Packrafting the Alpine Lakes of Western Colorado

Tisha McCombs made some packraft converts during a mountain weekend with a couple dozen other outdoor industry women…

Packrafting on Highland Mary Lakes in Colorado
Packrafting on Highland Mary Lakes in Colorado

 

by Tisha McCombs

Women Outdoor Industry Leaders Unite

When your friend tells you that she’s about to send you an invite to join on a mountain adventure, you get excited. When she mentions the purpose is to bring together women outdoor industry leaders for a weekend of adventure and connection, you start to check your calendar and hope you’re free.  

It was shortly after that moment I realized this would be a group of over 20 women all coming together in one place.

For a woman like me that craves large doses of solitude and stillness, this started to sound like a lot of voices and a lot of heart to be under one roof and one sky for four days straight.

But, I’d already hit that RSVP button, so the only way to go was forward!

Alpine Lodge Makes for Magical Meetup

The kick-off day arrived, and Mickelle, a great friend and adventure partner who was carpooling with me, set out for the weekend’s adventure. 

outdoor industry women's retreat
The fun group of outdoor industry ladies

 

The truck was full of gear ranging from harnesses and helmets for climbing and canyoning to my packraft, in case we made it out on some alpine water.  

Mickelle and I joked about all of the gear we’d brought as we approached the meet-up. It was held at the most magical mountain location you could dream up—the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge in the San Juans of western Colorado.  

I admit we intentionally aimed to be the first ones there so we’d get first choice of beds…because when you’re sharing a house with 20+ other women, this detail is important!  

Our timing was perfect. We were the first to pull into the long, gravel driveway leading up to the magnificent alpine lodge.

As we were unloading, another car pulled in, and out stepped Lindsay Hastings. Lindsay has been a longtime Facebook friend who I’ve never actually met. More importantly, she’s an ice climbing champion and all around strong, amazing woman.

I asked, “Hey, are you Lindsay the ice climber?”

She replied, “Yeah, and you’re the one with the annual Mac & Cheese Cook-Off at your house, right?”

I guess we can’t all be known for our athletic feats—but I’ll take being mac-famous any day!

As the day progressed, the house continued to fill with amazing women from all over the country. The strength and passion of these women filled the deck of the lodge and resounded off of the nearby Red Mountain peaks.  

Woven throughout the evening’s conversation, small groups could be heard throwing out ideas for adventures for the coming days. From peak bagging to trail running to mountain biking, we covered the gamut of recreational opportunities in the San Juans.

A group of us decided that a morning of fly fishing followed by a hike up to the Highland Mary alpine lakes near Silverton would be a great way to spend a day.  Knowing there would be beautiful water involved, I knew this would be a great opportunity to break out my packraft for some alpine paddling fun!  

backpacking in the mountains

I definitely got some surprised looks from the other ladies when I said I’d be taking my boat along. But carrying a raft on your back up a mountain isn’t as daunting as it sounds when you have an Alpacka packraft weighing in at 5.5 pounds, and your favorite Aqua-bound paddle at only 26 ounces.

At barely 7 pounds together, bringing them along for the ride was a no-brainer!  

Packrafting Highland Mary Lakes

As we set out on our hike that morning, the raised eyebrows and commentary from those we passed on the trail ranged from asking why I had sticks coming out of my pack to inquiring how in the world I got a boat to fit inside my pack.  

Luckily, the packraft and paddle stow perfectly in my Osprey Mutant pack. The pack’s wide bucket-style opening make it easy to slide the rolled packraft inside. And the side straps are perfectly designed for securing the 2-piece paddle.  

backpacking a packraft and paddles up the mountain
Backpacking the packraft and paddles up the mountain

 

After a 3-mile hike up, surrounded by gushing waterfalls and an abundance of wildflowers, we reached the serenity of the Highland Mary Lakes. We set out for some fun paddling while fielding comments about the boat from those hiking by, and snacking on the bag of Sour Patch Kids I had thrown in my bag.  

It was somewhere around this point I knew I’d managed to convince the other ladies they needed to march right back down the mountain and order packrafts of their own as soon as we reached phone service again.  

And as much as I loved the experience of having the boat out on the clear water of those beautiful lakes that day, exposing my friends—both new and old—to the wonders and versatility of packrafting was really the big win.

Our packrafting day was just one small part of the long weekend of loud laugher, quiet moments, hot coffee, delicious meals, mosquito bites, random adventures, shared passions, and lifelong connections.  

I left full of gratitude for wild-hearted women who I share the outdoors with, and plans to go packrafting in Utah in a few weeks with one of my newest adventure sisters.  

packrafting alpine lake
Packrafting beautiful Highland Mary Lakes in Colorado

 

Tips for Packrafting Alpine Lakes in Colorado

  • These lakes can be quite popular, so try to visit them on weekdays and non-holidays whenever possible.
  • The weather in the mountains can be unpredictable and dangerous, particularly when above the tree line. So be sure to check the forecast and respect any possible storm warnings.
  • Be careful when hiking with a paddle in your pack—it sticks out much more than you’re accustomed to. I’ve smacked more than my fair share of hiking friends with a paddle when I’ve forgotten how much taller I am with them in my pack!
  • Don’t forget the Sour Patch Kids. You’ll thank me later.

Must-Have Gear

  • I use an Alpacka Alpaca, a boat made in Colorado. It’s perfect for my small frame and my preference for floating the rivers of Utah and Colorado.
  • I paddle with a few different Aqua-Bound paddles, depending on the nature of the adventure. For this excursion, I brought along my Whiskey Fiberglass for its light weight and ability to breakdown into two pieces. The Whiskey is also now available in a 4-piece version.
  • It’s important to have a pack that can easily hold your gear. The perfect fit for me is the the Osprey Mutant, which is featured in these photos.
  • To quickly inflate your packraft in the backcountry, the Kokopelli Feather Pump is a brand new option and can’t be beat. At only 6 oz, you’ll hardly notice having it in your pack, and it inflates your boat in less than a minute.

Other Nearby Colorado Alpine Lakes to Check Out

  • Columbine Lake: 7 miles roundtrip; about 2,300 feet of elevation gain
  • Ice Lake: 7 miles roundtrip; about 2,400 feet of elevation gain
  • Blue Lake: 6.5 miles roundtrip; about 1,600 feet of elevation gain

Contact our Wisconsin-based customer service team today to help choose your packraft paddle: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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