The Ultimate Guide to Mount Sneffels and Blue Lakes Basin
Three miles isn’t long in a car. It isn’t long when you’re running your bi-weekly 5k on the treadmill. It isn’t even that long when you’re going on a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood. But when you have a 40 pound pack strapped to your back, and you’re walking at a steep incline up tree-root steps, and it’s 10:00 at night and pitch black outside and you’re in bear country, suddenly three miles is very, very long.
Dubbed the most beautiful mountain in Colorado, Mt. Sneffels is not a force to be reckoned with. Don’t let the playful name fool you-as soon as the jagged peak comes into view through your windshield, you’ll be hit with a strange mixture of excitement and “is it too late to turn back?”And yes, it is, because you just drove 7 hours to get here, and that’s alot of gas money. First tip of the day: Give yourself plenty of time to complete the hike to Lower Lake, if you plan to set up camp there. We didn’t arrive at the trailhead until dusk, after leaving Denver around 11:30 that morning. It’s a long drive, but the views make it 100% worth it-in fact, the mini road trip is half the fun.
Getting There: 6 hours of winding roads, cute mountain towns, and green forests, with panoramic views on all sides. Southern colorado has amazing rock structures that you won’t find near Denver-for example, you’ll pass right through Black Canyon National Park, which looks like something straight out of a prehistoric dinosaur film.
Finding the trailhead isn’t difficult. Any smartphone map app can take you to highway 62, and from there you’ll drive about 5 minutes to Country Rd 7 (a left turn) and take CR 7 9 miles south to the trailhead. It’s a bumpy road, but still accessible to 2WD. Just take your time.
You’ll be taking the path on the right to the Blue Lakes. It’s a beautiful trek, if you get there early enough in the day to see it (don’t be like us, arrive before 4!). There are no signs to mark your progress or even to assure you that you’re on the right path. The trail is relatively easy to follow, seeing that Jake and I did it in the dark, but there are a few spots that can trip you up if you aren’t paying attention.
Part 1: The Hike to the LakesI had an opportunity to snap some quick shots of the dense foliage and vivid fall colors on the way back. For a large portion of the hike, you’ll be hiking alongside a bubbling stream, and when you catch a view of a flowing waterfall, you’ll know you’re almost to Lower Lake. Once you get to Lower, you’ll see a sign with 2 arrows- one pointing straight for the lake and the other pointing to the left for Blue Lakes Pass. Lower Lake is a popular base camp sight for Sneffel’s hikers, and there’s plenty of smooth, grassy spots to pitch tent. Just make sure you’re within 100 feet of the trail and of the water. Because it was so dark and so late, Jake and I set up camp here, although I would suggest pushing through the next half mile to get to Middle and Upper Blue Lake, where the views of the surrounding San Juan peaks are even better.
After turning left at the sign for Blue Lakes Pass, you’ll cross a stream and start the tough incline to Middle Lake, where you’ll gain 500 feet in elevation over half a mile.
The climb is brutal, but while you’re charging through, don’t forget to take a moment or two to catch your breath and take in the amazing sights around you.
The next half mile or so you’ll cross by Middle Lake and finally make it to Upper Lake. Enjoy this smooth, easy going path, as it is your last taste of bliss before beginning the steep climb up the side of Sneffels.
Part 2: Switchbacking to the Saddle
As soon as you pass Upper Blue Lake, you’ll start the switchbacks up to Sneffels, whose peak you’ll be able to see to the left of the Lakes. Jake and I were confused and though the peak was directly above Upper Lake. It’s hard to tell because you’re climbing up the backside of the mountain, but most pictures you’ll see online will be of the front side. Don’t get confused like Jake and I did and start climbing in the wrong direction! I never realized what a great relationship I have with switchbacks until this hike. They’ll make the incline a little more bearable for you. We made good time to the saddle, where the path meets with Yankee Boy Basin.
