Length: 6 miles roundtrip, and about 2,900 vertical feet from the AWD trailhead
Difficulty: Most difficult, including Class 3 scrambling near the summit
Why We Love It: The area’s craggy, snow-capped peaks and grassy meadows carpeted with colorful flowers seem more reminiscent of the Alps than the Rockies.
When To Go: July through September, once most of the snow has melted away
Pre-hike Buzz: Forego your morning joe for an early start to avoid thunderstorms and leave plenty of time to get back to your car. But treat yourself to a well-earned soak in Ouray’s recently-renovated hot springs afterwards.
Restrooms: Outhouse at the AWD trailhead
Distance from Denver: About 300 miles, or a six-and-a-half-hour drive
Dogs: No restrictions, but the hike’s difficulty may make it questionable for canines.
Mt. Sneffels is the state’s 27th highest fourteener. Now, 27 might not be the most memorable number ever, but this fourteener is anything but forgettable. Mt. Sneffels—named after Snæfell, an Icelandic volcano featured in Jules Verne’s classic book, Journey to the Center of the Earth— is a Class 3 hike that involves some scrambling and exposure. It should only be attempted by experienced hikers, and hiking poles are highly recommended.
The mountain is situated in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness of Uncompahgre National Forest, and its trail accessed via the Yankee Boy Basin. The basin is one of Colorado’s best wildflower viewing areas, and is particularly spectacular mid-summer, when large patches of columbine dot the steep slopes beneath its crown of craggy peaks. Just getting to the start of the hike at the lower trailhead involves a bumpy ride on a rough road (there is also an upper trailhead—which shortens the distance by about half—but it’s only accessible with a high-clearance 4WD vehicle). To start your hike at the 11,300-foot lower trailhead, begin walking up the rough road, and turn right at the two junctions you encounter. The road ends at the 4WD trailhead at about 12,500 feet elevation.
From the upper trailhead, continue northwest following the rocky trail signed toward both Mt. Sneffels and Blue Lakes until a trail junction at about 12,600 feet. Stay right here, following the sign to Sneffels to ascend several switchbacks that lead to a steep scree slope. Pick your way carefully up this loose slope, veering toward the more solid material on the left side to keep from tiring yourself out.
At the top of this slope, around 13,550 feet, there is a saddle. The route proceeds up a steep, narrow gully to the left (northwest); follow this gully to within about 35 feet of its top, taking care to avoid entering a smaller, yellowish gully that branches off on the left side about halfway up. Near the top of the main gully, you’ll see a small, V-shaped notch to the left, which leads toward the summit. Scrambling up through this notch requires mounting several large steps, with some exposure from a drop-off to the left.
Once through the notch, you’re 10 minutes and some easy, Class 3 scrambling from the summit, where you’re treated to stellar panoramic views of Colorado’s broadest mountain range. These range from Telluride’s steep ski slopes to the south and pyramid-shaped Uncompaghre Peak, another fourteener, to the east, with the slightly lower, 14,106-foot-high Wetterhorn Peak directly in front of it.
Once you’ve enjoyed the million-dollar views, carefully retrace your steps back to your car.
Getting there: From downtown Ouray, follow Main Street (U.S. 550) about 0.25 miles south of town to the junction with Camp Bird Road, which is signed to Camp Bird and Yankee Boy Basin. Reset your odometer at the start of this dirt road, which when dry is accessible to most 2WD vehicles. After 4.8 miles, you’ll reach a junction with a mine road; continue straight here toward Yankee Boy Basin. At 5.5 miles, you’ll pass beneath a nerve-wracking overhanging cliff. Drive beneath it to continue up the road, staying right to remain on the road signed to Yankee Boy Basin at the Imogene Pass junction. About 7 miles from the start of the dirt, you’ll arrive at the junction between the Yankee Boy and Governor Basin roads. This is the 2WD trailhead. Most AWDs should be able to veer right here and drive another 0.75 mile to the lower trailhead, where there’s an outhouse. To continue driving beyond this point, you must have a high-clearance 4×4. Limited parking is available at the 4×4 trailhead.
Logistics: Dispersed, low-impact camping is allowed near the trailhead. This route requires some scrambling near the top. For safety considerations, detailed route descriptions, and recent access and trail conditions visit 14ers.com.