Saturday, July 7, 2018

South Snowdon (N2), 13,046'; and Peak 12,618' (N3)

Essence: Lush meadows, reflective lakes, an expansive tundra-covered shelf, and two neglected mountains on a divide in the West Needle Mountains. While it is a simple descent from N3 to Crater Lake and a popular trail, this hike returns on a sublime and efficient bench route passing by Snowdon Ponds.
Travel: From the US 550/160 intersection in Durango, drive 41 miles north on US 550. One mile before Molas Pass, just shy of mile marker 63, turn right/east at the Andrews Lake sign. It is 0.7 mile to lakeside parking with an outhouse, no water.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 11.7 miles; 3,360 feet of climbing. Returning on the Crater Lake Trail adds 1.3 miles and 600 feet of vertical.
Total Time: 6:30 to 8:00
Difficulty: Primarily off-trail; navigation moderately challenging; Class 2+ blockfields, no exposure
Maps: Snowdon Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: July 3, 2021
Quote: Suppose a Man was carried asleep out of a plain Country amongst the Alps and left there upon the Top of one of the highest Mountains, when he wak’d and look’d about him, he would think himself in an inchanted Country, or carried into another world; every Thing wou’d appear to him so different to what he had ever seen or imagin’d before. Thomas Burnet, 1684

The sloping platform between N3 and informally named South Snowdon, horizon-center, is primarily tundra with islands of talus and small crystalline lakes. The divide sheds west to Lime Creek and east to the Animas River.

Route: From Andrews Lake take the Crater Lake Trail south to Snowdon Meadows. Transition onto the unmaintained trail toward Snowdon Peak. Leave the summit trail at 11,600 feet and ascend south, passing between Snowdon Peak and Point 12,450'. Climb South Snowdon and then continue south to Peak 12,618'. To return, hike freestyle north on the shelf. (Holding the 12,240 foot contour is especially beautiful.) Link back with the upcoming route east of Point 12,450'.

From the parking lot, 10,750 feet, walk across the bridge on the west side of Andrews Lake. Step up to the right onto the generous, well-engineered Crater Lake Trail.

The treadway enters the Weminuche Wilderness and then switches up through deep woods with a diverse array of wildflowers. The path climbs gently, gaining 450 feet over 1.2 miles to top out on a limestone ridge overlooking "Snowdon Meadows" at 11,180 feet. At the trail register leave the main track and take the spur to the east. As indicated on the map above, two trails cross the moist meadow. Walk a few paces north on the karst ridge to feed onto the drier trail.

Our route climbs to the saddle between Snowdon Peak, image-center, and Point 12,450' on the right.

A stream wends gently through spongy tundra. The grass is wet, crepuscular rays are delineated by trees. Sadly, in 2018 this forest was succumbing to beetle kill. (THW, photo)

Bog plants saturate the four meadows we cross. As the photographer said, "Elephant heads with their haunting color own this place." (THW, photo)

The unmaintained path enters the woods and climbs consistently to 11,600 feet. At 2.2 miles peel off the peak trail and head south. While crossing the talus field you will hear the distinctive and delightful sound of water running under rock. Climb the steep tundra slope, shown. The grade eases near the Naked Lady Couloir and the West Buttress route up Snowdon Peak, shown.

Approach "Heart Lake" from the east side to avoid carved stone walls and cross right at the outlet, 12,000 feet.
(THW, photo)

Continue on a southern trajectory skirting Point 12,450' on the east. The krummholz is charming. The sweet little trees surrender to grass, flowers and rocks. It is all so appealing. Walk up ramps of earth and bedrock.

This image shows the spires that render the traverse between Snowdon Peak and South Snowdon impassible. The Snowdon dragon's stony presence is manifest by an imposing wall of quartzite above a moraine.

An outcrop bulges from the west slope of South Snowdon at 3.3 miles, 12,500 feet. The image below was taken on the return hike to get a better perspective on this location. The outcrop is image-center and South Snowdon is image-right. There's lots of room to roam on the big talus blocks that pitch up to the ridge.

