McCullough Gulch Trail: The Best Moderate Hike in Breckenridge

By: Ashley Vitiello | Last Updated on December 22, 2023
The McCullough Gulch Trail is one of the most scenic hikes in Colorado and features a waterfall, two alpine lakes, and great mountain views.

McCullough Gulch is a highly trafficked, moderately difficult, 6.4 mile round-trip trail just outside of Breckenridge, Colorado. This trail sees a lot of foot traffic for many reasons, one of which being that it’s one of the most beautiful and accessible trails in Summit County.

You’ll slowly climb from the parking area at 11,000 feet in elevation to an alpine lake above a large cascading waterfall, White Falls. The McCullough Gulch drainage is the valley north of Quandary Peak, so you will see the grand 14,000 feet peak to your south the entire hike. As you climb in elevation, you’ll start seeing Red Mountain to the East, which is an extremely lightly trafficked 13er. 

To avoid the crowds, we recommend hiking on week days or during the off-season, that way you can enjoy the magnificent views, waterfall, and two alpine lakes not surrounded by tons of other people.

Note: as of 2021, Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch require reservations for parking. If a parking reservation isn’t available, you can use a shuttle service from town. Read here for more information.

white falls mccullough gulch
White Falls on the McCullough Gulch Trail

Stats

Distance: 6.4 miles roundtrip (4 miles RT to first lake only)
Elevation Gain: 1,607 feet
Best Time to Hike: June-September (this varies depending on previous years’ snow accumulation)
Features: cascading waterfall, 2 alpine lakes, wildflowers, mountain views
Difficulty Rating: moderate to difficult
Starting Elevation: approx. 11,000 feet
Upper Lake Elevation: approx. 12,500 feet

Hiking McCullough Gulch

Forget-Me-Not Wildflowers

The first 0.7 miles is on a dirt road to the official trailhead, which is clearly marked – turn left at the sign board. This extra mileage is included in the total distance, but plan on walking the flat road a total of 1.4 miles during your hike.

Once you turn left at the trailhead, you’ll continue up a very old and worn down mining access road. It’s quite bumpy, but the width allows for easier passing of uphill and downhill hikers. Just after the footbridge, you’ll see an old mining cabin on the right (no public access). 

Continuing on, the trail will turn into a traditional single track hiking trail with many off shoots and social trails. Try to follow the main path best as possible, and look for signs pointing you in the right direction. Approximately 1.3 miles in, you can hear White Falls in the distance and will start to see parts of it through the trees on your left.

The first true viewpoint of the waterfall is at about 1.7 miles, where there’s some large boulders commonly used for lounging and listening to the water while indulging in a snack. This waterfall made our list for best Breckenridge waterfall hikes!

If you continue on past this point, the first alpine lake is only about another 0.3 miles up. Once you crest the ridge leading to the lake, it becomes extremely windy, so be prepared with a light jacket or wind breaker (Remember what to wear if you are hiking in the cold).

This lake is at about 11,900 feet in elevation, which is considered Alpine Tundra – here the trees start to thin and the wildflowers are small and low, giving them protection from the harsh winds. Keep an eye out for alpine Forget-Me-Not and Purple Fringe, among other species of wildflowers that only grow for about 6-8 weeks each year.

Even though we hiked this trail in late June, there’s still snow covered trail here and there, with the patches becoming larger and deeper the higher up you go. If you’re hiking in the summer, make sure you consider snowpack from the previous winter determines how late/early these high elevation areas will clear up. 

Beautiful alpine lake

Hike for another 1.2 miles to reach the upper alpine lake, which sits at just over 12,500 feet in elevation. If you can muster the extra strength, it’s well worth the work to get to the upper lake. Perfect views and alpine wildflowers await you – you may even see some of the resident mountain goats. 

As with any high elevation hike, it’s imperative to start early and finish (or at least be below tree line) by early afternoon. Pop up thunderstorms are frequent occurrences in the mountains and should be taken seriously.  Hiking in the rain is safe, but if lightning is involved, get down immediately!

When in doubt, turn around and attempt another day. Even if you only make it to the waterfall and lower lake, it’s well worth the effort and is sure to end up on your list as one of the top hikes in Breckenridge.

Directions to McCullough Gulch Trailhead

Hiking down the trail.

To get to the trailhead, head south out of Breckenridge on Highway 9 for a little over 7 miles. Just before the first switchback in the highway, you’ll turn right onto Blue Lakes Road. This road also accesses the Quandary Peak Trailhead and Blue Lakes, so you’ll see signs for that area. Take a right onto McCullough Gulch Road, which is a mere 75 yards ahead on the right after turning off the highway. You’ll continue on this dirt road until you reach a sign that says “no parking beyond this gate.” Park along the road in this area and continue past the gate on foot. This dirt road is quite bumpy, and while a 4WD vehicle is recommended, we’ve seen several cars that make it to the trailhead.

Make sure you bring all the day hiking essentials and break in your hiking boots before venturing out!

Nearby Hikes

Consider adventuring on one of these awesome nearby trails:

Pinterest Pins!

Save this for future reference on Pinterest!

Why Trust Know Nothing Nomads?

Since 2017, Know Nothing Nomads has cemented itself as the “approachable experts” in everything camping, hiking, climbing, and adventuring in the Great Outdoors.

With over 60 years of experience in the outdoors, we don’t just talk about outdoor gear or recommend a good hiking trail.

We USE the gear we talk about. We’ve hiked 1000’s of miles. We have camped 1000’s of nights in the wilderness. We have sent hundreds of boulders and projects.

We don’t just know a few things about the outdoors — WE EAT, SLEEP, AND BREATHE IT.

We are not journalists from a magazine telling someone else’s stories from behind a computer. We are the ACTUAL outdoorsmen that those people write about. 

We are not a “gear lab” that runs tests on gear in life-like conditions. We are the seasoned, “trial-by-fire” experts who have taken the gear into the wilderness and USED IT. Read about our gear testing process here

We started Know Nothing Nomads to share our passion and expertise with our readers to inspire, educate, and enable you to explore the outdoors in the way that we have. And you will be more equipped and capable than ever before with the knowledge you gain here guiding you along the way.

And the best part? We are real people that LOVE our readers and this community. If you need anything or have a question about any of the things we have to write about, just reach out. Normally, one of us can respond within 24 hours, sometimes within minutes. THAT is the approachable expert.

You should also know that advertising does not influence our gear reviews in any way, shape, or form, and it never will.

While we always focus our attention on gear that stands out to us—sometimes we discover that things aren’t up to our standards. This is exactly why we will always talk about the downfalls and compromises that we find while we are testing anything (If we find any).

About The Author

Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, wildflowers, scenic snacking, and mushrooms. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent years enjoying time outside doing things like hiking, camping, and rock climbing.
Her goal with Know Nothing Nomads is to make these hobbies easily accessible through knowledgeable content and how-to's based on all the stuff she's learned on her journey. If she isn't writing an article, she's probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.

Related Posts

Hey there!

We are Derek and Ashley of Know Nothing Nomads. Whether it is hiking, camping, or just generally being outside, we love it. We are so happy that you have found our little blog and hope that you stick around a while. Feel free to contact us with any questions or get in touch with us on social media!

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Know Nothing Nomads