McCullough Gulch Trail Review – The Best Moderate Hike in Breckenridge

McCullough Gulch Trail Review – The Best Moderate Hike in Breckenridge

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 the area. 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.

As of 2021, Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch require reservations for parking. If parking spots are not available, you can take a shuttle from town. Read here for more information.

Hiking McCullough Gulch

The first 0.7 miles is on a dirt road to the official trailhead, which is clearly marked – turn left here. 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. 

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 patches of snow 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. 

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. 

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.  

The 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

Getting There

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, 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. There’s extremely limited parking, so consider going on weekdays and carpooling if possible. 

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