McCullough Gulch Trail

Distance 7.63 mi
Elevation1640 ft
My Time4 hr 38 min
DifficultyHard
Closest TownBreckenridge
Food Nearby

Nestled in the shadows of Mount Quandary, McCullough’s Gulch is a shorter but very challenging hike that features a couple of lakes and a waterfall.

The Road

To start the McCullough Gulch trail you will first begin on a service road at the end of McCullough Road. The service road is flat and easy and you will pass through a gate to continue on the hike. The service road will take a left turn just over a half mile into the hike. There is some confusion at the sign post but you will want to follow the large gravel road to the left.

The views from this road are’t too shabby either.

The view from the service road with pine trees on either side and Quandary peak on the left hand side

To the Waterfall

The next section of the hike gets much steeper but is still well defined. The first mile once you make the turn on the road is a consistent incline usually in the 20% grade range but gets as high as 30%. This is pretty rough. There are also some sections of bouldering that make it a little tricky.

You will get a small reprieve as there is a small section (.3 miles) of mostly flat to the waterfall. The flat section is also in a heavier forest setting so you get some shade and have a moment to catch your breath.

The waterfall is a multi-tiered drop that is really cool despite my terrible camera work on this day. In my defense it was 34 degrees and my hand was pretty cold.

The Maze

After the waterfall the trail gets really hard to follow. While there are a couple of signs pointing you in a direction there are also several trails seemingly snaking in every direction. This got me turned around a couple of times both on the way up or the way down. Make sure you have a map or gps going so you can find your way.

The trail also gets really steep with grades in the mid to upper 20% range from here to the first lake. So not only are the trails confusing but they are also steep and become much more rocky. It is about a half mile to the lake from the waterfall but you will go up over 400 feet of elevation.

I was lucky enough to come over a particularly steep and rocky section to have this girl waiting for me at the top of the trial. Although I have to tell you it scared me nearly to death.

A large mountain goat having breakfast on the hill.

The Lakes

My favorite part of the hike after seeing the goat was the lower lake. Lower lake is a larger lake that sits at 11,900 feet elevation and still has some plants around it. It, like most mountain lakes, is crystal clear and just a really nice place. Making it nicer was how hard it was to get to. Here are a couple of pictures but there are more below in the gallery.

I spent a bit of time enjoying the lower lake and had a snack. I also walked around a bit on the surrounding hills to get some different views. There is a small rock bridge to cross on the eastern side when the water is down a bit. It was really a nice place and I probably should have stopped here.

The path to the upper lake is very similar to adding salt to lemon juice and then applying to a blister. It is steep, rocky, and you have to walk through tiny trails with sharp branches on either side of you.

The first half mile isn’t too bad. You are following along the bank of the lower lake on a hill. There are again several trails but it narrows down to two. The trail closest to the water will require a vertical climb down to continue. The trail further from the water will only require a mostly vertical descent.

The rest of the lakeside portion is walking through narrow tree lined paths. The trail will split up again and you will have to pick and choose which one to take usually depending on mud.

Part of the trail leading to the upper lake.  Solid rock with a steep ledge to it.

The last push to the upper lake gets really steep again and includes walking up a couple of rockfaces. You won’t need to scramble but you will need to take your time and pick a good path. You will ascend another 500 feet in half mile but this time you will be starting at 12,000 so there is that added difficulty.

When you have finished the climb it will be obvious. You will end up on flat ground and completely surrounded by cliffs. From here it is a half mile walk to the next lake but the area is really beautiful so while you are catching your breath make sure to take it in.

The view from the valley at the top on the way to the upper lake.

There is one last steep hill leading up to the upper lake. The upper lake level was low as I went late in the season but it was still a nice reward at the end of a grueling hike.

The upper lake.  Surrounded by tall cliffs at the end of the hike.

Distance and Elevation

If you don’t have the AllTrails app you might want to check it out, I really love mine. It records your progress and is a great way to search for hikes that are nearby and gives you difficulty measurements. According to AllTrails today’s hike was around 7.63 miles and had a total elevation gain of about 1640 feet including undulations. That put the high point at around 12, 552 feet. I was also moving for a total of 4 hours and 38 minutes.

Effort

This one was a tough one. One thing you can tell from the step stats is how many small steps I had to take with the elevation and terrain. I usually get about 2500 steps per mile but today’s pace was closer to 3000 steps per mile. Here is the total from my Fitbit.

The step count for the Mccullogh gulch hike was 23,585.

Terrain

While the hike starts easy on a gravel/dirt road, the majority of this hike is very rocky and has several steep sections walking on rock. There are a couple of sections in the woods that are dirt paths and as well as you get close to the upper lakes. There are also a lot of off-shoot trails that make finding the correct way to go challenging so make sure you have some form of map.

I would highly suggest some good hiking boots or shoes that have some good grip to them and some hiking poles to help with elevation. I actually saw several people who found some large sticks to help replace the poles.

Access

The trailhead is on McCullough Gulch road just off of CO-9 outside of Breckenridge. The road is a moderately bumpy dirt road. There are some large potholes which make it a challenge in a smaller car but it can be possible if you are careful. The Quandary Peak trailhead is on the same road and there are several cars parked which makes the road narrow.

There is no lot for the trailhead and you will need to park on the side of the road and walk the rest of the road. There are no restroom facilities at the trailhead.

Wrap up

I think this was the hardest 4 mile hike I have ever done to get to a lake. I was physically exhausted from the steepness and different terrains. I was mentally exhausted from trying to find my way with all the different trails going in every direction and navigating some steep rock terrain. It just made me exhausted.

While I was exhausted, this hike offers some really nice views and it is almost like there is a reward every few sections. The waterfall is great. The lower lake is one of the nicest high elevation lakes I have been to. The walk on the tundra was one of the most humbling things I have done.

If you are in to really challenging yourself to enjoy a hike this might be good for you. If you are looking for some nice views but without much of an effort this might not be right for you.

I have added this hike and all of my hikes to my interactive map section that you can find here. Thanks to my friend Jen for suggesting this hike to me, although I did have to ask when it was over if she was mad at me and punishing me with the suggestion. If you have a suggestion for a hike or have any other comments feel free to email me at fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com of you can follow me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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