I haven't wandered around that part of the range since I was a kid. My dad used to hunt deer along the sagebrush benches in that area, and it's still a popular spot with hunters. I'd never been up to Cold Lakes, although it's been on my Ruby Mountain bucket list for many years. My friend Bruce had a rare day off in town, and I was feeling a bit spunky, and so we decided to head out on a voyage of exploration and see if we could make it up to the lakes.
This trip is usually done on horseback and as an overnight (at least), and after having walked the route I can understand why. It is an absolutely fantastic hike in the autumn - really hard to beat - but there's not a lot of shade and there is a fair bit of elevation gain. It'd be hotter than Hades in the summer. Not only that, but there are three big stream crossings that would be pretty challenging when the water's up, making a spring or early summer trip hard to manage. There's a lot of evidence of huge stream flows along the creek. If walking's your bag, wait until fall, when the sunshine is a welcome partner rather than a gumption-drain, and the creek crossings are fun places to teeter on river rock as you cross.
Length: 13.4 miles round trip from trailhead
Elevation Gain: 3520'
Difficulty: Class D - R (difficult with route finding)
Time required: Day hike or overnight
There are a couple of obstacles you'll need to overcome, however, before you even set foot on the trail to Cold Lakes. One, access to this trailhead is through private property and you'll need to get permission from the property owner to go through. The good news is that these guys are long time local ranchers, they're great about access, and if you can catch them at home they're generally happy to give you the combination to the gate. The only caveat to that is when it's really muddy up there - they don't want it trashed and they'll keep the gate locked if it's wet. I won't do them the discourtesy of posting their phone number here, but you can call Nancy Taylor at the USFS, 775-752-3357 or Joe Doucette with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, 775-777-2300 and they'll tell you how to reach them.
The second obstacle comes with trying to find the actual trailhead. There was a sign, once upon a time, but it's not there now and if you don't know how to find it you're in for some very steep ups and downs. Fortunately there's a bridge crossing right off the bat, and if you can find the bridge you're golden.
To get to the Cold Lakes trailhead, head south from Elko on Lamoille Highway, drive through the town of Lamoille to the T intersection at the Lamoille Church. Check your odometer. Turn left at this T onto a gravel road, turn right at the next T, and follow this road as it zig-zags through Lamoille's beautiful ranch country. You'll pass a nice ranch house at the bottom of a hill, with haystacks across the road. Follow the road as it climbs and curves around to the right. At 6.3 miles or so, you'll see a right turn that goes up a hill to a microwave station. Take this road to the locked gate, and open said gate with the combination you got from making all of those phone calls. Check your odometer again.
Drive through the gate on the good two-track road (passable by passenger cars) and follow it to an old homestead ranch. Drive past the ranch house through the gate by the corrals. You'll come to a fork in the road with what once was a pretty useful directional sign, now missing. Take the left fork and drive up a hill, paralleling an irrigation ditch. At the top of the hill, at about 1.6 miles from the locked gate, look for a bridge crossing the ditch on your left. That's your trailhead... park here.
The trail flattens out when it reaches the ridge, giving you a welcome respite from the climb. It starts contouring around the ridge on a very wide bench that has the look and feel of having been a road many years ago. It is quite plausible that it WAS a road once upon a time, as local lore says that the Southern Pacific Railroad used to take timbers out of this canyon back in the 1800s. There are a lot of very old stumps here and higher up the canyon, giving credence to the story.
After the next creek crossing you'll walk into an aspen wood with another unsigned trail junction at about 3.4 miles. Take the right fork, and you'll eventually reach a hunter's camp at about 3.7 miles.
Once you pass the hunter's camp, the trail gets quite a bit steeper, averaging an 18% grade. There are significant areas of water damage on the trail from here to the lake, as well as a few opportunities to lose the main tread and utilize cow trails as you continue upwards. The cow trails are in better shape than the main trail in a lot of spots. Generally speaking, once you leave the hunters camp, the trail leaves the creek and hugs the climber's left side of the drainage.
The Cold Lakes sit in a rocky glacial cirque at just short of 10,000'. There's great fishing up here, and most visitors come up with horses and plan on staying several nights. We found a fully-stocked fishing camp between the lakes, complete with saw, shovel, tent, MREs, pots and pans, fishing pole... and wall art. Quite homey.
Here's a map of the route. Click on it to make it bigger.