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.

Elevation profile traveling in the counter-clockwise direction.

There are two logical places to begin and end the loop, at either the Liberty Road Trailhead at the northern entrance to the Great Sand Dunes NP, or at the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead, in the Baca Grande. It is roughly 2-2.5 miles of dirt road in between these two trailheads, and to complete the whole loop these roads will have to be traveled, so where you start is a personal preference.

Starting at the Liberty Road Trailhead, one heads out south along the Liberty Road for about 7.25 miles until you reach Sand Creek. The Liberty Road along this stretch is a double track through small hills and washes full of Pinon Pines, Juniper, and Ponderosa Pines, which marks the transition from massively up thrust peaks to the east and flat San Luis Valley to the west. The Liberty Road has tons of historical significance as it marks the route of the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail. People have been using this route through the valley for around 12,000 years, so there are plenty of artifacts and old remnants of previous explorers to add value to the journey. It is also very sandy, does not offer much shade, and can get very sun-baked. However, the views are absolutely insane, and I can promise you that you can’t find terrain like this anywhere else in Colorado. The Liberty Rd. crosses two flowing creeks – Deadman Creek and Pole Creek – before arriving at Sand Creek, so water should not be an issue. The road also passes through some interesting old mining areas. The town of Duncan no longer exists, but its site is marked today by the Duncan Cabin, a fully restored cabin that can be rented out, which legend says belonged to John Duncan himself. It also passes through the old townsite of Liberty, also a gold mining town, where today there are still a collection of cabins on small private in-holdings within the national forest. More information about the town of Duncan can be read here.

The Great Sand Dunes from the Sand Creek trail with Sand Creek in the foreground. The Dune field goes for about 10 miles south to the normal visitor center.

At the town of Liberty, there appears to be a trail on the old USGS topo maps which cuts across the hillside above the cabins to intersect with Sand Creek. However, I have found that this trail no longer exists, although there are game trails that can be followed, and the best route to get on the Sand Creek trail is to continue to follow the Liberty Rd. until it intersects the Sand Creek trail next to Sand Creek. This will be an old dirt road, head left towards to mouth of the canyon, where the road will turn into a well marked trail. The mouth of the canyon, near Sand Creek, would be a great area for a camp.

Old miner’s cabin along the sand creek trail.

The trail up Sand Creek is fantastic, with a very gradual grade and incredible mountain views. This section of trail is one of the finest in the range for running, but unfortunately lies about 8 miles from the nearest access, which should keep it wild! It cuts through old mining claims with cabins still intact, and crosses the creek no less than 10 times. The creek is clear and fresh and full of small trout. Beware that there are beaver ponds upstream, so drinking straight from the creek may not be a good idea. It is about 10 miles until the trail encounters the intersection with the Music Pass trail, which heads over to the east side of the range, and provides the easiest access point for this incredible remote basin. There are countless meadows and open areas for a camp along this stretch.

Shortly the trail branches and the more frequently traveled trail heads uphill to the left towards the Sand Creek Lakes, which are huge and sit in amazing alpine cirques below Music Mountain, Tijeras Peak, and Milwaukee Peak. Anyone doing this loop as a backpacking trip would be very wise to stay a night at one of these lakes. A recently constructed, but primitive, trail continues up valley towards “Cottonwood Pass.” The trail signs call it Cottonwood Pass, but on maps I have seen it described as Milwaukee Pass, so who knows. Anyway, the signs say “follow the cairns” and that is a good idea as the trail becomes very vague and often times exceptionally cross-country in its feel. It climbs a steep hillside to above treeline above a cool beaver meadow, then continues more or less straight up the head of the valley until reaching the crest of the ridge dividing the upper Sand Creek valley from the South Colony Lakes drainage. This is an incredible vantage point for the Crestone Peaks.

The Crestone Needle with upper South Colony Lake and Broken Hand Peak in the foreground, taken from half way up Cottonwood Pass.

One might think they have gained the top of the pass at this point, but there is still a bit of up to go! This pass is one of the coolest mountain passes I have ever traversed, mostly because of the complete improbability of it, but also due to the incredible trail construction which took place sometime in the past in order to make this trail possible. The trail is often terraced with old stones and crosses over some very steep faces. With luck this trail will eventually be fully restored, as in my opinion it is far more spectacular than the Phantom Terrace trail, which is well known for being a wild trail, and is also right up there with the Kit Carson Avenue for spectacular trail locations in the Sangres. As it is right now the trail is well restored to the crest of the pass on the east side, but not the west side.

Milwaukee Peak (13,522) summit on the left with the notch where Cottonwood Pass crosses the sangre divide.

The trail as it switchbacks up the steep mountainside right on the ridge crest, then eventually cuts left across the rocky face on a thin terrace and follows man-made terraces to the crest of the pass, a mere 200 feet below the summit of 13,522’ Milwaukee Peak. It is a windy and airy class 3 /4 ascent to the summit from here if you would like to tag the top. The Cottonwood Pass trail follows more man-made terraces along the ridge-line to the north before eventually switch-backing down into the valley below. This part of the trail has not been maintained, but is easy to follow.

The hardest part of the loop is the upper Cottonwood Creek Trail, which really has mostly ceased to exist because it has not been maintained for the past 40? years or so. To travel down the valley below you must travel cross country. If you happen to do this loop the other direction, you will have been traveling cross country for awhile now, keep your eyes open for a number of large and obvious cairns in the middle of the valley near the top of the cirque – they lead up and left on the final section of the Cottonwood Pass trail which still exists – and are key markers in this trek.

