Long Ranger’s Field Notes to the Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse

Thanks and Acknowledgements

Traversing this incredible line was not an original idea of my own – it may be one of the most obvious objectives that sprouts into one’s mind to anyone who travels CO 17, looks east and wonders if the ridge actually goes. I do claim to have been one of the first to have completed a solo, unsupported trip started from both the north and south — and certainly the first and only to have done it in both directions. Below are some other trips that have inspired me to take my own trips and have lent inspiration and beta to the below guide: 

What is the Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse?

The Sangre de Cristo Range is a subrange of the greater Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It starts around Poncha Pass near Salida Colorado in the north and ends near La Veta Pass near Fort Garland, CO in the south. These mountains are between US 285/US 50 in the north near and US 160 to the south.

Between these two passes lies an incredible expanse of mountainous Wilderness terrain. The main spine of the Sangre de Cristo Range rises extremely abruptly from the surrounding basins with few foothills or other mountains in front of it. In only 120 miles (75 miles as the crow flies) of ridgeline there are over seventy peaks with at least 300 feet of prominence.  One can look up from anywhere below these mountains, and imagine traveling over this high ridgeline from one end to the other. The purpose of this guidebook is to help you accomplish just that. 

What The Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse Guide Covers

This guide covers how one would actually traverse across the range via the main ridge: common start/ends points, a general idea of the terrain you’ll pass through including YDS grading of cruxy areas, water sources, bivvy sites, and some bailout options. 

The majority of this route is off-trail. Very important personal route finding decisions will have to be made to have a successful trip. This is not a thru hike or even a high route. Consider this a long-distance mountaineering objective with backpacking being an included element. This route includes adventure, a high degree of difficulty, and a more than an outside chance that many things will go wrong. 

Real danger exists on this route which should not be taken lightly, be it from technical terrain, extreme exposure to gravity and weather, long distances to bailout towards trailheads and towns, lack of dependable water, etc. 

Caltopo Map

The meat of this guide is the Caltopo map, with much of what’s written only here to support the data on the map. 

https://caltopo.com/m/62P1D

Route Narrative

The Route narrative will describe the route South to North, which may be the more popular, easier direction. 

Route Challenges

Take these challenges seriously

Lack of Trails

Most of the Traverse is off-trail travel over Class 2 talus and some travel is over much more difficult terrain. You’ll want to have basic off-trail skills such as being able to read a map, understand topo lines, how to measure distances, etc, as well as wear proper footwear and clothing to deal with the sometimes extreme bushwhacking (see: Blowdown). 

Travel on trails is the minority. Cast a doubtful eye over any trails mapped unless this guide specifically mentions them: there could have been a trail there sometime in the past where now there’s only the idea of one. This goes for bailing off the route too. Don’t expect an easy time down, just because the map says a trail is available.

The exception to this rule are the most popular trails that are used to approach the busy 14ers: South Colony Trail, Willow Lake Trail, etc. These trails are built primarily by RMFI and are excellent. Many of the trails near Crestone are also excellent: this guide calls those trails the West Side Trail Network. The 4WD routes over many of the passes, Hayden, Hermit, Medano, Mosca, are also in great shape for hiking and could yield a lucky hitch back to town. 

Some of the worst “trails” will be found north of Medano Pass. 

Blowdown

Generally subalpine travel below treeline – even where a trail is supposed to be – is difficult. Blowdown is one of the main issues: whole stands of trees will have been knocked down during an intense and violent windstorm. 

Bring along an immense amount of patience and a little dark humor, as you navigate sometimes straight through what seems like a never ending sea of tree trunks and sharp, pointy branches. You may want to make sure to bring some sort of eye protection (sunglasses will work fine). 

Although there’s less blown down on the route then there historically has been thanks to forest fires that have cleaned up some areas, you cannot avoid all of it. Negotiating a blowdown area is time-consuming, and oftentimes frustrating with the chances of coming out of it with torn clothes and scratched skin being high. 

You’ll experience the worst blowdown traversing Mt. Zwischen. But anytime you travel below treeline, expect blowdown and be pleasantly surprised if you do not hit it. 

Elevation 

The body works differently in high elevation and for this route you’ll be at a high elevation with little break for days on end. This can especially be an issue while sleeping and eating. 

There’s no real magic way to prepare for elevation, except to stay at elevation for long periods of time (weeks). 

The lowest elevation of the route is at Salida, CO at the northern end at around 7,000’, but you’ll immediately climb up high to 12,000’+ before the first peak is encountered.. The highest elevation on this route is at 14,304’ at the top of Blanca Peak on the southern end of the route. Average elevation: 11,850’. Just like the northern end, the southern end stays high before precipitously falling back to the basin floor from 14,000’ down to around 7500’. 

Expect most of the route to be above treeline. In fact, 41 contiguous miles above 12,000’ are found between the southern slopes before Music Pass and the northern slopes of Cottonwood Peak. Five 14ers will be summited: Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Ellingwood Point, Blanca Peak, and Little Bear Peak. Two Centennials will also be summited: California Peak and Mt. Adams. 

