OverviewFourmile Lake Trail is a fairly popular hike in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado near the town of Pagosa Springs. A 5.65 mile long trail goes to the lake which sits at an elevation of 11185 ft. A number of 12ers rise above the lake. Of these, only the 12511 ft Cherry Cairn Peak is named. I had planned to hike to the lake and then find my own way to the top of Cherry Cairn Peak. As an added bonus, I had read that the trail gave good views of two big waterfalls as well.
Trip ReportTuesday July 5, 2016
Roundtrip Hiking Distance: 12.68 miles
Total Vertical Gain: 3280 ft
My cousin Kris and I left the vacation rental home near Pagosa Springs, CO at 5:20 a.m. and went on Fourmile Road which turned out to be a well graded dirt road. Pagosa Peak was well visible from this road. Drove the road 15 miles to the end of it at Fourmile Trailhead 9200 ft.
No one was at the trailhead and we did not see any other hikers until several hours later when we were coming back. There were actually two trails that went to the lake. The upper trail supposedly went way up to 11500 ft or so and then came down to the lake while the lower one followed the bottom of the valley. We started our hike at 6:10 a.m. following the lower trail. I was unhappy to see that the trail kept going downhill. This only meant more uphill to the lake and at the end of the day just before reaching the car. The trail actually went some 200 vertical feet down to some 9000 ft of elevation at the bottom of a broad valley. We were in the shade and the temperature was probably close to freezing. To the east I could see jagged peaks that were probably Eagle Peak 12007 ft and Eagle Peak No. 2, 12137 ft. I saved picture taking for our return trip when the lighting would be better. The trail then began to go up very slowly.
The sun slowly came to shine on us. Impressive walls could then be seen all around.
The first waterfall came to view. The trail began to go up very steeply.
We then lost the trail and wasted some time trying to find it. Once we found it, the trail took us closer to the waterfall.
Then came the second waterfall.
And a smaller one farther up.
At that point, a couple of hours had gone by and we had hiked less than 3 miles. I was on the impression that Fourmile Lake sat at an elevation of 11700-800 ft near tree-line allowing me quick access to the summit of Cherry Cairn Peak. When I pulled out a copy of the map and saw that the lake was only 11185 ft high, I became concerned that we had been quite slow. The map showed a steel bridge over the stream a little further up. I told Kris when we reached the bridge, we would separate so that I could hike faster at my own pace.
At 3.6 miles and 8:35, we reached a place where we had to cross the stream. I could see what looked like a stone pier but there was no bridge. We crossed the stream over rocks and fallen logs. The elevation was only 10100 ft. I gave the Walkie-Talkie to Kris and went ahead at my own speed. I kept calling Kris every 30 minutes. The trail went up a couple of switchbacks in a forest of dead pine trees and crossed the steam two more times.
The south face of the summit of Cherry Cairn Peak came to view. It actually looked easy to climb.
At around 10700 ft I reached a signed intersection. I knew that the trail on the right went to an almost 12000 ft high saddle to the east of Cherry Cairn Peak but I wanted to reach Fourmile Lake so I followed the trail on the left. That was a mistake.
I then reached a long relatively flat valley. Peak 12603 ft came to view. I was sure Fourmile Lake was at the end of that valley but I turned out to be wrong.
The western slopes of Cherry cairn appeared to my right. It seemed like I could leave trail and go up those slopes but I kept going on the trail to reach the lake.
When I reached the north end of the valley, the trail went into a forest and began to go up again. At 10:00 a.m. and 5.65 miles I finally reached Fourmile Lake. Peak 12603 ft was well-visible but I had no view of Cherry Cairn. I sat there a short time to eat and drink. My GPS showed a trail that went to a higher lake at around 11650 ft but going there seemed to put me in a place where coming back to Cherry Cairn would require traversing nasty slopes.
I followed the east shore of the lake to its northern end and began to go up a slope that had many big boulders.
This marmot watched me closely.
As I looked at the map on my GPS, I saw that the slope that I was climbing would take me to the upper lake. I turned east and traversed the slope to reach a dead forest until the northwestern face of Cherry Cairn finally appeared.
At a spot at around 11620 ft where I got a good view of the Cherry Cairn, I realized that to go to its summit, I would have to descend into a valley and then go up what looked like nasty scree slopes. I was not about to do that. I radioed Kris and told him I was giving up. I sat there unhappy and had my lunch. It was 10:50 a.m.
The summit of Pagosa Peak was in good view.
I then followed a straight line down the dead forest to reach Fourmile Lake. Kris was waiting for me there. We sat by the lake for some time until a couple of people appeared. They said they had hiked the upper trail yesterday and were camping somewhere along that trail. We then said goodbye and began to hike back.
Beautiful fields of flowers and Skunk Cabbage.
A big group of young hikers were standing on the side of the stream where the steel bridge was supposed to be. After that, we ran into other hikers every now and then.
The waterfalls again.
The jagged peaks to the east of the lower parts of the trail (Eagle Peak?).
The last 200 vertical foot of uphill at the end of the trail was a real drag. We reached our car at 2:45 p.m. Driving back the road, we got great views of Pagosa Peak to the northwest and Squaretop Mountain to the southeast (which at the time I mistook for Blackhead Peak). I was actually surprised how lush that valley was. In other parts of Colorado, a broad valley like that at an elevation of 7500 ft would likely be covered with junipers/desert vegetation.