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Jonathan Stull | 07.10.2016

Located in central Colorado, the Sawatch Range is the state’s most rugged cordillera. With sprawling vistas from barren mountain summits, acres of little-trod backcountry wilderness and miles of trail through Colorado’s iconic and idyllic alpine landscape, the Sawatch Range is a hiker’s and mountain climber’s paradise. It contains eight of the highest 20 peaks in the mid-continental chain that spreads from Panama to the Arctic Circle, including the highest, 14,440-foot Mount Elbert, the second-highest peak in the continental U.S. The 100-mile mountain range includes 15 of Colorado’s fourteeners, the highest concentration of such peaks in the U.S.

Some of the state’s most verdant aspen forests grow here, and they become particularly beautiful in the fall. Lodgepole pine forests populate the Sawatch’s eastern slopes, and forests of spruce and fir give way to alpine tundra and wildflower blooms above the tree line. The result is beautiful scenery on par with Colorado’s best, including Maroon Bells, one of the most photographed areas in the state.

Hiking is the best way to experience this area’s rugged terrain full of lakes, waterfalls and wildflowers, but opportunities for adventure abound. Challenge yourself to scale the summit of a fourteener. High elevation and long winters provide for a winter wonderland, and the gentle lower slopes of the Sawatch Range become ideal for cross-country skiing when the snows fall, where access allows it. There are lakes to fish in, campfires to light and mountain slopes to cycle.

Erosion and glaciation have worn away the mountains to expose schist and gneiss, and the peaks of the Sawatch Range lack the great granite cliffs that characterize other ranges in the Colorado Rockies. But not to be outdone, the mountains of the Sawatch Range are gentle in contour despite their high elevation. Most climbs are non-technical, and rounded humps are easily scaled by following long ridges graded as Class 2 talus slopes, making them accessible to anyone with the gumption to climb them.

It’s best to visit the Sawatch Range during the warmest months of the year. At such a high elevation, the peaks and passes can be buried in snow until mid-July. July and August have a reputation for rapid weather changes, and keep in mind that afternoon thunderstorms are routine. Even in summer months, snow, sleet and hail are possible above 12,000 feet. Autumn weather is more predictable, although snowstorms are possible, and winter travel should be risked by only the most advanced backcountry adventurers.

  • It’s hard to go wrong with any of the hikes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, so we’re including two! At a bare minimum, hike the trail from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake. Though modest in length and elevation gain, the vistas are unlike anything else in Colorado: Two alpine lakes framed by steep, v-cut alpine valleys composed of red hematite are made even more spectacular by golden aspen foliage in the fall. The Four Pass Loop is a three- to four-day, 27-mile tour of the region that summits four passes above 12,000 feet. It’s a Colorado classic, adding alpine meadows and wildflowers to the beauty witnessed below Maroon Bells.
  • La Plata Peak is Colorado’s fifth-tallest mountain. The trail is steep and long: a total distance of 9.02 miles spanning 4,500 feet of elevation gain. Its difficulty provides a challenge to the strongest hikers. Numerous creek crossings through pine forest and wide open alpine meadows are the reward for this dog-friendly excursion.
  • Although the easiest hike on this list, Nolan Lake nevertheless provides a spectacular tour through an alpine wilderness of lakes and mountains. Set in the Holy Cross Wilderness, its biggest advantage is its isolation: beautiful, but left largely untouched by most of the travelers who pass through the Sawatch Range. Nolan Lake is also reputed to have a native trout population.
  • Angel Pass has the most diversity of any hike on this list. At 7.50 miles and 2,158 feet of elevation gain, it’s still relatively modest, but there is much see: Alongside the alpine vistas, lakes and peaks, it offers wide open wildflower meadows with as much species diversity as you’ll find—penstemon, paintbrush, Colorado columbine and much more. You’ll find waterfalls here, and part of the area’s mining legacy near the entrance to an old mine. Near Angel Pass there are 360-degree views of the surrounding ranges.


I didn't know the Elk Mountains were part of the Sawatch? THe Maroon Peaks are part of the Elk range.
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