Sand Creek – Cottonwood Creek Loop

The Sand Creek Trail with Music Mountain and Milwaukee Peak.

The Sand Creek to Cottonwood Creek Loop (named by me, I haven’t heard of any other name for it) is one of the finest and most logical long trail loops in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a range not very well set up for loop hikes. It is roughly 30 miles long with at least 6,500 ft. of total gain, but a little shorter if you set up a car shuttle to skip the roughly two miles of dirt roads that connect the two trailheads in the Baca Grande neighborhood. Covering an incredible range of topography, the loop connects a long and flat section of the historic Liberty Road  in the Great Sand Dunes NP to the spectacular and long Sand Creek Trail all the way to the top of “Cottonwood Pass” at over 13,300 ft. and then down the very rugged and often hard to follow Cottonwood Creek Trail back to the beginning. Traveling through every life zone the Sangres have to offer, with easy driving access, and all in a very remote wilderness setting, this loop is destined to be a classic.

A zoomed out version of the whole loop.

I first heard about this amazing loop when I read a nice story about a summer backpacking trip taken by some Crestone locals in the Crestone Eagle newspaper. Apparently the ability to hike the loop was fairly novel as of a few years ago because traditionally the section along the front of the range, the Liberty Road section, was private land and under no circumstances were people allowed to use this land. However, the land was purchased by the government and became either part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park or Rio Grande National Forest land. So the entire loop has only been owned by the public for a few years, and as such has not been traveled by very many people. I would not be surprised if the entire loop had been traveled continuously by less than a handful of people.

The loop can be traveled in either direction, and there are specific and easily identifiable advantages and disadvantages to both directions. By heading up the Cottonwood Creek Trail first, one can get the major climb out of the way right off the bat and navigate the difficult cross country sections early in the journey. However, this means traveling on the Liberty Road, which is long, flat, sandy, and potentially very hot, at the end of the trip. The other option is to bust out the Liberty Road first, then hike up the Sand Creek Trail and head down the steepest and hardest part, Cottonwood Creek. The disadvantage here is that the upper Cottonwood Creek trail doesn’t exist, and route-finding and speed can also be very difficult on this section, which one may not want to do at the end of their journey. This is offset by the advantages of traveling the Liberty Rd. early in the trip, or day, when you can pick a cool time of day, and the advantage of heading downhill late in the trip, or day. I traveled the loop in a counter-clockwise direction (Liberty Rd. first), starting and ending at my house in the Baca Grande, so that is how I will describe the route. Continue reading