The Sneffels Traverse – Day 1

Planning the Sneffels Traverse

I’ve always been interested in a summer hut trip but wasn’t familiar with the hut system process which can range from entering a lottery to simply making a reservation depending on the ownership and operation of the hut.

In June of last year, I stumbled across the Sneffels Traverse in 5280 Magazine.  The Sneffels Traverse is a 29.4-mile trek which begins at Last Dollar Pass near Telluride and ends near the quaint town of Ouray.  Along the way are four backcountry cabins operated by the San Juan Huts System

Since 5280 mapped out the traverse and included all the necessary information about the traverse, I thought this is a trip I could do.  A few months later, I mentioned it to my hiking friend Tanya while in Aspen admiring the fall foliage.

The huts hold eight people.  We wondered if we knew enough women who would like to join the adventure.  We crafted an email, we each selected six ladies, crossed our fingers, and clicked “send”.  Within minutes, we had our first taker, Diana.  Closely followed by Danelle.  We filled the eight slots in less than 24 hours and added two others to a waiting list! We had them at “San Juans” as this range is one of the prettiest in Colorado.

With a list of hikers in hand, Tanya made reservations with the San Juan Huts for August 1, 2019, ten months in advance.  While the hut system calendar showed substantial availability when we booked, we knew options would be more limited as time passed, and we wanted to guarantee ourselves a nice chance to see wildflowers.  Luckily, with Colorado’s severe winter, we timed the wildflower season perfectly!

Leading up to our departure, we organized a get together, a planning dinner, and multiple hikes.  Everyone got to meet each other except for Tina who was a late addition after one friend dropped out for personal reasons.

At our spring planning dinner, we discussed gear share, carpooling, the hiking route alternatives, and pre/post trip accommodations.  As a result, Tanya reserved a house for us near Ridgway for our first night of the trip and rooms at the Chipeta Solar Springs Resort which included a spa for pampering ourselves on the final day.

Getting to Our Airbnb in Ridgway

Despite all the planning, the trip snuck up on us. Suddenly we were individually coordinating our carpooling.  Tina came from Albuquerque.  Her drive from New Mexico took about the same time it took the rest of us to come from Denver.  Alix and Tanya, Judy and Julie, and Danelle, Diana and I left within a few hours of one another, and after dealing with lots of RV traffic and road closures, we all eventually made it to our Airbnb.

Diana, Danelle and I were first to arrive.  We pulled up to the house, entered the code on the door, and walked into an amazing home.  The dining room alone seated 12.  The living room was much the same.  The couches in the picture of the home we rented looked a little smaller than the ones in this living room which triggered some bewilderment.

Next we found four bedrooms upstairs along with three baths.  This was also perplexing since we rented a 3/2.  The house had cleaning products laying around, a mop and bucket in the kitchen, and unwashed sheets in the laundry room. It appeared unfinished despite the Airbnb instructions on the counter.  Having the correct code to a house with countless different features proved puzzling.

We especially, however, knew something was wrong when we walked downstairs and found five bedrooms and a common area with a pool table!  At first we thought, the downstairs wasn’t locked off, but then we reviewed the house rental details which included the description “Guest Cottage” in the title.  Low and behold there was another house on the property with the same entry code which was the one we rented!  Haha! 

Admittedly, it was a bit of a letdown, though you get what you pay for!  And we weren’t paying much since we were only looking for a place to lie our heads overnight before catching a 7:30 shuttle that San Juan Huts offers for $150.  The best part of the whole experience was realizing one of us (to remain nameless), dropped some kids off at the pool at the rich person’s house!  But I digress…

The rest of our group from Denver arrived within the hour but were very hungry so they went to dinner while we waited for Tina and left for a meal shortly thereafter.  If I had to do it over again, I probably would have insisted on a group dinner to discuss last minute items, as upon return from dinner there wasn’t much opportunity to answer questions as everyone scattered to prep their packs, in certain instances, a little chaotically.

Catching the Shuttle in Ouray

The next morning came early.  After breakfast, we cleaned up the house, loaded our bags and headed to Ouray in three separate cars to meet the shuttle which was a Suburban with a driver named John.  We followed him to the trail endpoint where we dropped our cars, stuffed our packs in the back of the Suburban and settled in for a tight ride as we took every available space including the middle of the front seat.

