At Macey Lakes in mid-June, wind reigns supreme.
Perched high in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, this secluded, gusty chain of lakes is a favorite destination of hikers and backcountry campers, offering solitude and ethereal beauty at 11,500 feet.
But early in the season, when snow blocks the way to all but the lowest lake and cold wind scours the canyon at night, the area’s charms are reserved for the hardy.
During one visit, the late-spring weather tested campers’ resolve and kept the higher elevations all but deserted.
Even so, the discomfort was amply rewarded. When the wind died down and the sky cleared, Macey Lake, the lowest in the chain, was lulled into a sunny playground for birds, surrounded by pines trees and snowy peaks and ridges. During one stretch of clear weather, coyotes howled unseen in the hills.
As camping, hiking and fishing begin to pick up in the high country, it’s the kind of place that begs to be kept secret but deserves to be shared.
It’s a good thing, then, that there’s no shortage of grandeur in the Sangres. Within a few minutes’ drive of Westcliffe, adventurers can find hiking trails to at least eight similar chains of mountain lakes, each nestled in its own canyon.
Among the Macey Lakes’ many neighbors are Comanche and Venable Lake trails, which are joined by a hair-raising, exposed ledge known as Phantom Terrace.
The trails can be combined into a loop that, depending on the time you have available and your appetite for exertion, might include a descent into picturesque San Luis Valley on the range’s western side.
No less scenic, Lakes of the Clouds Trail a few miles to the north offers abundant camping and is dappled with aspen that show bright colors every fall, making it a perfect autumn retreat.
The mountain range’s designation as a Wilderness Area helps ensure it remains wild, but off-road riders are welcome on Rainbow Trail, which connects many of the region’s trailheads along the base of the mountain range.
Though open to motorized use, the rocky Jeep Road showed more boot prints and hoof marks than tire tracks.
The way to Macey Lakes started off sunny and blue, and later than is advisable, on the afternoon of June 14.
Beginning at Horn Creek Trailhead, the route gets going with a pleasant, 3-mile climb through pine forests and aspen groves until a swollen Macey Creek comes into view.
There the trail turns off and gets steeper, bound for higher elevations. Packs grow heavy during the strenuous trek up rock-studded Macey Creek Trail and toward the Wilderness Area boundary.
Although it’s a consistently rewarding hike, the true wonders begin at Copperstained Cliff, a broad rock face streaked with dark mineral stains. The cliff signals the start of the trail’s highlights, which include secluded meadows, a winding staircase of rock and several waterfalls running fast with snowmelt.
In the approach to Macey Lake, tree fall and snowdrifts grow more frequent and begin to take their toll.
We pitched camp on a hill overlooking the lower lake, rigging two hammocks among a cluster of pines before bundling up in preparation for sunset.
To ward off the windy chill, we built a small fire, shielded on one side by a snowbank.
In the morning, we warmed ourselves in a patch of sunny ground above our campsite, grabbed a quick breakfast and set off for the hike to Upper Macey Lake. The half-mile, 500-foot climb turned strenuous amid downed timber and brittle snowdrifts, with plenty of post-holing along the way.
At Upper Macey Lake, we savored the solitude with towering rock faces at our backs and a sweeping, revealing look at the Wet Mountain Valley spread out before us.
Within a half-hour, the gusty wind reminded us of our limits and we began our retreat toward camp, where we packed and headed on the 7-mile return to the parking area.
HIKE TO MACEY LAKES
From Westcliffe, head south on Colorado 69 for 3.4 miles and turn west on Schoolfield Road/County Road 140. After 1.7 miles, turn south on County Road 129. Continue nearly 2 miles and turn west on Horn Creek Road/County Road 130. Drive 2.4 miles to reach the Horn Creek Ranch. Take the right fork and drive 0.5 miles to the Horn Creek Trailhead and large parking area, at 9,100 feet.
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