• Jay

Backpacking in Southwestern Colorado

I finally have the time to write and share some images from our backpacking trip in Colorado this summer. Amy and I had a Colorado trip scheduled for the summer to visit family and attend a yearly conference she has in Aspen. Between those two events, I hoped to find a backpacking trip we could take on our drive between Durango and Aspen.

I researched for weeks, looking for something of moderate difficulty with some beautiful nature. We settled on the Mt Sneffels wilderness just outside of Telluride, CO. Our plan was to hike 3.5 miles on day one from the Blue Lakes parking area to Lower Blue Lake. On day two we would depart Lower Blue Lake, passing the upper lakes, to summit Mt Sneffels and return to our campsite, covering 9 miles and over 3,000ft of elevation gain. Day three we would pack out back to the car.

As our trip was planned for the middle of July, we hoped that we might get lucky and hit the wildflower bloom. We got lucky.

Wildflowers Everywhere

Mt Sneffels is the 27h highest peak in Colorado, standing 14,157'. It is most easily accessible from the town of Ouray, CO, through Yankee Boy basin. From there it is rated as a moderately strenuous day hike to the summit. We took an alternate route, through the Blue Lakes area, to make it an overnight trip. This made our summit day hike significantly more difficult than the standard Yankee Boy route. Despite the difficlutly, I would highly recommend this route to anyone considering Sneffels summit. Both the leg to Lower Blue Lake and the portion to the summit from the lakes are seriously incredible.

Clean and fresh parking lot selfie

Our first day hiking started from the Blue Lakes parking area around 10:30am. The hike begins easily enough, winding through evergreens and woods. Our packs were probably heavier than they needed to be, as we are experienced campers, but only moderately experienced backpackers. A few miles into the hike this became even more evident, as we reached a set of switchbacks that seemed never-ending.

Packing up in the parking lot

Not a terribly exciting trailhead sign

Entering Mt Sneffles WIlderness

As happened on several instances on this trip, I had possibly played down the difficulty of this initial hike to the Blue Lakes camping area to Amy. After 45 mins of switchbacks with 40lb packs, she wasn't amused.

Not amused with the 40lb pack

After 2.5 hours of hiking we reached lower Blue Lake and searched for a campsite. We initially decided on a spot to the right of the lake as you approach where many other tents had been pitched. As we so often do, Amy and I were not satisfied with our initial choice and continued to search for alternate sites once we had secured something decent.

Creek crossing to get to better campsites

Our search took us across a small creek to the left as you approach lower Blue Lake (on the trail to the upper lakes) where there were a few much better and completely unused campsites. If you go to the Blue Lakes to camp, cross the creek on the left, along the trail to the upper lakes, and camp 100 yards up the trail there. The view of the lower lake is beautiful and no one else seems to venture there to find a campsite.

View from our second and final campsite

Excited about the second/amazing campsite

View from 'Dinner Rock' where we boiled our water and ate dinner

A loud clap of thunder quickly ended this exploration/photo session of nearby waterfall

Rain in Colorado in July is a matter of when not if. We got lucky on the first day, as it just started to rain after we had our not very satisfying dehydrated pad thai and mexican rice pouches.

Day two started at 5am in the dark. In an attempt to get to the upper lakes for sunrise, we scrambled around with headlamps, securing cameras, water bladders, breakfast, rain gear, etc. At 5:30 we set off for the Upper Lakes and Mt Sneffles summit.

About 200 yards into what was going to be a long day we had to cross another stream. I had successfully crossed two streams with 40lbs on my back without getting my feet wet the day before. Now with a 10lb pack and completely fresh legs, I managed to submerge completely my left shoe in said creek. With 8 hours of hiking ahead of me and a soaked foot, I was not very amused.

Dawn breaking over Lower Blue Lake, 30 mins into the long hike to Sneffels.

Dawn on Dallas Peak. Hiking in the opposite direction, I kept having to stop to take photos behind us.

The next 2 hours took us past another small lake, before arriving at the uppermost of the Blue Lakes. We stopped here to eat our dehydrated breakfast pouches. Top Tip: DO NOT TRY the 'Good To Go' 'Oatmeal' pouch with Quinoa, Chia and Hemp Hearts. Get two pouches of their 'Granola' for breakfast instead. The 'Oatmeal' looks like cat vomit and tastes like wet socks. The granola, thank goodness, is actually quite good. Amy and I shared them, both pretending to eat the awful oatmeal, beofre passing it back to the other person and cruching the granola.

The first of the Upper Lakes

Not a bad spot for breakfast at Upper Blue Lake

One wet foot and some nasty oatmeal. This view made up for it.

We then hiked up an hour and 1,200 ft of elevation on switchbacks to Blue Lakes Pass. From here you get your first good view of Sneffels and a view into Yankee Boy Basin. The view from the bottom of Lavender Colouir, our way to the summit, is daunting. From Blue Lakes Pass we hiked down into Yankee Boy Basin about a half a mile to link up with the trail that would proceed up Lavender Colouir to the summit.

Route to the top of Mt Sneffels up Lavender Colouir

From the start of Lavender Colouir, the hike to the summit of Sneffels in no joke. You have two choices; either you hike up the left side of the boulder field on giant 3-6 foot rocks or you scramble up the right side on tiny pebbles, losing your footing and sliding around everywhere. Ultimately, after trying both, we settled on the boulders over the scree. It was exhausting, but at least on the bigger rocks you had (relatively) secure footing and didn't have to use you hands to keep from sliding down the mountain.

Almost up the first scree field. We chose the boulder side.

After an hour of grueling climbing and sliding we reached a saddle. Amy turned to me with a giant smile and said something like, 'I can't believe we made it to the top!'. I'm not sure how she got the idea that this was the top, but we were only about halfway up the awful rock field. The colouir continued to our left for another 45 minutes. It was rough.

View from the saddle where Amy thought we were finished

At the top of the second leg of colouir scrambling is 'The Notch'. This is supposedly the most difficult part of reaching the summit of Mt Sneffels. In my opinion it is not. Several groups had stopped here, refusing to squeeze through the tight V-Shaped gap in the rocks to continue the 100 yards to the summit. I was flabbergasted that anyone would come all this way and stop here, so close to the summit. The V Notch was a non-issue of us. It is a little scary because you have to search a little for semi blind hand and foot holds, but it is a two movement maneuver and once you're through, the remaining bit to the summit is a breeze.

Looking down on the saddle from the top of the second leg of Lavender Colouir

View down from The Notch on the right

The summit was magnificent. We were there with only one other guy. We snapped pictures and ate snacks for about 20 minutes. In those 20 minutes, however, we could see the weather changing quickly. We decided it was time to head back.

Summit Panorama

Summit View toward Ouray

Summit View over Upper and Lower Blue Lakes. The farthest/smallest sliver of lake is where we began the day, The weather was obviously buiding to the East.

Thank goodness we made it past the rock scramble part on the way down before the weather turned. It sprinkled, thundered and flashed lightning all around us for an hour. After an hour of that fun, the hail began. Luckily the hail was small enough not to hurt. It rained/hailed on us for 3 of the 4 hour trip back to our camp.

The weather turning halfway down Lavender Colouir

Exhausted and back at camp around 2pm, we ate PB&J and Mac and Cheese bowls and climbed into the tent. We slept for 2 hours.

Dinner and the hike back to the car the next day were relatively uneventful. Our packs, now 50% lighter from the lack of food and water, were much easier to manage. The wildflowers were still unbelieveable!

Overall it was an incredible trip and one I would recommend to anyone looking for an overnight 14er summit in Colorado.

Dirty and exhausted parking lot selfie

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