Perhaps one of the reasons you head for the Colorado Rockies is the wealth of national parks and monuments. Maybe you enjoy the amazing increase in distance from high altitude golf. If you are a hiker, perhaps you welcome the opportunity to climb one of Colorado’s famous fourteeners. If that’s the case then this hike up Clear Creek County’s 13,234 foot Mt. Sniktau is an excellent warmup. The entire hike occurs above 12,000 feet. You will find out quickly if your lungs and legs are acclimated to the thin and dry air that comes with high altitude hiking. It isn’t a long hike, but it’s a tester. This hike occurred on Sunday, July 24, 2011 from 7:40am to about 12:10pm. The Mt. Snitkau trail begins at Loveland Pass on Colorado State Highway 6 just east of the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. It’s climbing all the way, with alternative trails to Grizzly Peak and beyond to Torreys Peak.
Hike Length: 4.0 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous climbing Blaze: None needed
Elevation Gain: 1394 feet Hike Configuration: Up and back
Trail Condition: Very rocky and overused
Starting Point: The trailhead is at Loveland Pass along state Highway 6.
Trail Traffic: Busy. There are dozens of others.
How to Get There: From I-70 take the Loveland Pass exit, passing the Loveland Ski Area on Highway 6 and go to the top of Loveland Pass. You can also take Highway 6 from Dillon through Keystone resort to the top of Loveland Pass.
View Hiking Mt. Sniktau from Loveland Pass in a larger map
SAFETY WARNINGWhen hiking above treeline it is very important to be cognizant of the surrounding weather conditions. Rocky Mountain weather can change very quickly, especially above 12,000 feet. Those massive mountain peaks are natural magnets for summer afternoon thunderstorms and their accompanying lightning, wind, rain and hail. You do not want to get caught on a summit in a lightning storm! You should always get an early start, and it’s a good rule of thumb to be off the mountain by noon. Equally important is bad weather gear. The environment can go from 80
° to 40mph wind and a 25 degree drop in temperature almost before you can pull everything out of your pack. When hiking above 12,000′ you should store in your pack a warm baselayer, a rain jacket and rain pants, a rain outer shell if possible, a dry pair of socks, gloves and a knit cap or balaclava. Additionally, be aware of the harm that beautiful sunny weather can cause as well. There isn’t as much atmosphere to block harmful UV rays, so lather up with sunscreen and wear a cap and sunglasses at all times.
With all that said, being a Meanderthal, I forgot my cap. As I was doing a last minute spot check of my gear before hitting the trail at Loveland Pass, I realized I had left both my caps back at my brother’s studio. I paid for it later when I had a bad sunburn on my nose despite layers of sunblock. The high country sun is fierce. Wouldn’t you know it, the trail starts heading due east, so directly into the early morning sun we went.
The Mt. Sniktau Ridge Trail doesn’t waste any time heading up. It gets steep right away, and stays that way for the first mile up the mountain. The trail itself is very rocky and rutted and wide because of extreme overuse. Thousands of tourists each month, with no intention of going all the way, will climb a couple hundred feet to get a better view of the surrounding mountain ranges. Many don’t know trail management skills like experienced hikers and trample the very delicate tundra that is abundant on Mt. Sniktau. Erosion does the rest. Please, please, please stay on the trails to minimize the impact of foot traffic in this fragile area. If snow is present, use it to walk on whenever possible. The good news, though, is the scenery. As we got higher and higher we could see Arapahoe Ski Area to the west, then a little bit higher brought Keystone Ski Resort into view, and more climbing showed Breckenridge Ski Mountain in the distance. Lined up in succession were three of Colorado winter tourism’s finest.
It’s about a mile from the trailhead and 925 feet up to the ridge point (12,915 ft). There is another trail that heads to Grizzly Peak and beyond, but our destination was Mt. Sniktau. As we reached the point we could really begin to see the magnificence of the Continental Divide and the western slope beyond. To the southwest we caught our first glimpse of Grizzly Peak and fourteener Torreys Peak, with Grays Peak peeking out behind. Peak, peek, peak. To the far west are the fourteeners of the Mosquito Range: left to right are Mt. Bross, Mt. Lincoln, North Star Peak and Quandary Peak. Panning northwest reveals the Sawatch Range and the Holy Cross Wilderness and further to the north is Mt. Powell and the Gore Range that dominates the Vail Valley. Our trail continued up the ridge to the east.
From the point, the climbing isn’t quite as steep. The bulk of the up was behind us now. It’s only a couple hundred feet more to the false summit. Yes you heard me right, the false summit. This is one of those mountains that will tease you into thinking you’re almost there, only to leave your resolve in tatters. But from the false summit there is good news and bad news. We could finally see our goal
— the top of Mt. Sniktau, but to get there we had to go down 150 feet into a saddle, then reclimb that elevation we had already done once
— all above 13,000 feet. Did I mention it’s not as easy to breathe up there? See what I mean about testing your resolve?
From the false summit we could now see the mountains in the far distance to the north and northeast including Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, at least 70 miles away. To the east are Mt. Evans and Mt. Bierstadt, like Longs, two more fourteeners. I’m told you can see Pikes Peak to the southeast on a clear day (this day was certainly clear enough), but we didn’t really know what we were looking for. I was simply in awe of the great distances I could see in every direction. Torreys and Grays seemed tantalizingly close enough to reach out and touch.
My brother and I are both in our fifties, and although we are in good hiking shape, we don’t climb particularly fast, especially at 13,000 feet. So the young studs were passing us on their way to the top. When we reached the summit, there were a handful of other hikers who were there ahead of us. Like everyone else, we pulled up a comfortable boulder, munched on a revitalizing snack, and surveyed the scene around us. Directly below, to our north, was Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower Tunnel that carried it beneath the Continental Divide. Then in the other direction, after curving through the pass, the interstate headed east on its way to Denver. One other thing we noticed in that direction
— dark clouds and rain about 25 miles away.
While enjoying the beauty that surrounded us, we also kept one eye on that storm to follow its movement. It didn’t appear to be moving directly toward us, at least not quickly, so we didn’t feel a need to abandon the summit immediately. Below us to the south, between Mt. Sniktau and Torreys Peak is a beautiful, still partially frozen, alpine pond. The vegetation and ice gave it a penetrating teal coloring. There is quite a bit of glacial breakdown at the summit, as well as along the trail. But the lasting image is the amazing alpine tundra, in full summer glory, bursting with wildflowers; yellow, blue and red. We chatted with a couple fellow hikers for a few minutes. It was interesting to learn their trail stories from all the peaks we could see around us.
We looked over the Continental Divide, past the tunnel, and my brother said, “let’s go there.” So our afternoon hike was planned, and we picked up our packs to head back down the mountain. The storm was getting a little bit closer, so we left with a mild sense of urgency. There were considerably more hikers coming up as we started going down, and the further down we went, the more the count increased. Eventually as we got within 500 feet of Loveland Pass, we could begin to tell the tourists from the hikers. Totally unprepared
— no water, no pack, just the clothes on their backs and the flip-flops on their feet. We did manage to get back to the car before any kind of stormage.
Mt. Sniktau is a hard, but short, acclimatizing hike for those who want to tackle some of the tough 14,000′ mountains in Colorado. That’s exactly what we did, as we ventured up Mt. Sherman a few days later. It can be hiked year ’round, but is especially windy in winter, so be prepared with super-duper cold weather gear.