Elevation Gain/Loss 

The ridgeline of the Sangre de Cristo Range is not a high alpine plateau, but rather a line of seemingly never ending points and peaks. Total elevation gain and loss is approximately 55,000’ (each) in approximately 120 miles. This is roughly more than half of the total elevation gain of the entire Colorado Trail in about ¼ of its 500 mile length. 

Above Treeline/Weather

Because so much travel is above treeline, one is vulnerable to sun, wind, rain, and even snow storms, but especially: lightning. Escape from the highpoint of the ridge is not always obvious or apparent, and could lead one to a more dangerous position (cliffed out). Be very wary of storms that seem to be coming in fast from a distance. Preemptively make conservative choices to take cover.

Difficulty Bailing

Much of the land around the Sangre de Cristo Range is sparsely populated, and even getting to a trailhead may mean a very long walk to a main, paved road. Only a few towns border the mountains themselves, including Salida: the start/end point of the route, and Crestone: a town found at approximately the midpoint. The start/end point of the southern terminus has no town near it: the town of Blanca is almost 9 miles away and there are no services at the trailhead near the highway. Mentally prepare that any bail could become a multi-day affair, including a hitch into a town. 

Lack of Water

Free water on the ridge is very rare. Such water sources consist of a few creeks, springs, and free-flowing water from large snow fields. Most water you find will come from more consolidated snow fields, so you’ll have to figure out a way to melt the water for consumption (stove, waiting for the snow to naturally melt, eating the snow).

More water is found in small alpine lakes off ridge, but fetching it will endow you with an elevation loss/gain penalty and the elevation gained is already very high. Consider coupling any trips with finding more sheltered camping options. 

Cameling up will also be a method I would suggest you employ. It’s likely that you’ll carry 4, 5 or even 6 liters of water at a time. We’ll note the few dependable water sources on route as well as some undependable water sources we’ve used in the past, and other water sources off route. Do not play with dehydration. Caching water and other supplies is an option in key parts of the route.  

Technical Cruxes

Class 2/3/4/5 terrain will need to be negotiated to stay reasonably on the ridge. Rock quality is generally good, but any mistakes, slips, and/or falls may prove deadly. You will want to have a reasonable amount of scrambling/climbing experience before venturing out. The two large areas of technical climbing are between the summit of South Little Bear Peak and California Peak (5 miles) and between Milwaukee Peak and  Fluted Peak (12.5 miles!), with many shorter scrambles peppered about. Many of these technical cruxes can be missed, but this guide won’t be covering all the off-ridge workarounds, we will give more precedence to guiding you in staying on the ridge.  

Wildlife Encounters

All manner of fauna will be found on route for those that are lucky: deer, elk, big horned sheep, bear, mountain lion. Generally these do not cause too many problems, but securing your bivvy site before you wink out is not a bad idea. 

The worst wildlife by far will be the mosquito. We suggest treating clothes with Permethrin, and perhaps bringing some sort of bug repellent/netting. 

Solitude

It’s not out of the ordinary to travel this route without seeing another person for days. This can be attractive to some and repellent to others. But you will not be able to count on the kindness of strangers to bail you out of a sticky situation. Practice self-reliance. Although most completions of the full Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse have been done solo, going with a partner (or two!) will ultimately make for a much safer trip. 

Places where solitude is less likely are around the most popular 14er Peaks: the Crestone group and the Blanca group. 

Experience

This route isn’t for everyone.

Before considering this route, be honest with the type of experience you bring to it. It’s suggested that have already done something similar to the following:

  • Backpack a long trail, like the Colorado Trail, CDT, PCT
  • Extensive hill walking – the author summited all CO 14ers at least 2x
  • Solo up to 5.6 (and beyond)

General Bailout/Resupply Points

If you have access to a 4WD vehicle (and time), there is opportunity to drop food/water/gear caches on some of the passes that cross the range. We’ll note these. 

Skipping Peaks 

Many peaks can be skipped easily and safely. We’ll mention a few ways to do so. There isn’t really a trail that follows the entire range at an elevation that allows you to easily drop down to skip huge portions of the ridge except for the Rainbow Trail on the northeast side of the range. It’s mostly set up as an ATV trail (so not very fun to hike) and is lower than you may expect just by looking at a map, so it doesn’t exactly function in a way that is convenient to our use. 

Trip Time Estimation

The relatively short distance of the route – 120 miles – belies just how slow and difficult travel can be. 

For a full meal deal, stay on the ridge at all costs, no caches, unsupported trip, it’s not suggested that you take more than 7 days to complete. This is beyond the ability of many hikers and climbers, so consider breaking up the trip into sections that you complete over several smaller trips. The town of Crestone makes a good halfway point and a demarcation line between the mostly Class 2 talus hopping to the north, and much more technical scrambling to the south.  

For whatever style trip you intend, consider using elevation gain/loss as your primary limiting factor. For a seven day trip, over 7800’ will need to be gained (and essentially: lost) every day, which is more than most people’s daily elevation accumulation on other, easier routes. Plan days according to your estimated daily elevation gain and adjust depending on your actual daily totals. Mileage and Elevation gain is labeled on the Caltopo Map.  

