Hiking has been more popular than ever with people looking for something to do during the pandemic, and it’s considered one of the safest activities. If you are ready for a longer hike and something a bit more off the beaten path, try the Fancy Pass-Missouri Lakes Loop Trail in the Holy Cross Wilderness.
During the summer, I typically like to hike up Overlook Trail on Beaver Creek Mountain; Berry Picker near Vail; or the Minturn Mile Trail up to Eagle’s Nest on Vail Mountain — and then take the gondola down (to help save my knees). But, after a summer of getting a lot of hiking in, I thought I’d venture away from my usual treks and try a new trail. I have always heard of Missouri Lakes and Fancy Pass, and a friend who had done the loop before invited me to go along. I love it when I can go with someone who knows the territory.
The Fancy Pass-Missouri Lakes Loop trailhead is near Homestake, just south of Minturn on your way to Camp Hale and Tennessee Pass. Even though my friend knew the area, I like to see the map and descriptions so I enlisted the help of the “Vail Hiker” by Mary Ellen Gilliland, “The Best Hikes of Colorado” by Christina Williams and the All Trails app to make sure we were going in the right direction.
We brought the “Vail Hiker” book with us since it is a lightweight spiral-bound book that fits easily into your backpack. It’s good to have the map and description on hand just in case cell phone batteries die or there’s a lack of a cell phone signal on the hike.
After following directions to the parking area, off we went. We started at 10 a.m. on a nice sunny fall day, but we were prepared with layers for changing weather and temperature variances due to altitude. Keep in mind, for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, the temperature can drop 3-4 degrees. The elevation gain on this hike is 2,550 feet and the starting elevation is above 10,000 feet. We dressed in layers also knowing we’d work up a sweat going uphill.
We decided to do Fancy Pass first. According to the “Vail Hiker,” Fancy Pass was named after Joe Fancy’s bustling mining camp in the early 1880s. It’s hard to believe there were once 20 cabins and a water-powered stamp mill to process local ores. Down the road was Holy Cross City, which was home to two ore mills during the boom-bust era. We had plenty of time on the hike to marvel about how they got the ore from the mines down Homestake Road to the Denver & Rio Grande rail line to deliver the goods to Denver. Those miners were tough, and we let that be an inspiration to keep going on this trail when our energy waned.
After winding through the trees on the lower portion of Fancy Pass, we reached Fancy Creek about a mile in. This was a good spot to shed a layer and take a few photos. Then, onward to Fancy Lake, where many more photo opportunities followed. At this point, we consulted “Vail Hiker” again to make sure we were heading toward the lake. Luckily, we weren’t too far behind a group of women, who actually were from Vail, and could hear their hoots and hollers once they reached the lake, so we knew we were close and followed their sounds of excitement.
Fancy Lake is a great place to take a rest, grab a bite to eat from the backpack and roam around on some of the side hikes to Mulhall Lakes, Holy Cross City or Cleveland Lake. After taking a few photos, we opted to keep going upward to stay on schedule.
After Fancy Lake, we psyched ourselves up for what the “Vail Hiker” calls a “dizzying climb” to Fancy Pass, which lies at 12,380 feet above sea level. We pulled out the “Vail Hiker” book at this point to make sure we were going in the right direction after the stop at Fancy Lake. We followed the directions to the “rock-paved” Fancy Pass road, which would take the miners and their loads down to Holy Cross City. This “road” was about as wide as a sidewalk and once again, I wondered just how the miners survived with such primitive equipment and passageways.
The climb to Fancy Pass from this point is short, about one-half of a mile, but that “dizzying” description fit the bill when my friend said she felt a bit dizzy, so we sat for a bit to catch our breath. The trail is almost non-existent at this point. We were scaling over rocks and some scree was underfoot. We took it slowly and watched our foot placement. The thought that we were so close to the top was inspiration enough to keep going. And, we again thought about those resilient miners who worked day-in and day-out in the mines in these conditions.
The huffing and puffing was worth it once we arrived at the top of Fancy Pass. From here we could see the Ten Mile Range, Mosquito Range and Missouri Pass, which was the next climb. But before we went on, we enjoyed lunch at the top of Fancy Pass. We ate quickly because it was really windy at the top, so we tried to huddle behind some rocks. The sun was warm but the breeze was cold. We did see a lone mountain goat high up on a point to the south of us, his white furry body framed by the dramatic dark blue sky.
Up next, some downhill trekking! Yay! But, it was short-lived. From Fancy Pass, the trail winds through a basin cut by tiny streams. Treasure Vault Lake and Blodgett Lake were below us. This area is a bit more protected from the wind and may make for a better place to stop for lunch instead of windy Fancy Pass. Here, we saw the ladies from Vail who had been ahead of us. They were having lunch and relaxing on a huge rock, out of the wind that plaques the summit.
We had one more uphill before going all downhill on the rest of this hike, which totals 10 miles. Missouri Pass is 11,986 feet above sea level and the trail is easy to follow and very attainable after summiting Fancy Pass. We kept our cameras handy to snap a few photos once we got to the top of Missouri Pass. Below were 14 turquoise-colored lakes and ponds in a basin of golden late-season vegetation.
We spent some time stopping and respectfully wandering around the lakes taking photos and having another snack before traveling approximately four miles back to the parking lot. While we were relaxing, we took out the “Vail Hiker” book and read more about the wild times of the boom and bust days of the 1880s.
My feet were feeling it on the last mile or two at the end of the hike. Once again, I thought about those miners and told myself to toughen up. We got back to the car at 4:30 p.m., over six hours after we started. The guide books will give you time estimates and it all depends on how fast you go and how many rest stops you take. I’d suggest allowing the whole day so you can take things at your own pace and not rush back.
The Fancy Pass-Missouri Lakes Loop was a bucket list item for me and I’d do it again. Next time I’d like to do a trip in the middle of wildflower season. I felt pretty prepared with water, snacks and adequate clothing, but here’s a list of things I wish I’d had:
Hiking poles: Ideally, you want adjustable backcountry poles so you can change the height for uphill and downhill trekking. Ski poles will work if you don’t have adjustable poles. Sometimes you can find a walking stick on the trail if you’re lucky enough to find one that fits your height.
Arch support: I switched shoes on this trip and didn’t wear my hiking shoes that have arch support insoles. Make sure you are wearing hiking shoes that are broken in, fit well and offer support to your arches. It makes a big difference after all those miles on uneven terrain.
Hands-free hydration system: I had my water bottles with me when I should have taken my CamelBak. You want to have both hands free to scale some of the terrain on the east side of Fancy Pass near the top. You also want to keep your hands free to take plenty of photos.
Sunscreen: Sunscreen only works if you apply it. I left the house without it and thought, “I’ll be OK, it’s late in the season.” Wrong. My exposed skin on my neck and chest got sunburned and I felt so foolish for letting that happen since I promote wearing sunscreen all the time.
Hiking is a wonderful activity to do during the fall. It is a great way to get in shape for the upcoming ski and snowboard season and don’t forget, many of the trails we love to hike on during the summer become great snowshoe trails in the winter. See you out on the trail!