This one goes out to the people who need an altitude fix and need it fast.
Or those who are unsure about this whole alpine hiking thing but want to at least give it a try.
If you live in the Denver area or you are traveling there and have a little time to kill, let me introduce you to your new best friend: Mount Sniktau.
You might remember that thing I wrote about the road trip/train ride/rainy hike/mountain climbing thing in southwestern Colorado’s Chicago Basin. But before I stepped foot on the trail leading up to that little wilderness paradise, there was another ascent that was supposed to gear me up for the challenges to come.
My friend Matt and I were in Denver, but still a couple of days away from meeting up with our merry band of backpackers in Durango. Denver is a fine town, and the mile high city is substantially higher than my hometown. But you’re not going to acclimate for 14,000 feet by hanging out in a city 9,000 feet lower than that.
So the prescription was to find an alpine hike that was close to Denver, but one that we could get to in a passenger car with low clearance.
After looking at my options, I eventually settled on Sniktau. Mount Evans would have been a solid choice, too, but I’d kinda been there and done that the year before. Similar deal with Mount Bierstadt and Quandary Peak. Grays Peak and Torreys Peak? The road to the trailhead was too much for our car. Castle Peak was pretty far, and a longer day than we wanted.
But then there was Mount Sniktau, elevation 13,234 feet.
Just past Idaho Springs with easy access from Interstate 70, this seemed to be the ticket. The route was short but high, giving us some flexibility on start times and hiking speed.
My only worry was that it would be lame.
The thing is Matt has been to some pretty awesome places. He hiked New Mexico’s highest point, Wheeler Peak, a few years ago. Did the Maroon Bells loop. And last fall he hiked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. I might be easily amused, but I wasn’t so sure about Matt.
But he was also battling a bum ankle he’d sprained a couple of weeks earlier while burning up the trails at Turkey Mountain on a trail run.
That’s a lot of considerations going into what would be a big week in the Rockies.
Hiking it on a weekday was a good choice. The trail is popular, mostly because of its proximity to the Denver area and its relatively short length (3.5 miles round trip). I can only imagine how busy it would be on a weekend.
As you drive west on I-70, Sniktau is the first big mountain you see to your south. When I was less familiar with the area, I wondered if it was a 14er (maybe Grays Peak). I know better now, but that’s how big it looks compared to the surrounding mountains just before you hit the Eisenhower Tunnel. Those high, green, grassy slopes just seem to rise forever when you look at them from the road.
Eventually we wound our way up Loveland Pass, where a small parking lot is carved out at the top. A stone staircase leads up from there and took us to the trail that followed Sniktau’s steadily rising ridgeline.
A whole mix of people was out that day. A group of kids wearing way too much clothing. More seasoned hikers with their trekking poles and hydration packs. An old dude with a butterfly net.
The pass is near 12,000 feet, so the total elevation gain is not that much. But you pick up about 1,000 feet of it right off the bat. The trail is decent, though pretty sandy.
Another thing about Sniktau: It’s windy. Breezes sweep over its ridgeline constantly, and they can get pretty strong at times. Higher up on the mountain, it’s no surprise that people had constructed a few windbreaks to take shelter from those gusts.
Hiking up the ridge, you don’t get to see the real summit until you top out on the false summit, Point 13,152. From here, you drop into a saddle, then begin the final ascent to the top. Somewhere just short of the false summit, and then most of the way to the top the trail goes from sandy BBs to scree and talus. But the rocks are pretty solid, a relief to Matt, who was constantly minding that wonky ankle.
By the time we topped out, the winds died down. An older couple and their adult daughter were there, snapping pics and checking out the views and the marmots who were, in turn, watching us.
Sniktau gives you some pretty good views of nearby mountains – Torreys Peak is the closest “big” mountain in view, and Quandary Peak further away, to name a couple.
What we weren’t expecting: A C-130 darting between the peaks, having fun as only pilots can. We’re more accustomed to seeing planes of that size flying over the mountains, not flirting with mountaintops and ridgelines.
Clouds began to roll in, and it was time to go. Those sandy parts of the trail nailed me on the way down, causing a slip where I banged my hand pretty hard on the rocks and got a nice cut in the process. Hey, if that’s the worst thing that will happen, I’m fine with it. But it’s a good lesson – I was wearing worn-out running shoes instead of something more fit for hiking, so my trail grip wasn’t the best. I’ll know better than to be so casual next time.
What surprises me, though, is how often I see people heading up the mountain late, in the face of incoming bad weather. It was true again that day.
I was pleased at how scenic the hike actually was. Naturally, I assumed a peak so close to Denver and so heavily traveled would be less than inspiring. But that view of the summit from high on the ridge packs a lot of punch.
So go ahead. Bypass the busy 14ers. Get your elevation fix, get it fast, and savor it on Sniktau.
GETTING THERE: From Denver, take I-70 west past Idaho Springs, then exit south on U.S. 6 (the Loveland Pass exit) Drive to the top of the pass and park at the trailhead parking lot. The trailhead will be on your left as you park.
ABOUT THE ROUTE: From the parking lot, go up the staircase to the trail and continue hiking up the ridge to Point 13,152. The trail gets a little rougher from here, and earlier in the summer, there might be snow on the route. Continue hiking down the saddle and then up the final pitch to the top. The route is 3.5 miles round trip, with about 1,300 feet of elevation gain. Class 2 hiking.
EXTRA CREDIT: Many people cut their teeth on winter hiking on Sniktau. And for those who want give ski mountaineering a try often do it on Sniktau’s slopes, which is pretty convenient for skiers at nearby Loveland Ski Area. Lastly, you can link up Sniktau and nearby Grizzly Peak and Torreys Peak if you want a bigger day. And if you’re particularly stout of heart, the trail would make a great ridge run.