My first multi-day backpacking trip was a 5-night excursion through the San Juan mountains of Colorado. The snow-capped fourteeners and lush river valleys were quite a sight for a 14-year-old from Kansas. Flash forward nearly three decades and I was now driving my wife and two children to that same mountain range for our first backpacking trip as a family. And despite a few hiccups, everyone ended up having a fantastic time.
My wife hadn’t been backpacking in just over 10 years and her gear was nearly twice as old. She took a bit of convincing before adding this idea into our existing RV boondocking itinerary that featured only a few hot showers spread throughout a 3-week trip. Oh, and this was in the middle of COVID.
My son and I had already done several backpacking trips earlier in the year, including some decent distance and elevation in New Mexico. But my daughter had only come along on one super short trip, so I wasn’t exactly sure how far or high she would be able to go.
I decided to start the trip planning by replacing everyone’s gear with lighter options. I was able to shed 18.5 pounds by replacing the kid’s synthetic bags with lighter and warmer down options, swapping an old Eureka tent for a Big Agnes Ultralight Tiger Wall that the girls could use, getting the kids some lighter backpacks, and swapping out a few other items like my wife’s older Thermarest. This plus me carrying a few extra items kept the kid’s pack at only 15% of their body weight with my wife’s at about 18% and mine at a still comfortable 20%.
We are actually a family of five when counting our Aussie. He loves joining in on the fun. Thankfully, he is able to carry his own food, water, and rescue harness inside of a Ruffwear Palisades Dog Pack, all of which weighed only 14% of his body weight. I have tried several other packs, including the Mountainsmith K-9 and Ruffwear Approach, but I prefer the Palisades because of internal cinch straps that help carry the load close to the dog’s body. I also like how you can remove the Palisade pack while leaving the harness on.
I had to scout around to find a location where we could park the RV for a couple of nights while backpacking. The Blue Lakes Trail near Ridgway, Colorado ended up being a perfect fit. With only 3.5 miles and 1,700 feet of elevation gain between the trailhead and the lower lake camping area, this was a relatively easy journey, even for our 9-year old daughter. There were also several dispersed roadside camping spots on the way to the trailhead where we could park the RV.
Easy to access trails are usually crowded, especially during Covid, so we started hiking up around 7:30 am to try and beat the rush. The first half-mile of our journey was quite mild, which made it easy to get everyone’s pack and shoes gradually adjusted. The rest of the trail was decently wide with a gradual but nearly constant ascent and plenty of shade. I consciously choose a well-maintained trail like this so that the kids weren’t frequently carrying a loaded backpack through narrow paths with steep fall lines. Like most intermediate trails, there were small sections where caution was required and everyone was able to work on their technical hiking skills a bit.
There was a creek about halfway to our campsite that provided a perfect spot for refilling the water bottles and enjoying a quick snack. We passed the slow-flowing creek with ease while reminded the kids about the inherent dangers of flowing water. Everyone worked on the proper crossing technique of facing upstream while maintaining balance with their trekking poles. Sometimes a mountain creek or river can fluctuate significantly between early morning low water crossings and the higher flows found later in the afternoon during peak snowmelt temperatures.
The last mile of the Blue Lakes Trail featured some amazing views of Mt. Sneffels, the Dallas Divide, and the East Fork Dallas Creek valley. There were even a couple of waterfalls about a half-mile downstream from Lower Blue Lake. A huge benefit for me in taking shorter distance backpacking trips is not being rushed for time. I’m looking to enjoy the view, not earn a Strava award.
After a few more rest stops, candy bribes, and motivational speeches for our youngest than I had originally assumed, we arrived at Lower Blue Lake just in time for lunch. Everyone was blown away by the beauty of the natural, high-alpine lake surrounded by Mt. Sneffells, Gilpin Peak, and Dallas Peak.
There were several camping spots along the trail as it approached the lake, but there were also quite a few people already set up in that area. Thankfully I had read an old Backpacking Magazine article that suggested a more secluded location for our 2-night stay. I guess old school paper can still sometimes beat the power of Google!
The sun setting against Dallas Peak was absolutely amazing. After getting the tents set up and an early dinner served, two members of the family who shall remain nameless went from being fairly exhausted and “hangry” to quite happy, especially after having a cup of hot apple cider. When by myself, it’s not all that uncommon to roll into camp closer to dark and set up my tent via the small amount of light from my headlamp. But when camping with the kids, I’ve found that an early arrival, early camp setup, early dinner, and availability of an early bedtime is definitely the way to go!
The kids and I had made a small wager over a fishing competition during the trip and I had high hopes for my success. But, despite me carrying the fly rod and all other fishing equipment in my pack, they immediately stole it all from me once we got to the lake and never gave it back. My son got skunked at the lower lake, which wasn’t a huge surprise given all the crowds and lack of respect some were showing the water. But look at that view!
The next day we did some day hiking up the mountain in search of hungry fish. The trail is a bit hard to see when it initially leaves the lower lake area but the offline topographical and trail maps on Gaia GPS kept us on track until an obvious footpath reappeared. I’m always amazed at how many people go out hiking without a map or GPS. We helped several of these people who couldn’t seem to find their way.
We found several great overlook spots between the lower and middle lake that looked down on our campsite. I’m a big fan of setting up camp in the same location for a couple of nights and then exploring the area by day rather than trying to rush in the miles on a thru-hike. The more we kept hiking up, the fewer people we saw. We did see several campsites between the lower and middle lake, but they were fairly exposed to wind and lightning.
Once we got to the shore of Middle Blue Lake, I could hardly contain my excitement after seeing 30+ trout feeding at the outlet. I explained to the kids how we needed a stealthy casting approach to catch one and not spook the others. I tied on both a dry and a dropper nymph while talking about how we didn’t need a “bobber” on the fly rod, especially when we could see the fish hit the fly.
The fish totally passed up the first several casts, so I talked about changing flies to better match what is naturally floating by. With a new dry and dropper rig, my daughter actually caught two fish on a single cast (one fish per fly). Even though she lost one of them due to her inexperience in setting a barbless hook, she reeled in her first trout on a fly rod and told me she would never go back to lure fishing!
I think we caught about a dozen cutthroat’s in just an hour spent at the middle lake before a storm started to roll in and pushed us back down to our sheltered campsite. Having lived in the mountains for 15 years, I always try to complete outdoor summer activities earlier in the day to avoid the wetter and sometimes dangerous weather that is fairly typical in the afternoon.
On the third day, it was time to hike down. I had almost packed enough food for one more night’s stay with the hope of convincing my wife to extend the trip once she saw how beautiful everything was. I’m not sure if I could’ve pulled that off or not, but my son and I were already talking about our next trip while taking the tents down.
Speaking of camp departure, we always practice Leave No Trace, which includes leaving our campsite exactly as we found it, if not better should someone else have not done their part. It seems like more people could use an education on these important principles, especially as outdoor recreation increases during COVID. I mean, who do people think is going to clean up their toilet paper?
It had been 30 years since I backpacked through the San Juans. As with most things, it’s busier now than in the mid 90’s, but still well worth the visit! I hope that one day my kids will return with their young family. Maybe they’ll even let grandpa tag along!