If you are heading downhill, the best advice is to stick to the right, north, side of the valley. Follow the grassy ledges and stay high on the right above the rocks and valley bottom. There are animal trails and maybe a cairn or two which will get you through the bushes. Once you reach treeline the side of the valley becomes steeper with more cliffs, keep heading down valley and down hill, eventually reaching a meadow at the base of an avalanche chute which opens up to the creek. You must cross the creek here, onto the south side. There may be a post marking the trail here, but more likely its fallen over. On the south side of the creek you may encounter cairns and some semblance of an old trail. Follow it down through the brush and trees, along the creek, until you reach the place where the creeks join. The creek coming down from the Crestone Peaks and Cottonwood Lake join together at a place you must cross. This is also the point you join the trail which people follow up to the Crestone Peaks.

Pico Aislado (13,611′) from the upper Cottonwood Creek drainage.

At this point the hard part is over and there is an actual trail which you can follow all the way down to the San Luis Valley. However, it is rough and hard to follow, but there are cairns and trail the whole way. The trail will stay on the north side of the creek, and at least initially climb down many polished slabs. One large slab is about 200 feet tall, and you must down-climb the middle of it (class 3 /4). The lower you go, the better and more traveled the trail gets, until 4.5 miles later you arrive at the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead.

To reach the Liberty Road trailhead is an easy 2 miles on dirt roads. Walk right on the road and take the first road heading left (Tranquil Way), which is blocked to vehicle traffic by large boulders. 100 yards later it becomes a normal road again, which you follow downhill for about ¼ mile. Turn left onto Camino Baca Grande and follow it out of the Baca Grande subdivision and out onto the National Park. Keep following it until you reach your car.

A normal person will want to follow this route as a backpacking trip. I would plan on three nights out, with four days hiking, although it would be possible as well to hike it in three days. There are so many awesome campsites and so many great lakes and peaks to explore, that more days (4,5,6?) may be the wisest option. For the runner, expect a wild journey which is harder and longer than the famous Four-pass loop near Aspen. The crux is without doubt the upper Cottonwood Creek drainage, so much so that most runners will want to pre-scope the way so as to not suffer a late day epic here if traveling counter-clockwise.

MY ADVENTURE:

Ever since I had read the article I mentioned above and learned about this loop I had been wanting to run it. It was on my short list of adventures that I wanted to experience during the ‘12 summer, but for whatever reason I had not found the time to do it. Throughout October I hoped that the weather and conditions would line up to make it possible. This was the last big goal of the summer still on my list, except that there was snow visible up on the high peaks…

I waited as the snow melted and eventually decided that the snow would not be an issue. I planned to run it by starting up Cottonwood Creek, thinking that if lingering snow shut me down at the pass I could just cruise right back home – it seemed to make the most sense. However, I also didn’t want to run across the Liberty Road at the end of the day in the sun, so I convinced myself that the snow would be no issue, and ran it the counter-clockwise way.

I set out from my house expecting to run steady, and also thinking the loop was in the 27 mile range. I thought I could do it in around six hours on a great day, so that was my goal. The Liberty Road went great, although my hip flexors had begun to tighten up, and I lost some time trying to find a trail that didn’t exist by Liberty (see above), and then going cross-country to reach Sand Creek. It wasn’t till I hit the Music Pass trail junction that I realized that I was running behind schedule, that the loop was quite a bit longer than I anticipated, and that snow was going to be a big issue. The upper valley was still full of snow and in the shade, and the wind had really started screaming.

I put on all the clothes I brought, which luckily included pants, hat, gloves, and R1 hoody, and hiked up the pass. My hip flexors and glutes were so tight it made hiking painful, and the crazy wind was bone-chilling. A couple inches of snow covered all the rocks and grass, making footing very hard and slow. My gps watch died, then I realized that I would be really pushing it to make it home before dark. I had to climb up and over the snowy pass or face a 25 mile backtrack to get back home. Eventually I crested the pass and was now in the sun again, which was a relief, although I saw that the valley below was also full of snow. I tried sending a text to Jill, as the SPOT tracker had not been working all day, but couldn’t get it to go out. So I carried on tired, sore, cold, grumpy, and facing a couple mile bushwack through the snow to reach the real trail.

There was nothing to do but to get it done, which I did, then managed to jog the last five miles back down the Cottonwood Creek trail and then down the road to my house. Luckily the downhill did not stress my hip flexors and I managed to loosen up a bit for running. I got home just as the sun set, making for a nice bit of closure on the day. I certainly got really worked, bonked hard on the wrong side of the mountains, and had a much harder time than I expected, but the uncertainty made it all that much better of an adventure!

I ran this loop in the counter-clockwise direction, the way it is described above, in 8h6m. I don’t know my exact time because my garmin died along the way, so I had to rely on the clock on my phone. I ran from my doorstep, and started timing at the intersection of Tranquil Way and Camino Baca Grande, which is also where I checked the clock on my phone at the end, and forms the complete loop. This intersection is about ½ mile uphill from my house. My total house to house time was 8h22m. I did not “nail” this run by any means, and it could be done much faster. Also, there are rumors that if the land-owners at the Cottonwood Creek Trailhead could reach a permanent access agreement with the Forest Service, that the FS would improve and restore the Cottonwood Creek Trail. This would truly make this a classic tour, and would put it on par with the most classic ultra tours in the state.