Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
book store price: $22.95
buy it here for only
$18.95click to order
Distance: 13.4 miles (loop)
Elevations: 3,500 ft. gain/loss
Cornet Creek Trailhead (start): 8,900 ft.
Pack Basin Pass: 12,250 ft.
Mill Creek Basin: 11,100 ft.
Epees Park: 9,640 ft.
Trail: Well marked, well maintained
Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from mid-November through June.
Vicinity: Near Telluride
Links to other sites:
Ordering books & Maps
Comments about this site or our book:
Where else but in Telluride could one ever expect to find a scenic 13-mile alpine loop trail that begins practically in the center of town! The Sneffels Highline Trail is a Colorado classic, and it is a fitting addition to one of the most interesting and picturesque towns in the state.
Telluride is almost completely surrounded by mountains, and hiking is a popular summer sport among its residents. Many of the nearby trails and bike paths follow old mining roads that were built during the first half of the last century. Some sections of the Sneffels Highline Trail also follow these older trails, but in 1990 the Forest Service undertook a project to create a loop by connecting several of the older trails north of the city. The result of the effort was the Sneffels Highline Trail. The trail was so named because two miles of the loop lie within the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area, and it is hoped that someday this part of the trail will be extended further into the preserve.
The trail starts out along the east side of Cornet Creek, but after just 100 feet you will come to a small footbridge that you must cross to the west side of the stream. (The trail up the east side of the creek ends at Cornet Falls 0.2 miles away.) After crossing the bridge you will be on the Jud Wiebe Trail, named after a locally famous forest ranger who died of cancer in 1986.
As the path climbs along the slopes northwest of Telluride it passes some great views of the town and the valley below. Telluride is located in the bottom of a deep glacial valley with an extraordinarily flat bottom and high mountains on three sides. Many of the peaks on the north, east, and south sides of the town are over 12,000 feet high and a few exceed 13,000 feet. The town is an ideal location for a ski resort, and many sky runs are clearly evident on the slopes across of the valley. You can also see the gondolas on the Mountain Village tramway creeping slowly up the side of the mountain, and as you gain altitude the Mountain Village itself will begin to come into view.
Initially you will be walking through a forest of Douglas fir, but as the trail climbs higher it enters an aspen forest. After 0.9 mile you will come to a small sign marking the junction where the Mill Creek Trail departs from the Jud Wiebe Trail. The Mill Creek Trail is one of the trails that comprise the Sneffels Highline Loop, and you must bear left at this point. Within two minutes after leaving the Jud Wiebe Trail the path crosses Butcher Creek and comes to another junction. This is the start of the Sneffels Highline Loop, and I suggest that you turn right at this point. Some hikers prefer to bear left at the junction because the uphill portion of the trail is not quite as steep if the hike is walked in a clockwise direction. However in my opinion the scenery is slightly better if the loop is followed in a counterclockwise direction, and that is the route I will describe here.
Between 1901 and about 1916 there was a large building in Epees Park, the flat area where the Jud Wiebe and Sneffels Highline Trail junctions are located. The building was called the "county pest house", and its purpose was a quarantine facility for victims of pestilence (diphtheria, scarlet fever, and other contagious diseases). Unfortunately there is no trace of the building now, but you can still see remnants of an historic waterline that once carried water through Eppes Park to the town below.
After leaving Epees Park the Sneffels Highline Trail follows Butcher Creek to its source, 0.6 miles away, and then continues climbing northward up the steep canyon. After you have climbed about 1,500 feet from the junction the trail passes a notch in the ridge between Butcher Creek Canyon and Lower Mill Creek Basin where you can enjoy a fine view of the rugged country that surrounds Mill Creek. The return part of the loop crosses the western side of Lower Mill Creek Basin, but the trail is well hidden below the dense forest and canít be seen from the notch.
Another 500 feet of elevation gain will bring you to the bottom of Pack Basin, an incredibly scenic alpine bowl that lies just below the western side of Mount Emma (13,581 ft.). The trail passes the remains of an old minerís cabin as it approaches the basin, and a short while later the forest suddenly ends at the edge of the tundra. The canopy of spruce and subalpine fir gives way to an open meadow of grasses and wildflowers, protected on two sides by a ring of 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks. Ahead the trail can be seen switchbacking up the north side of the bowl to the top of Pack Basin Pass.
The summit of Pack Basin Pass is one of those special places in Colorado where the magic of the mountains seems to penetrate deep into oneís soul. The view to the south is across Pack Basin to the ski runs above Telluride and beyond to the Lizard Head Wilderness Area. The distant skyline is dominated by Lizard Head Rock and Mount Wilson (14,246 ft.), the highest point in the San Juan Range. To the north are Mill Creek Basin, Gilpin Peak (13,694 ft.) and Dallas Peak (13,804 ft.). Mount Sneffels, one of Coloradoís best-known fourteeners, is just two miles away, but unfortunately it is hidden behind Gilpin Peak.
From the top of the pass the trail descends down the western slopes of Mount Emma into Mill Creek Basin. This part of the trail is north facing and the ground is usually covered with snow well into July. The snow can make for an exciting 500-foot glissade into Mill Creek Basin, and for that reason many Telluride residents prefer to do this hike in June. Once the trail reaches the bottom of the basin it continues along the north side of Mill Creek for the next mile, past an impressive waterfall, and then veers off to the right. Keep an eye out for elk along the sides of the basin. This area is a favorite summer grazing area for the large animals and they are seen on a fairly regular basis. Soon after the waterfall the creek turns south and drops into Lower Mill Creek Basin while the trail continues eastward into the Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area.
The trail stays in the wilderness area for 2.0 miles, then turns south along the ridge separating Mill Creek from Eider Creek. After following the ridge for ten minutes you will come to a signed junction where the trail intersects the Deep Creek Trail. The route turns left at this point and begins descending down the east side of the ridge.
After following the Deep Creek Trail for 1.5 miles you will come to a junction near Mill Creek where another trail branches off to the south and follows the creek down to Last Dollar Road. You are only 0.5 miles from the road at this point, and if you choose to turn right you will arrive at the Telluride water treatment plant after a 15-minute walk. Most people, however, prefer to bear left at the junction in order to complete the loop back to the Cornet Creek Trailhead where the hike began. This choice requires an additional 2.3 miles of walking, but it also avoids the hassle of arranging a car shuttle from the water treatment plant.
Shortly after passing the spur trail to the water treatment plant the Deep Creek Trail crosses Mill Creek and turns south along the east side of the stream. This section of trail is known locally as the Waterline Trail because it follows the route of the old waterline that once brought water from Mill Creek to Telluride. Along the way you will see bits and pieces of the waterline and its associated equipment littering the forest. The Waterline Trail follows the contour of the land south and then east for 1.9 miles to Epees Park where the Sneffels Highline Loop began. From there you can retrace your steps the last 0.9 mile down the Jud Wiebe Trail to the Cornet Creek Trailhead.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Sneffels Highland Trail
Silverton, Ouray, Telluride (Trails Illustrated, map #141)
Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS