lakes leads into Yankee Boy Basin, which is also supposed to be stunning. It’s definitely worth another trip. Thank you for stopping by!

      1. I think SW Colorado is an underrated area of the country since there is no national park in the mountains there. The roads between Durango and Telluride and Durango to Ouray are amazing.

      2. We couldn’t agree more. I remember saying to Matt over and over again while we were hiking that I couldn’t believe we weren’t in a national park. That area of the state certainly should be!

    1. Thanks, Lyle. I am going to have to get Matt to adopt a new strategy this summer when we go backpacking along the Wonderland Trail. Our guidebook mentions several places with “lots of bear activity,” and I’m afraid playing possum isn’t going to cut it. Any suggestions?

      1. I usually have the opposite problem. All the watch for wildlife signs and guidebooks that make all these references to animals can make you quite disappointed when you see nothing! Then again we have to be quite vigilant in the typical precautions like storing our food properly and carrying bear spray.

    1. Thanks, Kathi! One of the main reasons we wanted to start backpacking was so that we would be in spectacular places like these when the lighting conditions were ideal for great photos. It makes all the difference!

  2. Probably my most exciting moment was sleeping in one of those tree houses in Kruger National Park. The situation was: I hadn’t been able to persuade anyone else to join me in this night out so I had a spotlight and two way radio for company. I slept reasonably well during the night but was awake for a period of time when I heard a lion growling. During the time I came out from under the mosquito net and shone the spotlight but didn’t see the lion at all. When I returned to the main camp in the morning there were a few enquiries whether I’d heard the lion – one of the guides seemed to think it came close to the main camp.

    As an aside, the above encounter hasn’t put me off unusual sleeping situations having just been to the Antarctic and spending a night sleeping in a bivvy sac on the ice. No particularly close animal encounters on that occasion.

    By the way – I love the lake – a pity it is so far away for this kiwi.

    1. Wow! That sounds amazing. We didn’t know enough about being able to sleep in the blinds prior to our last trip to Kruger, but we will definitely pursue it on our next visit. I am impressed that you were brave enough to sleep there on your own. Camping in Antarctica must have been amazing. Were you ever able to get warm in a bivvy sac? Colorado is far away from New Zealand, but it’s well worth a stop if you ever make it over here. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Wow, this is on our list now!
    I do the same for sweet sweet wife and it is indeed a very small price to pay 🙂
    Our first overnight in the backcountry together, I instituted a firm rule that she always wear earplugs when camping. We both get good sleep that way 😀

  4. This hike sounds amazing. I spent a lot of time in Colorado as a teenager going to summer camp. It is a beautiful place, and the hiking can’t be beat. You should check out the hikes around Gunnison next time you’re out that way. I have a piece of advice for you avid hikers: on a long hike, it helps to keep going and not to stop till you reach the end. That is the way they taught us at camp, and it worked for me every time!

    1. Cool, Andy! That’s our motto, too, unless of course we see something that we need to stop and photograph along the way! We haven’t spent a lot of time in the Gunnison area, but we would love to get out there sometime soon. Thanks for visiting.

    1. Thanks so much! It’s been a few years since we did this hike, so we don’t recall exactly how difficult the access road is. We do know that we rented a 2WD car for that trip and didn’t have any trouble getting there. The road is about 8 miles long, but it has lots of beautiful scenery. Just go slowly, and you will likely be fine. It is a beautiful hike and well worth the drive to get there. Have fun!

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