Part 3: The Rocky Climb
From this point, the trail starts to get a little more technical. You’ll spend the next mile or so bouldering over steep drop offs and watching for loose rock. Now, I’m an absolute baby when it comes to heights and technical climbing, but I felt fine as far as safety goes. The boulders were big and sturdy enough that it wasn’t hard to find a good hand grip. There was a dirt path that was fairly easy to follow, and plenty of rocks to take a breather on. At the end of the day, there’s always a risk when bouldering up a class 3, but as long as you have the right gear (which we’ll talk about) and take your time, you’ll be fine.
Part 4: The Final Stretch
We had to call it quits for the pooch when the boulders got too big for his little legs to handle. We tried pushing him and pulling him up the tough parts at first, but ultimately it was too much work and was increasing the danger for us. At this point, I got Seger to settle in for a nap in the sun while I parked myself in a nice, sunny spot where I could view the summit and keep track of Jake’s where-abouts. He described that last mile of the hike as being a “giant playground”, full of nothing but tempting rock formations to climb on and over. There was a lot of loose rock and shale, however, so he had to be careful of his footing. It took him about an hour and a half to complete the final mile and make it back to where Seger and I sat waiting.
Part 5: The Descent
We didn’t waste any time lounging about once Jake returned; menacing grey clouds had rolled in and the air had grown considerable colder. We took our time bouldering back down the saddle, and then all but ran down the side of the mountain to get back to Upper Lake, where fresh, cool mountain water awaited us. After filtering about 3 liters for the 3.7 mile trek back to our car, we started up again at an incredible pace and made great time back to the trailhead, although I couldn’t help but stop to take a couple pictures on the way.
Final Tips & Tricks
The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to leave your dog at home. We read on multiple sights that the trail was “dog friendly” and it was, for the first 5 miles; however, unless there’s someone in your group willing to wait for everyone else to summit, it’s just easier and smarter not to drag the pup along. Seger is our little mountain goat and he loves climbing, but its hard to be careful on steep passes when you have a little four legged friend weaving in and out between your legs and dropping loose rock on you.
Secondly, make sure you eat. Alot. ALOT. Jake and I always eat a huge meal the day before the hike, because it’s impractical to carry a large amount of food on the trail. We stock up on calories the day before and then eat a light breakfast the morning of, then continue snacking on protein bars, jerky, and PBJ to keep our energy up while hiking. By the time we made it back to the car we were starving and ready for another giant meal!
You don’t need anything super technical to complete this hike. Trekking poles are always suggested; they really do make a difference. A good pair of hiking boots is necessary for this climb. There a handful 14ers out there that are doable in Nikes-this is not one of them. You’re going to be crossing a stream in several parts of the hike, and having a good pair of waterproof shoes will make it so much easier. Not to mention, a sturdy pair of boots will save you many a stubbed toe and maybe even a twisted ankle. The rocks near the top are sharp and merciless, our feet were sore enough in our Solomons, I can’t imagine how painful it would have been in tennis shoes. Besides shoes and poles (and basic camping necessities) you’ll just plenty of water, snacks, and chapstick. As far as clothing, I was very comfortable in my spyder ski jacket, tank top, Nike leggings and a pair of warm socks. I wish I had brought gloves, though, as I left mine in my backpack (we left our giant bags hidden in the woods and brought our lighter day packs for the climb up Sneffels) but besides being a little chilly, it just would have been helpful to have gloves to grab onto rocks as I climbed; my hands got pretty beaten up by the end of the day.
Jake and I agreed that the hike up Sneffels offered the most breathtaking views we’ve seen in Colorado. Our round trip took about 12 hours-2 hours to get to Lower Lake on our first night, 6 hours to summit from Lower Lake, and four hours to get back to the trailhead. The Blue Lakes route is considerably longer than the route through Yankee Boy Basin, but if you’re looking for an opportunity to get out in nature and enjoy the peaceful serenity of the great outdoors, it is the perfect route for you. If you just want bragging rights for another 14er as quickly and easily as you can get ’em, Yankee Boy Basin is calling your name. The trail was quiet and secluded, we only ran into a couple groups the entire trek. I would highly recommend this 14er for slightly more experienced climbers-you don’t have to be an expert, but it’s probably a good idea to have some challenging hikes underneath your belt before you attempt Sneffels. If you decide to take on the challenge, remember to bring plenty of food, leave the dog at home, and take LOTS OF PICTURES!