Monday, October 21, 2013

Cold Lakes

The Cold Creek drainages don't get visited much. The only people who really get up there seem to be hunting guides and their clients, locals setting up a fishing camp and a resident rancher whose family has run sheep and now cattle up there for generations. It's really too bad, because Cold Creek offers all of the spectacular beauty and intimate loveliness that Lamoille Canyon does, without the highway, cars and madding crowds.

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

The Cold Lakes are a pair of lovely glacial lakes at the head of Middle Cold Creek canyon, nestled beneath one of the iconic and most photographed peaks in the Ruby Mountains, the Old Man in the Mountains. It's a remote, beautiful area, with a decent old trail that's generally easy to follow, and good trout fishing in the lakes once you get there.

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 the rec manager 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.

It's pretty easy to get turned around right off the bat, because there are a lot of very predominant cow trails leading off of the main trail, and no signs or rock cairns differentiating the real trail from the rest. Count the drainages and don't take any turns. You'll cross one little dip right after the bridge, and you'll climb up and over to an almost immediate second drainage. That's the south fork of Cold Creek. Cross it, climb up again and over another hill to a much larger drainage - the main Cold Creek drainage, which is the one you want. Cross the creek onto a private ranch road and hang a right into a beautiful tunnel of aspens.

There is a lot of evidence of very high stream flows here. The rancher who runs cows here told me that the creek flooded big-time a few years ago. It took him a long time to clear this out. He and the local hunting guides are pretty much the only ones keeping this trail brushed out these days. The USFS trail crews rarely, if ever, get up here.

You won't go far along this road before you come to a new "National Forest Boundary" sign, followed by a much older sign marking the trail fork to North Cold Creek Canyon and to Cold Lakes, which are at the head of the Middle Cold Creek canyon.

The North Cold Creek crossing, right before it merges with the much larger middle fork.

Once you cross the creek, the trail starts climbing up the spine of a sagebrush and mahogany ridge. The trail right here pretty much goes straight up the fall line, as do many sections of the Cold Lakes trail. There's been significant trail damage over the years, from water and from the thousands of hooves that have pounded it for a century or so. By far, though, the majority of the damage has been done by water erosion.

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.

At about 2.5 miles you're back in the aspens again, heading towards two more crossings of Middle Fork Cold Creek. Immediately after the first of those crossings you'll come to a trail junction. It isn't on current maps, but the 1967 USFS Forest Users Map shows a trail that leaves from about here and goes over the ridge to the South Fork Cold Creek drainage. We didn't follow it, so I couldn't tell you if that's the old trail or not. There are easier ways into that drainage these days, in any case.

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.

It's obvious that the Basque sheepherders used this camp before the hunters did, because there are a lot of great old tree carvings through this stretch. We found legible ones dating back to the 1940's. This one, left by a fairly prolific gentleman named Pierre, was apparently his annual calendar.

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.

There are great views of the back side of the Old Man of the Mountains through here.

After a couple of steep, erosional climbs, you'll come to a set of rock cairns marking your way through a spot where the tread is pretty much missing. When you reach the first cairn, look to your right for the next one. The cairns in front of you mark what is essentially a cut switchback... the right route is much easier.

Once you pass the cairns the tread is very easy to find, even when snow-covered. There are some switchbacks and rock work to show you that someone did, in fact, construct this trail once upon a time.

It's truly lovely through here, with the austere alpine beauty that has made the Rubies famous. Best of all, you'll very likely have the place to yourself.

The final approach to the lake is pretty steep with a lot of trail damage, and runs along the climber's left side of the outflow stream from the lake.

Last few steps - you won't see the lakes until you're about standing in them.

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.

Overall, this is a great hike - well worth doing. Next time I'll bring a backpack and fishing pole, and head up a few weeks earlier before the lakes freeze up. This trip, though, was a fast one, and Bruce and I had to take off from the lakes pretty quickly to get back to the truck and beer before dark.

Here's a map of the route. Click on it to make it bigger.


  1. Very cool. Any chance you did a GPS track of the trail?

  2. That's it, corrected for some GPS error and one wrong turn. Generally speaking, the trails in the Rubies are right where the latest topo maps put them. Unfortunately, the latest maps don't show all of the old trails up there, which is when old maps and other sources become useful. This trail's on the map, though, and pretty much right on.

  3. I've run up to Cold Lakes 3 or 4 time this year and have been working on putting in cairns through the rocky trail-free section about a mile from the top. Did they help at all?

  4. I'm assuming those were your cairns, then, that I waypointed on my map? If those were yours, then they were quite helpful. As I said in my write-up, one cairn line is much easier walking than the other, at least if I understood what you were trying to mark. Or maybe somebody else tried to "augment" what you were building with a second, shortcutted line.

    Cairn lines in the Rubies can be pretty entertaining, especially when you get into areas that see more visitors than Cold Lakes. There are probably four different cairn lines right below Griswold Lake, for example, one of which will lead you on a bit of a wild goose chase. All good.

    Thanks for building those. They were timely.

  5. I made the trip to Cold Lakes this last summer, 2019, and did not make the lakes due to a late start. I fish avidly and love the remoteness of these mountains. I am not local to the area except in the summer, when I fly the wildfires out of the Elko Airport. And yes I flew the two fires over the Spring Creek area and into Lamoille Canyon as well. It was a tragedy to participate in putting these fires out, and to all the fires that rage through the mountains of Nevada. On my days off I have been through the Rubies multiple times and am planning on making the Cold Lakes this summer, 2020, if all goes well. I will post new pictures and gps map after I return. You locals are so lucky to have this and I have no plans of telling anyone, although I think the word is getting out.