Backpacking Gear Considerations

Oftentimes ultralight backpackers prefer lightweight gear choices to make their trip faster and more enjoyable. Given the incredible amount of elevation gain and loss of the this route, we suggest only packing what’s needed without impacting safety, to keep your pack weight low for making the off-trail segments more doable. Careful selection is needed. Aim for a sub 10 lb. summer base weight, then sufficiently supplement for colder nights, higher elevation, and freak thunder/sleet/hail/rain storms. Do not camp above tree line unless you have a proven sleep system that you know will survive (and allow you to survive!) such a high camp. 

Technical Climbing Gear Considerations

Class 5 climbing will be found if your goal is to stick close to the ridgeline. Generally, this would involve rope, harness, climbing protections, rock shoes, etc. Such a haul could make moving efficiently on the ridgeline much slower, so it’s suggested to only attempt these sections if one is comfortable in doing so without much – or any – of this gear. You can also consider bringing it only for the segments that require it (Segment 1, Segment 3). 

An ice axe can be handy for the snow climb that is found on this route, primarily descending the NW Couloir off of Crestone Peak. 

Sun Protection

The high altitude, rarefied air of Colorado is also very intense in the solar energy that reaches the surface of your skin. Consider wearing sun protection-specific clothing. Temperatures can get into the 90’s at the lowest elevations of the route. Natural cover can be hard to find in the miles and miles you’ll be above treeline. Below treeline, water is hard to come by and it’s easy to overheat. 

Warmth and Insulation

Remember it can snow any day of the year in Colorado, and you’ll be traveling above treeline for hours on end, and topping out at 14,000’+, five different times. Nights can get down to the 30’s, even on days that reach 90F. 

Shelter and Sleep System

We would suggest bringing a water-resistant bivvy, a simple and flexible waterproof shelter (tarp) that can be set up in variable terrain, and a sleeping bag with a limit rating of at least 32F. 

Unless conditions are perfect, we do not suggest bivvying above treeline, especially if you’re not completely familiar with the area. Do not expect five star camping on the ridgeline. We use the term, “bivvy” strategically, as often you’ll be sleeping on top of essentially: talus on a small area of ridge that’s only long, wide, and flat enough for one person to lie down. Below treeline, options get a little more realistic for a more normal camping experience, but oftentimes are dry. 

Water Treatment Options

Water quality in the Sangres is generally quite good, but we do suggest treating all water found on the route, even though you will not always be passing through very high use areas. Aquamira is an excellent option. Filters are also popular – just be careful when storing them when not in use, as freezing temperatures can damage the filter in ways that aren’t easily noticeable when using the filter.

Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse Season

Timing is vitally important for a successful traverse. If your goal is to stay on the ridge as much as possible, you’ll need some snow available on the ridge, while not having that same snow impede travel too much. Depending on snowpack, a trip in early to mid July may be perfect. Successful trips have been done into September. This season can be extended if you are relying on cached food, water. Aim to have your trip during a time of high pressure, where no monsoon systems are predicted. 

Traveling Mountainous Terrain in Colorado During Monsoon

Do not get stuck above treeline during a lightning storm. Since the main route of this guide is on a ridge, above treeline, you’ll need to admit that you will be doing something seen as very foolish to do in Colorado. Your only saving grace is that any storms that blow through are easily spotted well beforehand, and time will be available to make a decision to descend to weather it out. Do not make these decisions too late!

Leave No Trace

Subalpine and alpine terrain are delicate.

Tundra that’s been trampled on can take many years to bounce back. Human waste left above treeline may never properly decompose. Be extremely mindful of your impact while on route, and practice Leave No Trace ethics as you travel through the route. 

The great majority of off-trail travel above treeline in this guide will be on talus – a reasonable and durable surface for hiking. We’ll note any areas where we feel extreme care will be needed.

Getting to the Start/Finish and All Points Between

The northern terminus, Salida, has easy access both by car and by public transportation. Indeed, the Bustang service picks up/drops off mere blocks away. 

No such convenience is found in the southern terminus at the Lake Como Trailhead, and you’ll have to be dropped off, hitch, or call a taxi from one of the surrounding towns. Taxis can be called using the following:

Little Stinkers Taxi Service: 719 589 2500

They will drop off at Lake Como Road TH from Alamosa.  

The town of Crestone also has no public transportation, but a Bustang stop can be found in the next town over in Moffat, CO – around 12 miles away. Walk or hitch (should be very easy). There may be expensive private shuttles that are also available  The bus arrives early in the morning towards Salida, so your best bet is to stealth camp at the local park by the bus stop. 

About the Author

Summit of Marble Mountain, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness
Summit of Marble Mountain, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness

I’ve had the extreme privilege of completing this route twice – once from each direction. This guide is a collection of my notes put into some sort of organized form. It is my opinion that this is one of the most incredible long-distance routes found in Colorado. It’s certainly not for everyone, but for those who have the endurance and technical skills, it’s hard to beat. Find me at:

https://justinsimoni.com

Contact

Contact me here for questions and to report errors in the guide.

