Telluride, CO: Navajo Lake

Climb more than 2,000 feet from aspen groves near Woods Lake to the dramatic Navajo Lake basin. This 10.2-mile out-and-back is a San Juan classic that spends a dramatic mile above treeline.
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Climb more than 2,000 feet from aspen groves near Woods Lake to the dramatic Navajo Lake basin. This 10.2-mile out-and-back is a San Juan classic that spends a dramatic mile above treeline.

The dramatic Navajo Lake basin sits nestled between three San Juan 14ers just southwest of Telluride. This 10.2-mile out-and-back to the lake begins at an elevation of 9,400 feet and climbs a multi-use trail through a mixed aspen-conifer forest. The trail skirts Woods Lake within a quarter-mile of the trailhead then zigzags across a few small streams in its first 3 miles. The climbing is steep and steady until the Woods Lake Trail meets the Elk Creek Trail in an open hillside just above treeline.
From there, traverse the hillside where you’ll catch views of Dolores Peak and the surrounding Lizard Head Wilderness area until rounding a corner where the dramatic slopes above Navajo Lake become the main attraction. A short, but steep, descent to the mouth of the basin levels out as it winds between huge pine and rocky outcroppings—including a shallow trailside cave—before touching the lake at mile 4.8.
The lake itself is surrounded by a rocky shore at the base of El Diente’s crumbling slopes. Though no fires are allowed in the high-traffic basin area, there are several choice campsites on the lake’s north side and sites below the mouth of the basin (where fires are allowed).
This out-and-back is a great day or overnight hike and the area is a great base-camp for peak bagging, or as the start of a loop with the Rock of Ages Trail which was re-routed and re-opens in 2010.
-Mapped by Kristy Holland and MacKenzie Ryan

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 16.5

Waypoints

NAV001

Location: 37.886269, -108.054893

There is a campground, toilets, seasonal water faucets, and horse-trailer parking at the Woods Lake Trailhead. From the south side of the parking area, cross the dirt road and follow the Woods Lake Trail uphill from the map kiosk and sign.

NAV002

Location: 37.884135, -108.053627

Within a quarter-mile the trail dips briefly to skirt the shoreline of Woods Lake before heading back into the forest. The nearly 10,000-foot ridge above it is a super-scenic backdrop to the mountain lake.

NAV003

Location: 37.883093, -108.053144

After continuing straight through this 4-way junction with the Wilson Mesa and Lone Cone trails, the more strenuous climbing begins. Soon after the junction you'll wind uphill more than 1,800 feet, criss-crossing two streams as you approach treeline before mile 3.

NAV004

Location: 37.85749, -108.039969

You'll climb through a steep meadow before this junction where the Woods Lake and Elk Creek trails merge. The bulk of the climbing is over at this point and from here the trail wraps around the ridgeline on your left, staying mostly level across scattered scree slopes.

NAV005

Location: 37.849747, -108.044229

The trail's high point and the last of the out-bound climbing passes almost unnoticed as the trail approaches the towering peaks and crumbing slopes of the Navajo Lake basin. Look to the right and you'll see the trail's downhill switchbacks and catch glimpses of some Dolores River falls, below the lake.

NAV006

Location: 37.847409, -108.03659

A sign guides you to the right at this sharp turn near the base of the descent. The sign also marks the border of the basin area where campfires are prohibited. Continue winding between rocks and scraggly trees, continuing downhill briefly before gently regaining altitude.

NAV007

Location: 37.847341, -108.03071

Look left for a peek into a shallow trail-side cave at mile 4.6. In just 200 yards, you'll reach the rocky shores of Navajo Lake. User-trails alongside the main drag lead to small, established campsites near the lake, but some people prefer to camp in the wilderness below the basin where campfires are allowed (check with the ranger district about additional short-term and seasonal fire restrictions).

NAV008

Location: 37.847528, -108.028393

The lake itself reflects 14,159-foot El Diente Peak and the crumbling slopes of the surrounding 12,900-foot ridges. Enjoy the breezy surrounds before turning back toward the trailhead or settling in for a peak-bagging day 2.

Trailhead

Location: 37.886108, -108.054752

The trailhead map kiosk also provides information about wilderness regulations. Though no permits are required, this area can see some heavy traffic, so follow LNT principles and be respectful in an effort to minimize impact.

Woods Lake

Location: 37.884337, -108.053662

The trail breaks through an aspen grove to skirt the shores of Woods Lake, namesake of the trailhead, trail, and campground area.

Junctions

Location: 37.883102, -108.05314

All of the trail junctions, including this 4-way junction with the Lone Cone and Wilson Mesa trails are marked.

Bridges

Location: 37.875467, -108.050165

Trickling streams and several small, wooden bridges interrupt the trail on the steep climb toward treeline.

Elk Creek Trail

Location: 37.857498, -108.03995

Approaching the junction where the Elk Creek and Woods Lake trails merge. After this uphill push, the trail mellows and begins a traverse of the hillside. Up ahead the trail takes on an other-worldly ascetic as it cruises a few short sections of washed-out, charcoal-colored trail.

Dolores Peak

Location: 37.857163, -108.04029

Dolores Peak towering over the hillside traverse before the trail turns toward the basin.

Descent

Location: 37.848285, -108.037217

After rounding the hillside, the trail begins descending, gently at first, but it gets steeper approaching the mouth of the basin.

Cave

Location: 37.847357, -108.030766

Less than 20 feet deep, this trailside cave isn't likely to hide more than an occasional hiker during afternoon rains.

Navajo Lake

Location: 37.847819, -108.027778

The high-alpine surface of Navajo Lake reflects the peaks and ridgelines surrounding the basin.

Continuing

Location: 37.847684, -108.02817

The trail continues around the lake's rocky north shore toward several campsites and down-canyon views.

Campsite

Location: 37.848824, -108.025019

One of several campsites along the lake's northern shoreline. Though there is an old fire-ring, fires are prohibited within a signed section of the basin, including this site.