If you like to scramble locate a quartzite ramp, image-right. At the top of the rock sidewalk climb the outcrop and resume the talus ascent to the ridge. Alternatively, skirt the outcrop on the north. To moderate the hike considerably, bypass South Snowdon by hiking south on the exquisite terrace at its base.

At 12,800 feet the grade eases.

We typically gain the ridge north of a minor notch. The summit ridge drops precipitously on the east and rolls off gently to the west. Arrive on broad-crested South Snowdon, Peak 13,046', N2 (the mountain with many names) at 3.6 miles. We are the third party to sign the peak register in the past year.

The view is full-spectrum gorgeous. In this image, the Grenadier Range and Needle Mountains are across the Animas River gorge. Of note, some friends have descended the east ridge of N2 (shown). The spine is steep, loose, and rotten to the first saddle. Helmets are necessary. Then scramble on big blocks to the second saddle. From there you can bail to the south. Or, stay on the ridge to Point 12,882', drop north to the pea green lake east of N2, and from there circumnavigate Snowdon Peak. 

In the north Grand Turk and Sultan Mountain are west of Snowdon Peak, 31 feet higher than N2. (THW, photo)

N3 is two miles south, image-left. Henceforth, the shifting perspective on the Twilights is unparalleled.

Locate N2's rounded southwest ridge. Be sure to hit it where you can see the base. This is an ideal 440 foot downclimb on big, well seated blocks.

Walk south on the tundra platform where large elk herds often reside, especially in the saddle area at 4.4 miles, 12,260 feet. Rock islands are comprised of a weathered pink granitic with neon green lichen. Large chunks of opaque, white quartz are both embedded and extruded. Talus takes over  approaching Point 12,458' at 4.8 miles. N3 is image-right.

From the next saddle, 12,220 feet, we hit the ridge at the north end by walking across a crowded fell field. You may skirt much of the rock as indicated on the map. (THW, photo)

The eastern vista is gripping. In this image, the Needle Mountains rise steeply from the Animas River, 4,000 feet below our vantage point. The feeder creeks are Tenmile, Noname, and Ruby. If your timing is good you will see the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad chuffing by. N3 is on the right. (THW, photo)

Crest N3 at 6.0 miles. Judging from the peak register, this beautiful summit is a peak of solitude.

If weather is concerning you may bail from the high shelf quickly by walking a little over a mile to Crater Lake. Descend west in a park-like, high-alpine setting, passing many small lakes. The return trip on the Crater Lake Trail is 5.6 wooded miles with 800 feet of climbing. This is the blue-line route on the map above.

A resplendent alternative is to roam freely on the high elevation bench bearing north. West of Point 12,458' we located a game trail at roughly 12,240 feet and followed that glorious contour for two miles.

We passed by three hanging lakes. This general area is known informally as Snowdon Ponds. (THW, photo)

Engineer Mountain was reflected in a water disk. (THW, photo)

Close the loop east of Point 12,450' and retrace your steps to the trailhead. The only people we saw all day were a couple of kayakers on Andrews Lake and kids fishing from the shore.


  1. The geographic area encircled by your blue and black lines on the attached map describes a playground where I spent considerable time from the late 70's till the mid 2010's. During that period of time the roughly 500 acres that correspond to your "tundra covered shelf" were "informally" referred to as Snowdon Tarns and activities included day hikes, overnight backpacking, summer and winter ascents of Snowdon and the other West Needle summits, and before Wilderness designation was applied, two wheeled exploration and snowmobiling.

    I would be curious to learn if your ventures into the area continue to confirm a relatively low impact from other users (groups in the photos included here seem to be rather large) and perhaps compare notes on a variety of topics concerning the natural history of what I have long considered a special place.

    1. Brian, Thank you for sharing memories of your forays into the Snowdon region. Snowdon Tarns is an even better informal name than "Snowdon Ponds" used today. Generally, hiking and climbing in that area remains a solitary experience. Some of the photos in this post were taken on a trip I led for a Durango hiking club. Debra