Caltopo Folder Key

As mentioned, most of the beta of this route is in the Caltopo Map, whereas the narrative below is here only to support it.

There are no turn-by-turn directions. 

00 Main Route

Holds the main route, split into five segments. 

01 Alt Routes

Holds other routes, both on-trail and off-trail that are useful supplements to the main route. These include bailouts, routes to water/bivvy sites, and ways to avoid the ridge/peaks. 

02 Passes

Passes give access to the ridge using both hiking and motor vehicle routes. 

03 Bivvy Sites

Are suggestions of places to rest. “Marginal” is used on many bivvy sites to highlight that these are not great places to camp for extended periods time, mostly because they’re dry or extremely exposed to the elements, or both. 

04 Water Sources

Water source marks places where water “may” be found. “Marginal”, “Seasonal”, “Undependable”, “Potential”, “Unreliable”, are adjectives used that should not be ignored, and highlight that water may not be found at places marked. 

05 Peaks

Peaks mark the summits found on the route (or perhaps slightly off). Peaks just off the main ridgeline are known as :”bonus” peaks. 

06 Beta

Beta holds specific information about the terrain near the marker and may help you link the narrative with the location on the map. 

Segment 1: Lake Como Road to Mosca Pass

23.17 miles, +11232′ gain -9172′ loss

Introduction

This massive segment will take you from the San Luis Valley and the foot of the Sierra Blanca Massif, up and over three 14ers and one Centennial, and ends at Mosca Pass: the first pass accessible by a motor vehicle. 

Some of the hardest technical cruxes are located in this segment including Little Bear’s Southwest Ridge, the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse, and Ellingwood’s North Ridge.

This segment is extremely committing. 

Getting There

Use the aforementioned taxi service from Alamosa, Blanca, or Fort Garland which towns are serviced. Or, get dropped off to the start. It is not suggested to leave a car at the trailhead for a week+. 

Narrative

Start at Lake Como Road and CO State Highway 150. Dispersed camping is available along the road. 

Follow the Lake Como Road until it intersects another unnamed road and turn right SE. Turn left NE onto a rougher 4WD road. This area is full of 4WD roads that head NE which dead end, most are not mapped. 

Follow the GPX track/map closely for a route that attempts to take you to the start of the SW Ridge proper without dead-ending. You’ll enter the forest, then pass 24th and Poplar Streets on a NW corner (private property). Continue following the track NE. 

The rough 4WD track you were following will end in a wash. Take this wash generally east. A good campsite will be crossed before you come to another 4WD track. 

Briefly follow this 4WD track generally north, then exit it heading northeast as it continues NW. A brief bushwack will get you to Tobin Creek. 


Camel up here, as this will be the last dependable free-flowing water source strictly on route until Medano Pass. Any water you may need will have to be found in snow fields or off-route. 

Start up the SW Ridge route of Little Bear (Class 4) over South Little Bear and Summit Little Bear. 


Bailout: Descend via the Hourglass Route (Class 4)

Alternative Start via Lake Como/Little Bear Hourglass: from the start of Lake Como, continue on Lake Como Road to Lake Como where camping is available. Take the Hourglass Route to the summit of Little Bear (Class 4) and continue on the route from here. 

Traverse over to Blanca Peak via the Little Bear/Blanca Traverse (Class 5).

Summit Ellingwood Point. 

The direct ridge traverse to Ellingwood Point goes at approx. 5.4, but is relatively short. You can also simply follow the standard route off of Blanca Peak until it meets up with the standard route with Ellingwood Point, then take that trail to its summit. A semi-permanent snowfield is located near this trail junction which can be used as a water source. 

Bailout: descend the standard route for Blanca/Ellingwood towards Lake Como Road. Bivvying near the trail is possible if weather is deteriorating. 

If weather is holding on Ellingwood Point, continue on the ridge north. After passing a west ridge coming off the north ridge you’re on,  you’ll encounter a cruxy downclimb in two pitches (4th, Low 5th). Take this downclimb with care as exposure is extreme. This is one of the most sensational sections of the entire segment. 

Once below the difficulties, breathe a sigh of relief, as the most difficult parts of the segment have been cleared. You still have many hours of Class 3 ridge scrambling before a reasonable bivy site is found. Collect yourself, and continue on the ridge over 13656, 13577, and California Peak. Terrain north of California will generally be far easier. 

Continue north on the ridge, generally talus hopping. Cross over “Zapata Pass”. This  point makes a marginal bivy. 

Bailout: Taking this east will bring you to the Huerfano/Lily Lake Trailhead. You are still many miles from a town, so prepare to hitch from here. 

Roundtrip Idea: Take this trail east to the Huerfano/Lily Lake Trailhead. Continue south on the trail, and re-ascend Blanca Peak via Gash Ridge (low 5th). Descend Blanca Peak via its standard route, and descend down towards the highway via Lake Como Road. 

