Sand Mountain is one of the most beautiful mountains in the Elkhead Mountains. It rises to the west of Steamboat Lake, and is much photographed from that direction. It has a huge and crumbling east face, and the rest of the faces are gentler. Sand Mountain is the 3rd highest mountain in the range, after East Meaden Peak and Black Mountain, and just eight feet higher than Hahns Peak. Remarkably, the first four highest peaks are all within 40 feet in elevation. Sand Mountain is just barely above timberline, and receives heavy winter snows. In a normal year, the snowbanks on the mountain stay until mid or late August, and sometimes year-round.
Several aspects of the Elkheads make this a rather unique mountain range in Colorado. It is certainly possible that the Elkhead Mountains are the least known of the major mountain ranges in Colorado. This is partially because the range is a long way from any metropolitan area, and partially because the Elkheads are fairly low by Colorado standards, as there are no peaks reaching 11,000 feet. There are also few lakes, so the range isn’t visited by fishermen. Despite their low altitude, the Elkheads receive much snow, and snow lasts into July on the higher peaks. Most of the peaks in the Elkheads see very few ascents, but Hahns Peak, the eastern-most peak in the range is a popular climb for residents of Steamboat Springs. The Bears Ears see quite a few ascents by Elkhead standards, because of their prominent shape and visibility from the Yampa River Valley. Black Mountain is also climbed fairly often because it is the highest point in Moffat County, and the popularity is on the increase with more county highpointing interest. Most of the rest of the peaks see few ascents, and one ranger has told me some of the peaks only have a few names in the registers since 1980. Sand Mountain must be a fairly popular (by Elkhead standards) climb as well, as there is a trail to the top, and as it is the first and only mountain in the range where I have ever met anyone. This was on Labor Day weekend, 2005, when we saw 3 other hikers. So, there are few hikers around, but hunting is another story. The Elkheads are very popular for hunting in the fall and contain large populations of deer, elk, bear, etc.
One thing unique about the range is that hiker use is overall actually decreasing, rather than increasing as it is in most places in Colorado. The summit registers (which the Forest Service keeps record of) on most peaks indicate that they have had more ascents in the 1960’s and 1970’s than they do now. Even before that, there were many summit logs from the 1930’s and 1940’s from sheepherders.
The Elkhead Mountains are made of old volcanic rocks 17-25 million years old. Sand Mountain itself appears to be made of several types of volcanic rocks including some sort of ash or tuff(??) that makes the sand that Sand Mountain is named for. One thing unusual is that the Elkhead Mountains run west to east as opposed to north and south as most of the ranges run in North America. It is impossible to describe the general forms of the peaks because they are all so different, but most of the peaks are isolated rises from a huge plateau which forms the bulk of the Elkheads.
Sand Mountain is perhaps the easiest of the major peaks in the Elkheads to climb since a pretty good trail reaches the summit. If the trailhead was easier to find, it would undoubtedly be a more popular peak since it isn’t too far from Steamboat Springs.
Sand Mountain (center) as viewed from the west side and around California Park.
The topo maps available don’t show the roads or trails on Sand Mountain accurately. The closest one that bears resemblance to reality is the Forest Service Map-Routt National Forest, but it is of a small scale. The USGS maps don’t show many of the roads in the areas, but seem to show roads and trails that don’t exist; at least not any more.
The USGS has (finally) updated the 7.5 minute maps. They were scheduled to be produced for Colorado last year, but I’m not sure when they will hit all the stores. Right now you can get/see/print/buy the new 7.5 minute maps on My Topo.
The good news is that all the roads and trails are FINALLY accurate for the Elkhead Mountains (and undoubtedly other areas as well). After receiving the new maps, I am very pleased to see that the roads and trails are in the right places. I am also very pleased that the USGS has a new agreement with the US Forest Service and within the national forest service areas, the private land holdings are shaded (but only in USFS areas, land ownership is not shown outside FS lands) on the 7.5 minute scale maps.
Without directions, these trailheads aren’t exactly easy to find, so I took lots of notes and have done my best to explain them. On our first attempt, we failed to find the correct trailhead, so these directions should help, even if they sound slightly confusing! The maps of the area are not accurate!!
VIA STEAMBOAT SPRINGS
Option #1, East Loop:
From Steamboat Springs, drive to the north end of town and to where County Road 129 leaves Highway 40. A sign marks "Clark" and "Hahns Peak". This is the same road heading to the airport. Drive north on CR 129 for approximately 26 miles. Pass Steamboat Lake and turn left on County Road 62. Drive County Road 62 west and south for about 3.5 miles to FR 42 on the right. Turn right on FR 42 and drive for 0.6 miles to the forest service gate. This gate is locked until July 1st each year. Drive County Road 42 for 1.5 miles to where FR 480 (east loop) takes off to the left. The road here is bumpy, but still passable to 2wd’s if you go slowly. Turn left on to FR 480 which is a very rough 4wd road. Before driving this road, make sure you have a competent 4wd. We witnessed a grouse hunter damage his Dodge Durango on this road, so use caution. Follow the rough FR 480 for 3.3 miles to where the better road 480A turns left. Follow 480A for 0.5 miles to its end. This is the trailhead.
