As you are driving north up U.S. Highway 550 about to top Molas Pass, look to the east and you will see Snowdon Peak. The mountain is distinguished by the “W” notched into its south ridge.
Composed of gleaming scales of quartzite blocks, the peak is fondly referred to as the Quartzite Dragon. If you’ve climbed the fierce beast, you will understand.
Two moderately strenuous hikes are offered that will put you in dragon territory without having to take a ride on its back. Climb North Snowdon or come along on a resplendent circuit through a hidden watery way. At Snowdon Ponds, rivulets entrenched in tundra gush from one reflection pool to the next. The full tour loops past more than a dozen enchanting high alpine tarns and lakes. Both hikes are within the Weminuche Wilderness managed by San Juan National Forest.
Snowdon MeadowsFrom the Andrews Lake parking lot, elevation 10,750 feet, walk across the bridge on the west side. Step up to the right on the Crater Lake Trail. It switches gently up through deep woods with a diverse array of wildflowers. A trail register at 1.1 miles marks the junction where we leave the main track and take the branch to the left.
Top out on a rim overlooking Snowdon Meadows. There is much to explore in this moist area, and it is the final destination for many hikers. Two paths cross the marsh and rejoin on the other side. The lower trail runs beside rills coursing through the tundra, the channels rimmed with marsh marigolds blooming in drifts among verdant mosses. You will be walking on a giant wet sponge. To keep your feet dry, turn left and take the higher track.
This is one of the finest meadowlands in Colorado. Elephant head saturates the landscape with purple spikes. American bistort adds white puffs, and queen’s crown is a blend of pinks.
The unofficial and unmaintained trail enters the forest, which has been ravaged by beetle kill in the past decade. Step over deadfall as the footpath guides you across three more meadows interspersed with patches of tangled woods. When the footpath kicks up, consider it a warm-up for steep slopes to follow. At 2.2 miles, 11,600 feet, the trail splits and our two hikes diverge.
North Snowdon (N1), Point 12,628’Point 12,628’, informally named N1 or North Snowdon, is located 0.3 mile north of the 12,340 foot shared saddle with Snowdon Peak. With 288 feet of prominence, North Snowdon is 12 feet shy of qualifying as a ranked summit. However, it has a lot going for it. The views are spectacular, and it is a Class 2 hike with no scrambling or exposure. Roundtrip from the junction is 1.6 miles with roughly 1,000 feet of vertical.
Continue straight ahead on the climber’s trail. The path leads into a broad, green swale. Trekking poles are helpful, and it takes some muscle power to get up the intensely steep, slippery pitch. The trail disappears, and the land graduates as you near the expansive saddle.
The Needle Mountains create a euphoria-inducing skyline rippling over the Animas River canyon. Growing amongst slate fragments is old man of the mountain. These alpine sunflowers all have their compasses out pointing forever east.
Turn north and wander up the broad ridge following tundra runners through glistening bedrock. As you near the crest, chunks of milk-white quartz are prevalent. The peak register is located in the summit bivouac. The ridge necks down immediately. If you dare, walk a few feet out the razorback to see tilted quartzite slabs and Silverton, 3,300 feet below.
If you can take your eyes off the mighty dragon rearing up in the south, there is a full throttle view of the La Plata Mountains, Engineer Mountain, peaks ringing Ice Lake Basin, the Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains. As you descend, for variety, sweep west along the north edge for a short distance before returning to the trail at the top of the swale.
Point 12,450’ to Snowdon PondsThe hike as described is a 4.5 mile stem-and-loop from the junction with 1,300 feet of elevation gain. On a clear weather day, strong hikers can reasonably do both adventures. Before launching off-trail take stock of your surroundings. The path goes to the right and then vanishes in a talus field at the terminal embankment of a rock glacier. The route crosses the blocks and then climbs a tundra pitch. Naked Lady Couloir is on the flank of Snowdon Peak with a streak of snow, and to its right is the West Buttress Class 4 climbing route.
While crossing the boulder pile, listen for pika squeaks and watch for yellow-bellied marmots. Pause and you will hear invisible water running under rock, my favorite sound on earth. If you are not accustomed to walking on boulders, it takes a little practice. It helps to be sure-footed and agile. These wedged blocks are stable and interlocked, so try to maintain some momentum while skimming across the field. Caution: quartzite is ultra slippery when wet.
On the other side of the talus yard is the “green wall.” Climb just west of the beige bedrock slabs. They have been glacially polished and are ice-rink slick. When you reach the top of the slope, turn around and make a mental note of the trail’s location leading back into the forest.
“Heart Lake” is at the top of the slope at 12,000 feet. Approach on the east side of the outlet. Cross the stream on stones, weave through stunted trees for just a few steps, and then walk along the lake shore.
Continue on a southern trajectory taking aim on the saddle east of Point 12,450’, the gray and shining stone knob. Treelimit is the highest elevation at which trees can grow. At timberline, they become progressively smaller, more shrubs than trees. Krummholz is a German word which translates as “elfin timber” or “crooked wood.” Sweet little trees surrender to tundra, flowers, bedrock and boulders. This is the landscape of ultimate freedom and visual simplicity. Walk up the fellfield on earthen ramps.
The playful climb to Point 12,450’ begins on the south side of the saddle on a green patch at 12,300 feet. Big quartzite boulders on the southeast ridge are great fun. This would be a good Class 2+ scramble for teens or anyone who wants to practice before tackling bigger mountains. It is only 150 feet of open climbing to the crest. If this is not your idea of a good time, you can still visit the lakes. The prettiest pond is close by, south of the saddle.
A peak register tucked in a tall summit cairn awaits. The stunning prominence sees only a few visitors annually. You can feel the Quartzite Dragon breathing down your back. After taking in the view, walk west along the north side of the stone plateau overlooking Snowdon Meadows and Andrews Lake.
The ponds are located on two glacially carved terraces. As you walk down the west ridge, you’ll get a good look at a dozen lakes on the lower bench at 12,000 feet. Plot a course to string the shimmering pools together.
The lake community offers much to observe: glacially scraped quartzite, mounds of elk scat, purple violets and brilliant splashes of pink pygmy bitterroot. Eventually, you will arrive at a deep lake with clear blue water and a stone necklace. At the far end is a green ramp that will lift you to 12,200 feet, the approximate level of the upper terrace.
Turn north-northeast and walk back to the saddle. Along the way you will pass three hanging lakes. The liquid mirror near the saddle reflects Engineer Mountain on a still day. Malachite greenness encircles water that matches the color of the sky.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.