Looking back North on much of Segment 1, Blanca Peak is the highpoint in the center
Looking back North on much of Segment 1, Blanca Peak is the high point in the center

After Carbonate Mountain, you’ll eventually find a trail that will help you down through treeline, and to Mosca Pass.

You will encounter deadfall on this trail – a small taste of things to come. Do your best to avoid the deadfall or go straight through it when you must.

Eventually this trail will end at FS 583.A and shortly after that, Mosca Pass! A seasonal creek runs about a mile west off route if you are running low. The traverse over Mt. Zwischen won’t have any water sources available – do not attempt to get Medano Pass without an adequate amount of water. 

Bailout: Mosca Pass is accessible via motor vehicle from the east, where it will meet up with CO 69. Mosca Pass to the west is a footpath which will take you to the northeast point of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

Segment 2: Mosca Pass to Music Pass

22.11 miles +8324′ gain, -6623′ loss

If Segment 1 over three 14ers and one Centennial left you reeling, Segment 2 will allow somewhat of a recovery. The first half is dominated by Mount Zwischen which seems like it should be an easy 12 mile jaunt, but holds many hidden difficulties. Getting to Medano Pass means running water. The rest of the route to Music should feel more like a walk in the park. 

Getting There

A trail to Mosca Pass starts near the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center. It’s 3.5 miles to the top of the pass. 

Narrative

The 12 miles traversing Mount Zwischen to Medano Pass will hold little if no water, so do not start without adequate water in your pack (a few liters, at least). Weather can be surprisingly hot, as you are at one of the low points of the entire ridge. There is no reasonable bailout off Zwischen to escape the mountain or to collect water.  A seasonal stream is located to the west of the Mosca Pass, about a mile down. 

Mount Zwischen’s charm is its semi-aridness, full of scrub brush and cacti. Its boulders and rocks seem particularly abrasive, and the soil is sandy. Large amounts of downed trees will have to be navigated.

Start up north generally going towards the communication site. You can also use the road to the site if you would like. You may also be able to find a social trail. Social and game trails will blip in and out of existence on this mountain and are generally found on or near the apex of the ridge. 

Elevation will stall out at around 11,000’ for about a mile before you hit one of the largest patches of blowdown you’ll find on the route — it can only be experienced to be believed. Generally, avoid much of the blowdown by skirting east of the ridgeline. You’ll lose some hard-earned elevation, but going directly through the blowdown may prove impossible. 

Once through, make sure you haven’t lost any gear (or your mind), and any cuts and scratches you’ve earned are simply superficial, then soldier on. The summit isn’t actually that far away! The unimpressive summit is worth visiting, if only to allow you to survey the route ahead. There are over 6 miles of Mount Zwischen left. Continue down the ridge. 

At the low point, the forest will open up a bit, and another social trail should be easily found. This social trail will lead you right to the Medano Ditch, which skirts the ridgeline itself to the west. Staying right on top of the ridgeline will lead you to more blowdown mixed in with quickly shooting up aspens: a nightmare combination. Walking the ditch will help save your sanity, even if it may be a little wet. 

Take the ditch north until it crosses the Medano Pass 4WD route. If you’re desperately in need of water or a campsite, both can be found downhill to the southwest. Continue to crest the pass itself by walking northeast on the Medano Pass 4WD road. 

Once on Medano Pass, take another 4WD northwest. This road will follow the crest of the ridgeline for you and end at a parking lot next to the Hudson Ditch. 

Beyond this, loosely follow the Hudson Branch of the Medano Creek for about a mile, a social trail should be found to the north. Expect blowdown in this area. If the creek is running, this will be the very last free water source on route for many, many miles. Camel up!

Time to climb to the crest of the ridge once again. Find a social “trail” up the steep and very loose slope skywards. This will not be a pleasant experience, but you’ll be happy to finally get to the ridgeline again. 

Follow the ridgeline west, then continue following it as it turns north. The next few peaks are easy walk ups on talus and tundra, although with great exposure from the sun. The going should feel relatively brisk, especially after Zwischen. You may even find yourself having fun. 

The ridge tightens up after Blueberry Peak and forest enters the picture towards Music Pass. Social trails may be found near the crest of the ridge. Be on the lookout for excellent views to the west over the Sand Creek Basin and towards Tjieras and Cleveland Peak. This ridgeline dominates the comparatively diminutive one you’re presently on, but it peters out down the northern end of the Grand Sand Dunes. 

Proceed to Music Pass. Bivvy opportunities present themselves, but the camp is dry and could be buggy. A spring may be available to the west down the Music Pass Trail.

Segment 3: Music Pass to Fluted Peak

19.02 miles 11,215′ gain,  -9,447′ loss

Beyond words. This is the segment that you should have been dreaming of, as well as garnering a large amount of respect for — are you anxious? The scrambling at times is unrelentless, the views are world-class. Rivaling Segment 1 with its difficulty and danger, take this segment very seriously. 