Another possible trailhead is road 480B (see the Routes Overview). From the junction of FR 480 and FR 480A as mentioned above, you can also turn right on 480 instead of left on 480A. If you do this, follow FR 480 for 0.8 miles to FR 480B. Turn left on FR 480B and follow this short road to its end.
Option #2, West Loop:
If you don’t have a 4wd, and if you want to minimize road walking, you may want to choose this option. From the Junction of County Road 42 and FR 480 (east loop), continue straight along County Road 42 and follow the bumpy road for another ~3.7 miles. The west loop of FR 480 takes off to the left. Park here if you have a 2wd, or follow FR 480 left for 0.4 miles to 480B (see above). To reach the trailhead at 480A, continue on FR 480 for another 0.8 miles to the junction of FR 480A. Turn right on 480A and follow it 0.5 miles to the trailhead.
From Walnut Street in Hayden, turn north on Walnut, a.k.a. County Road 76, and follow it north for 0.7 miles to County Road 80. Turn right on (gravel) County Road 80 and follow it for 27.3 miles to FR 42. Turn right on FR 42. The first 2.5 miles of FR 2.5 are pretty good, but it quickly turns into a 4wd road after that. The rough section last for 1.4 miles and ends at a saddle. Continue straight at the saddle (instead of heading left), and follow FR 42 for another 0.8 miles. At this point, FR 480-West Loop takes off to the right. See the above paragraph for directions to the trailhead from here.
Along the north ridge looking south at the summit of Sand Mountain.
The easiest route on the mountain is the route via Trail #1175 via FR 480A. This is actually a pretty good trail, though there are some fallen logs to cross and the trail is steep in places. How long the route is depends on what type of vehicle one has. If you have a 4wd and are willing to drive some punishing roads, the route is only 3 miles and with 1500 feet elevation gain. If you have a 2wd, the route is at longer.
The summit of Sand Mountain, looking north. East Meaden Peak is in the background.
An alternate route is via FR 480B. From the end of that road, a trail climbs south to a saddle between the two Meaden Peaks and then drops to the meadows to the south. From there, you could climb to the north ridge of Sand Mountain, via the saddle between East Meaden and Sand Mountain, and then follow the ridge to the summit, but there is no trail. Expect to do some scrambling and boulder-hopping as well.
This is the northwest side of Sand Mountain as viewed from along the trail from FR 480B.
The west side of the mountain appears to have some bushwhacking and scrambling routes from the California Park area, but there is no trail and this is a much longer route than the ones from FR 480.
The east face appears that it would have some nice steep snow routes up some couloirs in the spring, but rockfall would be a serious concern on any of the routes on the east side. Though steep, the east face is made of very poor quality rock and technical climbs are out of the question.
Meaden Peak East can be combined with Sand Mountain for a nice loop hike. From the summit of Sand Mountain, I followed the ridge straight over the top of Sand Mountain’s north summit and down to the Meaden Peak East/Sand Mountain saddle, but it’s probably easier to follow the Sand Mountain trail back down towards the trailhead until you can skirt around most of the extensive talus fields. Even with climbing both peaks, this is just a vigorous half day climb if you are in reasonable shape.
Sand Mountain as viewed from the saddle between Meaden Peak East and Sand Mountain on July 26 2008.
No permits are required.
When To Climb
July through early September could be considered the normal season to climb the mountain. The access road doesn’t open until July 1, but the roads could certainly be walked, snowshoed, or skied before then. The Elkheads are a very popular hunting destination in September and October (until snow closes the road), so use extreme caution at this time of year. In winter, this mountain isn’t that far from the road closure, so it could be climbed in two days, or possibly in one very long day in winter. Apparently the Northeast face of Sand Mountain has had a ski descent by an extreme skier!
This is the final push to the summit from the route from 480A in September.
There are many informal campsites along the road to the trailhead after you reach the forest boundary. Also in the area are the campgrounds at Pearl Lake and Steamboat Lake State Park. These are crowded on summer weekends, and reservations are recommended. Hahns Peak Lake is a Forest Service Campground in the area. All the campgrounds are fee-use areas.
Below is the National Weather Service Climate Summary of Steamboat Springs. The data is from 1908-2005. This is the closest long term weather station, but be aware that higher elevations will be much wetter and colder. Steamboat Springs is at 6695 feet elevation, so expect the temperatures on Sand Mountain to be 10-20 degrees colder than in Steamboat (except for cold winter nights).