Telluride is tucked into a box canyon deep in the San Juan Mountains, and there are few sights as spectacular as driving into town during the golden hour, the sun about to set, its light streaming down the canyon walls. The canyon walls that cut into the light, casting long and dark shadows throughout the day, rise 5,000 feet above the valley floor, and the only way to get a better vantage of Telluride and the surrounding mountain ranges is to climb the canyon walls.
Enter the Sneffels Highline, a rigorous 12-mile, 5,000-foot ascent into the heart of the Sneffels Range to the north of Telluride. There’s only one way to hike a canyon wall—the Via Ferrata notwithstanding—and that’s to draw your bootstraps tight and edge into the dirt. Regardless of whether hikers approach to Sneffels Highline from the west or the east, the ascent is furious and unrelenting to Upper Mill Creek and Pack basins at 12,500 feet.
The reward is unmistakable. The groves of aspen and conifer forest thin below 12,000 feet, and the trail breaks into the open with broad panoramas that include Telluride, the Telluride Ski Resort, and farther to the south, the Lizard Head Wilderness, encompassing Lizard Head and the Mount Wilson massif. Even in the fall, not normally wildflower season, colors dot the short alpine grasses with bright red, violet, and yellow. A waterfall in Upper Mill Creek Basin tumbles over a shelf of quartzite beneath the western flank of Mount Emma, a fractured, decomposing slope of rock. Rising thermals buoy parasailors, who glide over the canyon well above 15,000 feet. Coyotes can be heard mid-day, yipping like a dogs among omnipresent pika.
Despite the exposure and the effort, hiking above treeline in Telluride is a requirement for any outdoor adventurer worth the mud on their boots, and the Sneffels Highline is one of the best opportunities to experience this alpine environment.
The trails here are very well- marked, so navigating the Highline should be straightforward and without drama. All the better. From the Jud Wiebe Trailhead, ascend roughly a mile to the junction with the Mill Creek Trail. Almost immediately you'll reach a junction with the Sneffels Highline Trail to the right. Here the ascent begins in earnest. Ascend for about 3 miles, gaining 2,000 feet of elevation. At treeline, around 11,750 feet, the trail opens abruptly into Pack Basin. Continue ascending through alpine tundra to a saddle below Mount Emma; be careful here, as the trail ascends switchbacks on a very steep slope. The saddle below Mount Emma marks the highest point on the Sneffels Highline at 12,260 feet, 3.84 miles from the junction of the Sneffels Highline and Mill Creek trails. Begin descending through the larger Mill Creek Basin below Gilpin Peak and Dallas Peak. Once in the basin, the trail levels to a gentler descent for several miles. After several switchbacks, the Sneffels Highline Trail joins the Deep Creek Trail; keep left for about a mile. At a junction with the Mill Creek Trail, continue left for about 2 miles, passing the original junction with the Sneffels Highline Trail before rejoining the Jud Wiebe Trail. At the Jud Wiebe Trail, hikers have the option of continuing the Jud Wiebe Trail to completion or returning to the trailhead. Even at the end of a long day, the Jud Wiebe Trail is highly recommended.
Backcountry camping is allowed in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, so there are two ways to tackle the Sneffels Highline during the monsoon season: Wait until the storms pass and camp above treeline, or attack the canyon wall in the early morning, leaving enough time to descend to a safe place by early afternoon. Also, hikers should expect to be above treeline in full sun exposure for at least two hours; plan accordingly.