Getting There

Narrative

From Music Pass, head NW on the ridge towards Marble Mountain. The forest will give way to open tundra, then talus. The atmosphere feels extremely alien and it’s impossible to ignore the incredible peaks in front of you, many of which you’ll be summiting. Perhaps the best photo of the entire range can be taken from the summit of Marble Mountain. 

Continue down from Marble’s summit. The ridge will start out wide with little technical problems, but soon will become very difficult as it wraps to the west, then southwest. An unnamed, unmapped mystery trail will appear on the south side, which will assist you in getting near the summit of Milwaukee Peak. Trust the trail as it switchbacks around. 

Milwaukee’s summit will be passed to the north and is worth a visit (Class 4), although it is technically a bonus peak. A lingering snowfield usually loiters around here as well. 

Continue on the Mystery Trail for as long as it stays near the ridgeline, or start scrambling the ridgeline itself west. The knife-edge  scrambling here is very fun and makes for a good warmup. 

Warmup is over. Broken Hand Peak will be your next goal, and the climbing here is serious. 

From the col at 12,800’ stick as close to the ridgeline as you can. When the going gets a little too difficult, scramble inside the gully that parallels the ridgeline climbing up and gain the crest of the ridgeline again. Low 5th scrambling will be found here, with serious exposure. The north side of Broken Hand Peak has an incredible drop off. Don’t become too familiar with it. 

Once on the crest of Broken Hand Peak, you’ll be tested with downclimbing approximately three difficult towers. Take these towers straight on, or find a weakness just to the north. Exposure on these downclimbs is very real. Test holds as the conglomerate is known to give up its polished, round, river rocks. More difficult passage can often be skirted between the towers just below the ridge to the north. 

Gain the summit of Broken Hand Peak. The first – of many – technical summits has been reached. Descending off Broken Hand Peak can either be done on the ridge, or if an easier way is desired, drop down slightly to the southwest of the ridge.  A large gendarme (the “Broken Hand”) can be skirted to the south. Reach Broken Hand Pass. 

Bailout: descend Broken Hand Pass to South Colony Lakes. Copious camping and water can be found below. You can continue east to the South Colony Lakes TH, but the closest town is many miles away, so a hitch will most likely be required. 

Bailout: descend Broken Hand Pass south to Cottonwood Lake and continue west to the town of Crestone. Public Transportation care of the Bustang Outrider is available in the nearby town of Moffat, which should be an easy hitch to get to from Crestone. 

Skip Crestone Needle/Peak: at Broken Hand Pass, descend north toward South Colony Lake. Take the tail up Humbolt. At the saddle, hike west to Obstruction Peak and re-join the main route. 

Your next challenge is Crestone Needle and the traverse to Crestone Peak. After Broken Hand Peak, these two 14ers should provide little novel excitement, so treat them as a breather.

Beta for these peaks and the traverse can be found elsewhere online. The South Couloir of Crestone Peak often holds snow and flowing water where it intersects with the traverse route. 

Once on Crestone Peak, consider nabbing both East and Northeast Crestone. 

A few options are available to descend Crestone Peak. The first is via the Northwest Couloir. Snow stays most of the summer in this couloir, so it’s best to bring an ice axe to make the descent safer. Without one, pick a few sharp rocks you’re willing to trust your life to. Carefully descend down the couloir and continue on the NW Couloir route to the Bear’s Playground.

The other option to descend is to downclimb the North Buttress Route of Crestone Peak. This would be a difficult onsight – especially with a heavy pack – and includes a few moves of low 5th Class with serious consequences if you do fall. This is the scene of at least one fatal accident. 

Make your way to the Bear’s Playground. A bivy spot is available right on the col, or down near Bench Lake, which provides a confident water source. Snow also lingers near this col. 

Bailout: it is not unreasonable to bail west down the Spanish Creek drainage, but this can be a serious bushwhack, and one of those places where the trail on the map may not correspond to a delightful maintained trail experience you were expecting. If you’re not dead set on getting to Crestone, bailing east across Obstruction Peak and down the trail to South Colony Lake may prove to be easier. 

Hike up to the ridge that makes up Obstruction Peak. Drop pack, and tag Obstruction, which is technically a bonus peak, but seems worth it for completion’s sake. It’ll also gives you a good view of the next few peaks, which compromise a somewhat hidden crux of the entire segment and route: 13,398, 13,543, 13,533, 13,543, Mt. Adams, and Fluted Peak. These peaks are rarely talked about, but have some of the most incredible scrambling in the entire range, with dizzying knife edges with hundreds if not a thousand feet of air below them. 

Make your way back to the ridge proper and continue north. The ridge’s rock quality surprisingly becomes much more chossier here, but staying generally on the crest is reasonable. The commitment once you start is very real. 

Bailout: Descent NW off the ridge to Willow Creek Lakes. 

Pick your way across the ridgeline. Scrambling here will range from Class 3 to low 5th, so expect many puzzles and potentially some backtracking. Make wise decisions. Generally the easiest way through is via the crest of the ridge. You can attempt to circumvent difficulties on the west side, but you’ll find towers that are not easily crossed which will push you far down into the Willow Lakes drainage. Revel in these awesome positions. 

