Located within 10 miles of Silverton, Colorado, the Highland Mary Lakes are second only to the Ice Lakes Basin for day hike beauty in the San Juan Mountains. High above Cunningham Gulch, the Highland Mary Lakes Trail passes through some of the area’s most scenic terrain, including several waterfalls, meadows that are sure to explode with wildflower color come spring, and the lakes themselves, a half-dozen or so dotting the terrain above 11,000 feet. A sparse alpine tundra awaits those who make the challenging and steady ascent.
Access to the Highland Mary Lakes trailhead is difficult as well, and maps recommend a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to make the journey to the trailhead. This is certainly recommended here, as well, though two-wheel drive vehicles may be able to make the trip far in the Cunningham Gulch, parking in a lower basin roughly a half-mile away from the trailhead. Be advised that access to the trailhead requires a creek crossing.
From the trailhead, ascend steadily through forests of aspen and pine. Stay vigilant throughout the ascent; while the trail is well-marked, it horsetails frequently, which may force hikers to backtrack. Keep an eye and an ear out for waterfalls, as well. The Highland Mary Lakes drain into the creek that the trail follows, and numerous cascades can be found at shelves along its course. As the trail nears the lakes above treeline, hikers ascend through a rock garden, requiring careful navigation to stay within an impacted route. Listen for the squeak of a dog toy—rock gardens like these are ideal habitat for pikas.
The first of the Highland Mary Lakes is set near 11,100 feet, but don’t hesitate to explore the tundra further. In its farthest reaches, the Highland Mary Lakes Trail converges with the Cunningham Gulch Trail, creating a loop that returns to the trailhead from the east.
Note: July and August are considered the monsoon season in the San Juan Mountains, so hikers are advised to begin early and plan to return to the trailhead before the daily afternoon thunderstorms.