Classic Fall Hikes: Sneffels Highline Trail
by Erik Dalton
The Telluride valley is surrounded by some great hikes, but none can compete with the few that take you up into the high country of our surrounding San Juan Mountains. The Sneffels Highline Trail is one of these classics that can be completed as a loop right from town, and leads the hiker up through the pines and aspens into incredible high alpine basins and to some of the best views around.
The Sneffels Highline Trail is a 13 mile hiking loop that starts and ends in the town of Telluride, and can be accessed via the Jud Wiebe Trail at the top of Aspen Street. The trail first loops through National Forest land on the north side of town as it climbs its way up towards Pack Basin, eventually topping out just below Mount Emma at 12,200 ft. in the Sneffels Wilderness Area. Although the climb up from town is steep, the trail is in great condition and the effort is well rewarded along the way with incredible views down into Mill Creek Basin and back towards the ski area. The hiker gets the sense of traveling back through time as old mining cabins and the remnants of mines and equipment can be seen scattered along the landscape.
From its summit on the saddle of Mt. Emma, the Highline Trail drops into upper Mill Creek Basin, winding its way through scree fields and alpine meadows, leading to the lower part of the basin where streams trickle by and large rock cairns mark the way. This part of Upper Mill Creek is still a designated wilderness area and an elk calving ground in the spring, so be sure to keep a look-out for lots of different wildlife that call the basin home. As the trail works it’s way out of the upper basin, there is one last treat in store as upper Mill Creek Falls can be seen to the east as the trail winds its way into the tree line around 11,000 ft.
Once the Highline Trail is back below tree line, the hiker is met by incredible aspen groves and views through the trees of lower Mill Creek Basin and the Telluride Airport. The trail eventually connects with the Deep Creek Trail, which leads to another trail junction with the Mill Creek Trail. It is here at Mill Creek that hikers could potentially leave a car and shorten the loop, or else continue on at Mill Creek and loop directly back to town. There is a certain satisfaction in completing that long loop, and as the beautiful fall weather continues to persist, its worth the extra hour and effort to soak up the views of the Town of Telluride and the Valley Floor that are provided by the Mill Creek Trail.
The Sneffels Highline Trail is definitely a challenge, both in the distance hiked and elevation gained. Its safe to say that it will take an average person about 8 hours to complete the loop from town, though about an hour and 2 miles can be shaved off if a shuttle car is left at the Mill Creek Trailhead. The expansive views and high, alpine meadows make this a perfect hike for early fall, when the full scope of the colors can be appreciated and the trail is still in good condition and not yet covered in snow. Few trails in the area offer such incredible wilderness access and beauty while being so close to town, and being able to take your boots off and drink a cold beer in your back yard after finishing the Highline Trail loop only makes you appreciate that more!
(photos by Erik Dalton, except for view of ski runs, Clint Viebrock)
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