The final push up Mt. Adams is unrelentingly steep but doesn’t exceed Class 3. Summit Mt. Adams and know you only have Fluted Peak left to move on from the technical cruxes of the Segment. 

Getting off the summit block of Mt. Adams directly takes a few careful low 5th Class moves. The rest of the way to Fluted Peak is mostly Class 3. 

Summit Fluted Peak and give yourself permission to relax: the technical difficulties are by and large: completed for the entire route, and you have reached essentially the halfway point. Flat areas to bivvy can be found down the ridgeline. Completing this segment means having completed perhaps one of the most awesome ridges of scrambling in the entire State that few have ever even dreamed of completing.  

Segment 4: Fluted Peak to Hayden Pass

30.4 miles +13,623′ gain, 16,109′ loss

High exposure is the name of the game on Segment 4, with more than 24 miles of distance you’ll need to cover before dipping below 12,000’ – the peaks before you will seem endless. The majority of this segment then is above – well above – treeline. With that comes the dangers of exposure talked about in the introduction to this guide. Thankfully, most of the technical difficulties have been cleared, and endless talus hopping will be the primary barrier between you and Hayden Pass. Dozens of points and peaks will be surmounted. 

Getting There

From Crestone, take the North Crestone Creek trail to North Crestone Lake. Climb a southern facing ridge to the point west of Fluted Peak.

Narrative

Continue your odyssey north over the ridgeline. The feeling of being above everything else in the World hits hard for this entire segment as the valley floor drops down on both sides. You will find solitude. 

Cross a trail between Comanche Peak and Venerable Peak. Good, albeit accessible camping from the outside world along with dependable water can be found east at Comanche Lake. To the west, a fairly intricate trail network can be found, which can be used to eventually filter you to the town of Crestone, CO.

If you’ve had enough of ridge running for a while, you can drop down to this trail network and partake in more conventional high alpine backpacking all the way to the col to Electric Peak. Trails here are well-maintained, but perhaps suffer from a little too much horse traffic. It’s likely the horse outfits that have helped maintain these trails. 

If you elect to drop down off the ridge, be aware that the views up toward the ridge from treeline will only elicit severe FOMO of a more heavenly life on the ridge. 

Hermit Pass, accessible also by 4WD by the east, will be the next bailout point for the westside trail network. A north-facing snowfield on Hermit Peak has consistently been a good source of water, despite the impermanent nature of snow. The snowfield is large enough to have running water somewhere near the bottom, flowing west. Water and camping are also easily found down the trail to the west. 

Good bivvy spots are going to be very rare until Thirsty Peak. 

Peak of the Clouds will have a Class 3 downclimb off of its NW ridge, which may help break up the monotony of the day’s talus crushing. 

A lovely bed of tundra and small flowers between Lakes Peak and Thirsty Peak has been the sight of two of my own bivvies. The first seemed angelic, the second ending in the morning after enduring a violent wind storm that tore my shelter apart, having me clutching what was left of of my gear in the fetal position for hours. 

Cottonwood Peak marks a transition point between the high peaks of the route with much lower peaks to the north. It’s still many miles to treeline and miles still to free, running water. Turn around south for perhaps the second most impressive view of the Sangres, where an ocean of peaks – the majority of them you’ve summited – can be seen all together in one view. On a clear day, even the Southwest ridge of Little Bear should also still be viewable in the far distance. 

You’ll encounter some loose rock descending Cottonwood Peak, so keep your wits about you. 

Near treeline at a low point before Nipple Mountain, a trail will appear to avoid the peak. Do not take the trail if you would like to summit this peak (very much suggested). 

Below Nipple Mountain, you’ll finally reach treeline. The forest is heavily burnt on the steep east side. The Black Mountain trail will appear to help you through the underbrush, but it is in bad condition, and will wink in and out of existence, while leading you right into blowdown. 

North of Point 11662, our route will favor the west/left side of the ridge in an attempt to follow the Black Mountain Trail, down towards Hayden Pass. Downed trees are everywhere, so do your best. 

A dependable spring can be found near the trail. This is the best and last running water before the finish of the entire route. Stock up, if you don’t plan to hunt for the spring below Hayden Pass. 

Do your best taking the trail down to Hayden Pass. Many social trail segments have been tracked out to get over the downed trees that have not been removed by the Forest Service or volunteers.

Hayden Pass is a 4WD accessible pass from both directions, so the chances of seeing a living person here are high. Camping is plentiful on the north side of the pass, although it will be a dry pass. 

A spring is located to the west of the pass at/near Hayden Pass Creek. Do not count on any running water on the rest of the route, and do not underestimate the rest of the route. If water can not be found at this spring, do not attempt the rest of the route without a plan to drop far down into the lake basins off route, or backtrack to the previous spring up the Black Mountain trail.  

