Last weekend, for our anniversary, we headed to Southwest Colorado for a long weekend. We’ll tell you about Telluride and Ouray later (we love them both!); today we’re talking about our trek to the OPUS Hut! Before I start, let’s all agree that sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself.
The OPUS Hut is a European-style hut in the San Jauns, situated somewhere between Telluride, Silverton, and Ophir. Once you get to the hut, you have a comfortable bed, bathroom, running water, and most importantly, dinner and breakfast are served family style by the hut’s caretaker. I stayed at a hut like this while I was in France for pastry school and loved it, so when I heard about OPUS I knew we had to go. We reserved a private room for Sunday night and planned to hike in from Telluride, which is where we had stayed on Saturday night. Since the hut has most things you need for the night, you can pack a small daypack with a change of clothes, snacks, etc. instead of hauling your backpack. There were a few route descriptions on the hut’s website; we opted to take the route from the top of the gondola since it seemed like the shortest/logisitically easiest one. We wanted to get back to Telluride before driving out on Monday so we could fill up our cooler with Sweetwater, which is an awesome beer from Atlanta that doesn’t distribute this far West, except in Telluride. Anywho, the hike directions were not very detailed, so we brought a topo map with us. What we knew based on the directions is that we should have reached Columbine Lake in 5 miles and then we’d have 3.5 miles to the hut. We figured it’d take about 4 hours to hike in and we couldn’t check in until 2, so we had a leisurely breakfast before starting our journey around 11.
We took the Gondola to the St. Sophia station, quickly ascended through the resort via the See Forever Trail until hitting the Wasatch Trail. At this point, the hike flattened out a bit and even descended to where it crosses the Bear Creek trail. We were getting rained on on-and-off as we continued to hike through a field of wildflowers. We were not even to Bridal Veil Basin, which on the map looked like it was pretty far from Columbine Lake, when we hit 5 miles. When I told Andrew I was sure the mileage was off, he started to go to a bad place. He was nervous that we wouldn’t be able to make it to the hut but turning around at this point was also a 5 mile hike back. We got to Bridal Veil Basin and there was a trail sign! And… it was this crazy beautiful landscape that I can’t even describe – like lots of green rolling hills with big rocky mountains in the background.
This is where the trail mostly ended (and also where we probably added even more mileage to our hike). From the top of the basin, we could see Lewis Lakes and were pretty sure we had identified the trail we would take over the ridge to Columbine Lake – I think it’s the top right of the above picture. On the map, we could see some Jeep roads that followed a roundabout path towards Lewis Lakes and so we decided to follow those, taking a left on the first Jeep road. Instead, I think we should have gone right and taken Blixter trail for a more direct route. Hindsight. We meandered across the basin and, by descending, lost sight of Lewis Lakes. Andrew asked “how are your navigation skills in the dark?”, to which I responded “about as good as my navigation skills during the day”, aka, not great. Eventually, we came upon an old mine and nearby mining cabin and saw some movement inside the cabin. We were so far off the grid at this point and hadn’t seen another person or group in over 4 miles that it was almost creepy. But we were 80% sure we were lost, so I approached the cabin to find out. I was greeted by two really friendly men who were restoring the cabin (SO COOL!). They assured me we were on the right path, pointed me in the direction of Lewis Lakes, and gave me instructions to find the trail to Columbine Lake (it was the trail we had initially thought it would be several miles earlier). The ridge looked steep – I’m afraid of heights – and Andrew kept saying “you aren’t going to like this trail”. But there was only one path forward – the ascent up the ridge was steep, but not hard or scary thankfully, and when we got to the top we both let out a huge sigh of relief.
We knew we had found Columbine Lake and it was SO worth it! The San Juans are known for a few of these beautiful blue lakes – we’ve been to Ice Lakes and loved them. They are so blue that when I sent out the picture on our Christmas Card that year, my Grandpa thought it was fake! Columbine Lake did not disappoint – it may have been even more blue than Upper Ice Lake and it felt much more remote – we had the whole thing to ourselves. Based on the directions we had, we also thought we might be within 3.5 miles of the hut, but of course didn’t trust them very much. We pulled out the map and measured the distance, and it actually looked closer to 2 miles! We were pretty sure we would make it before dark!
The directions were much more detailed from this point, and told us to hike over a small pass and then descend to Ruby Lake. We easily located the pass and hiked up. When we got to the top and peered downward, we were atop basically a sheet of rock and there was no good way to get down. Also – did I mention we had Layla the whole time? We very carefully slid down the rock face while I was trying not to lose it – one slide in the wrong direction and we’d be in a drainage ditch with nowhere to get good footing. We dropped probably about 30 feet over the rocks until we got to some loose rocks and grass. From there we were able to walk down to the lake. The trail out was clear – it hugged the edge of a cliff, but was well-marked and a fairly easy traverse. The hut soon came into view as we trekked through a meadow of wildflowers.
After 13.5 miles, we were finally there! We walked in and found our hut-mates for the night. They had all driven and when we said we hiked from Telluride, we got some interesting looks. Layla scarfed down her dinner and promptly fell asleep, paws out, on her puffy blanket – she is such a trooper! Dinner wasn’t ready yet, but there was some delicious afternoon soup and tea. We found our room, complete with down blankets and lots of hooks to hang our wet clothes on, and then met our hut mates. There was another couple from Denver, also celebrating their first anniversary, who we had lots of fun chatting with. There was a family from Nashville with 2 kids who were all WAY cooler than us and we were really jealous as they detailed their itinerary for their tour-de-southwest (including a dinner with Dierks Bentley and his family… wha?!). Finally, there was a middle-aged gentleman from Boulder who came with his Mountain Bike and was also really interesting. He showed us a different map that he had brought, the Lat 40 Map which we will definitely be using for future trips – it seemed to have more comprehensive trails and jeep roads. We all ate a delicious dinner of risotto, salad, apple muffins, and beef tenderloin, enjoyed some celebratory beers (we made it! we’re not dead!), and talked in the main living/dining area before heading to bed.
If you’re wondering how we got back to Telluride on Monday – our host, Renato, was extremely generous and gave us a ride into town since he was going in for groceries. It was a quick 45 minute drive. And yes – that is still our Layla in the photos. She got shaved just before the trip and they went a little short on her face. She’s very self-conscious about it.
So would we go back? YES! While in retrospect we are really happy that we hiked in because we were able to experience some of the most remote and beautiful places in the San Juans, we probably wouldn’t do that hike again. We think next time we’ll drive in and stay for a few nights so we can do hikes from the hut each day. The hut was perfect and so nice, our host was wonderful, and we really enjoyed meeting everyone else who was staying there!