In hindsight, opting for the shuttle was important as two of our four cars (one we left at Chipeta Solar Springs Resort) would not have had enough clearance for the 4×4 road.  Not to mention, the written directions for hiking from hut to hut were challenging at best, so who knows if would have found the starting location at Alder Creek in an easy fashion!

Preparing to Hike

The shuttle ride took about one hour, and as a typical group of eight ladies, we probably took thirty minutes for potty breaks in the woods as well as sunscreen and bug spray application before John kindly snapped our pre hike photo!

While our pre hike photo included expansive views at just below 11,000 feet, we immediately entered a forest as we followed Alder Creek Trail northeast from the east side of Last Dollar Pass.  I was a little surprised to not only begin below treeline, but also to start our trek with a welcome descent.

Hiking to North Pole Hut – 8.3 Miles

We spent the next 2.5 miles and 1.75 hours strolling through the woods as we stopped to capture a few wildflower photos before eventually breaking for a snack in an avalanche debris field.  I suppose this location wouldn’t have been the safest resting place had there been snow above us, but all the snapped trees acted as excellent benches!

Once we got our legs underneath us, we picked up the pace a bit.  The next four miles which only took us about two hours to hike featured an old trappers cabin, spectacular wildflowers, gorgeous aspen groves, some nice views, and more slide areas.  The Alder Creek Slide area, littered with trees and still under some snow, erased the trail for a few yards though the path was easy to pick back up after we crossed the slide.

Now, about 6.5 miles into our trek, we rested for lunch at a four-way intersection that was marked by a Dallas Trail sign.  The Dallas Trail is the same as the Alder Trail, only the name changes.  The area was rather buggy, so lunch didn’t last long.

We made a final push, 1.7 miles in an hour to the North Pole Hut.  After crossing the Middle Fork of Leopard Creek, we climbed a forested ridge and descended the other side into a meadow.  This is when the directions to the hut were almost too detailed, listing each marked tree and multiple meadows.  All we really needed to know was to keep an eye to the left after descending into the valley!  Such specific details actually turned us into a few circles.

The North Pole Hut

Despite having seen pictures of the San Juan Huts, I was very excited to see them for myself and happy to finally reach the North Pole Hut, tucked back in a meadow beneath towering peaks.  I reached for my key, one of two that the San Juan Hut System provided, and unlocked the padlock to the door.

Much to my dismay, I found a rectangular room line with four sets of bunk beds donning sleeping bags, a kitchen counter with a sink and two-burner propone stove, some dishes in the cabinets below, two five-gallon water jugs, a first aid kit, and a wood stove in the middle.  I expected to at least have a table and some four-legged camp chairs, not portable ground chairs.

Perhaps I should have read the 5280 Magazine description more closely, “Though functional, these are not lounge-on-the-couch-and-drink-a-glass-of-wine backcountry cabins.  With no living space to speak of, the zero-privacy, garage-size dwellings are nothing more than a place to boil water for mac and cheese and bed down.” Oh well.  At least we didn’t have to carry our tents or sleeping bags!

Afternoon Activities

Tina and I were the first to arrive.  We picked a corner bunk (she took the top bed) and organized our gear.  The others trickled in soon thereafter.  Those with additional energy took the blue water jugs along with our water filtering bladders to the creek a quarter mile away to fill up.  If any of us could have carried a full jug of water weighing 40 pounds, we likely would have only needed one trip, but we resorted to half full jugs.

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, we relaxed in ground chairs when we weren’t fighting with the flies and mosquitoes.  Some people hung out by the river, others in the cabin, and some outside the hut as our shoes dried beneath the sunny skies.  Tina was bound and determined to sit outside without bug-spray, so she ended up donned in full rain gear and netting!

Dinner came early.  We prepared our dried food and savored the last of fresh items that anyone was willing to carry.  To make dinner at least somewhat fun, we agreed in advance to bring dessert for the group.  For the first night, we had S’mores.  Given it was too hot to light to wood burning stove and campfires were not allowed, we roasted marshmallows on a fork over the propane stove.  I can’t say they were the best S’mores I’ve ever had…but they were still marshmallow, chocolate and graham crackers…need I say more?

As with most group settings, I don’t sleep.  My first night in the hut was no exception.  By the next morning I knew everyone’s bathroom schedule as the composting toilet was detached from hut and about 30 yards away.  The night sky, however, was magnificent.  With little moonlight, the Milky Way was visible!

view from the outhouse
view from the outhouse!

What a fabulous first day on the Sneffels Traverse…to be continued.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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