Segment 5: Hayden Pass to Salida

28.06 miles, 9,737′ gain, 13,350′ loss

The Northern Sangres are comparatively smaller than their southerly neighbors and feature for the most part Class 2 talus hopping (endless). But this segment is not a walk in the park. You’re still going to face over 12 contiguous miles over 12,000’ between Galena Peak and Simmons Peak on a riptide of sharp summits. Camping options are very thin. Methodist Mountain, the last peak we’ll cover in the range, will seem quite diminutive after all the peaks you’ve seen past below your legs.

The road to Salida is over 8 miles – a burrito has never felt so far away!

Getting There

Hayden Pass can be traversed via 4WD from the east or west. 

Narrative 

A lifetime of adventure has already been passed in the last 90 miles, one more segment to go. Be sure to be fully loaded with water for perhaps the entire segment, as free running water is not available on route. Any water you will require will need to be sourced off route or on any snow fields tenuously holding on. 

Roundtrip Idea: Follow the Rainbow Trail at its trailhead near Salida, all the way southeast to Hayden Pass Road. Hike Hayden Pass Road to the summit of the pass, then follow this entire segment. See the below, Northern Sangre de Crsito Range Traverse.

Start up Hayden Pass on the curious Leadville Limestone that has replaced the conglomerate you’ve been standing on since Mosca Pass. The road through the forest gets you fairly far, but look out for a cairns trail that shoots off. Stay generally to the east of the main ridgeline and pick your way through the ever thinning forest, following cairns. The ridge tightens up again once above treeline, dance your way to the summit of Galena. 

The travel for the next number of peaks should be second nature to you now: continue on the ridge, picking off the summits as you find them. The first few peaks are devoid of lakes in their basins, so if you’re running out of water: well you were warned. 

The slope below Red Mountain is less steep than the other slopes before it, and could give you easier time accessing water from West Creek Lake. A spring could be found before the lake itself. 

Several depressions on the ridge may hold snow, but are hard to see, as it’s usually on the northern aspect. If you do see snow on the south side of the ridge, chances of snow being held on the north is high. Point 12401 has a wide, depressed summit that may have snow held in one of these depressions. 

Kiss the alpine goodbye at Simmons Peak, the last named point above treeline, and dip below the trees. If water is urgent, try Salamander lake on the west of the slope, but it may simply be a mud pit. Camping right on the ridge is finally reasonable in the trees. Careful of errant cows you may mistake as enormous bears in the middle of the night. 

Follow the ridge and thank your stars that a forest fire wiped out what once was an incredible maze of blowdown as you get to Methodist Mountain. Tag the communication towers and Methodist Mountain itself (a small cairn), and make your way down the road. In the afternoon, the heat on the road can feel debilitating. 

Cross the Rainbow Trail, which may have water running on the west side care of Loggie Gulch. 

CR 108 will soon turn to pavement with houses and ranches dotting up around you. If you’re in serious need of water, a ditch is available near the road on the east side, but hold out if you can. 

Turn slightly left onto CR 107 and listen to the rush of traffic on Highway 50. The corner of CR 107 and HW 50 holds a hamburger joint and a convenience store.

Revel in the fact that you have given yourself and your own blood to the Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse.

Shorter Route Ideas

Taking on the entire Sangre de Cristo Traverse is no small task. Shorter trips could help get one prepared for the entire line:

Northern Sangre de Cristo Range Traverse Loop

46.9 miles, 18,247′ gain/loss

From the Rainbow Trail trailhead outside of Salida, take the trail southeast to Hayden Pass Road, then hike the road southwest to the top of Hayden Pass. From there, continue northwest on Segment 5: Hayden Pass to Salida of this guide.

Crestone Sangres Sampler

43.05 miles, 15,936′ gain/loss

This route starts/finishes in the town of Crestone and uses the well-maintained Westside Trail Network to deposit you onto the ridge crest. Difficulty does not exceed Class 3 (crux: descending Peak of the Clouds), with mostly Class 2 talus. The backpacking below the ridgeline is actually quite good, with wonderful views of the ridge crest from below.

Several bailout points are located on the ridge to easily shorten your stay on the ridge itself depending on weather, time, motivation, found at Venerable Pass, Hermit Pass, and the West ridge of Silver Peak (descend the ridge to the trail). It would be sensible to do this loop in either direction.

From the town of Crestone, take CR 71 to the North Crestone Trail (or drive there, hitchhike).

Take the Comanche Trail NE at the junction to Comanche Pass. You are now on the ridge crest. Follow Segment 4: Fluted Peak to Hayden Pass NW from Comanche Pass to the saddle between De Anza Peak and Electric Peak.

A trail will appear down to Horsethief Basin, descend west down. At the trail junction around 11,000′, take the trail that follows Cotton Creek, passing Cotton Lake, Iris Lake, Rio Alto Lake. A few stout passes will need to be taken on.

At the trail junction, take the North Fork Crestone Trail southeast. Pass the Comanche Trail, and hike back to Crestone.

Updates

  • 6/25/24 – Added photos, mostly on Segment 1-3
  • 6/25/24 – Added the Northern Sangre de Cristo Loop Route
  • 6/26/24 – Added the Crestone Sangres Sampler Route