Colorado's wilderness areas may not be easy to get to, but the scenery makes the drives and the hikes worth it. In the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, many of the hikes come with lots of elevation gain, but a day-long adventure to Music Pass, Lower Sand Creek Lake and Upper Sand Creek Lake only involves a hike of about 2200 feet elevation gain.
The hike starts on the east side of the mountains, near Westcliffe (directions below). If you don't have a high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle, you'll likely have to start the hike at the Grape Creek Trailhead. There's dispersed camping here, a bathroom and parking. Hike up the road or drive up as far as your comfortable. It's 2.9 miles from the Grape Creek Trailhead to the Music Pass Trailhead. (Note, some descriptions call the Grape Creek Trailhead, the lower Music Pass trailhead.) This trip report describes the hike from the upper trailhead.
At the Music Pass Trailhead, you'll see lots of parked vehicles and a sign pointing you 1 1/4 miles to Music Pass Trail No. 1337. Hike up the next section of road that is closed to vehicles. You'll quick pass a dirt berm put on the trail to keep vehicles from driving any further.
The hike here is very pleasant. The trail is a bit steep and rocky, but you're in the thick forest and it's nice. About 0.2 miles in is a register box and a sign. If there's a register, please sign in for the Forest Service will know how many people are using the trail.
Continue hiking up the old road/trail until the trees begin to open up at about 0.8 from the upper trailhead. Soon you'll be getting glimpses of the peaks up ahead. If you need a break, don't forget to turn around and admire the view of the valley below you.
As you get closer to the top, the trees start to thin out a bit and you'll pass a sign that says "Great Sand Dunes National Preserve." While you won't see the Sand Dunes on the this hike, you are in the National Preserve's protected area.
At the top of Music Pass, a sign explains that the pass was named for the musical sounds some hear when the wind blows over the pass. The trail flattens out for a short distance, you come around a corner and there it is -- a view of the valley to your west. While you may not hear wind making the musical sounds, you will likely feel your heart filling with joy at being in this incredible place. This is the Sand Creek Basin. There are three 13,000-foot high peaks out there -- Tijeras Peak (13,604') is the pointy one. Music Mountain (13,356') and Milwaukee Mountain (13,522') are also in that range. Lower Sand Creek Lake is at the base of Tijeras Peak. Upper Sand Creek Lake is at the base of Music Mountain. It's in the far corner of the Sand Creek Valley to the west and right.
As you stand here, you can visualize what's ahead. You're going to drop down about 400 feet into the Sand Creek Valley. You'll hike across a meadow, then turn left toward Lower Sand Creek Lake. You'll be hiking in that thick forest of trees you see below Tijeras Peak to the lake. After visiting the lake, you'll hike back down to the trail split in the meadow and turn more northwest. You'll once again hike in a thick forest, this time up to Upper Sand Creek Lake at the base of Music Mountain.
So, let's go! After taking in the view, start down the trail into the valley. You'll drop about 400 feet in the next .75 miles to the meadow and the next trail split. This is where the Music Pass Trail ends and Sand Creek Trail Number 743 begins. Don't turn left, but continue straight ahead toward the Sand Creek Lakes.
It's about a third of mile across the meadow to the next trail split. A sign points hikers to the left for the Lower Sand Creek Lake. You can go to either lake first, but if there's a chance you'll only visit one lake, I recommend Lower Sand Creek Lake because Tijeras Peak creates some very dramatic scenery. However, if you prefer a wide-open cirque, you might prefer Upper Sand Creek Lake. Take a look at the attached slideshow to see both lakes.
We turned left and headed toward the "Lower" lake. While the lake is named "Lower Sand Creek Lake" you're going to hike up to get there. The trail starts by crossing Sand Creek, then it switchbacks through the forest. This a peaceful, pleasant trail. It never gets too steep and often flattens out so you can catch your breath. You'll hike about one mile with 400 feet of elevation gain to the lake.
I LOVED Lower Sand Creek Lake. This is a good-sized lake with very dramatic scenery. Tijeras Peak rises more than 2,000 feet above the lake. Come on a calm weather day and you might be able to see the reflection of the peak in the lake's water. If there's snow in the cirque, look around for waterfalls on the rocky walls, created by the melting snowfall. Walk the shoreline to try and find the best shot of the lake and the peak. If you have a wide-angle lens, BRING IT for this lake so you can capture more of the incredible scenery.
I recommend having a snack or lunch here so you can spend some time enjoying this beautiful place.
When you're ready, hike one mile back to the main trail and turn uphill toward Upper Sand Creek Lake. Much like the trail to Lower Sand Creek Lake, the trail to the upper lake once again winds through the forest on dozens of switchbacks. However, this trail gets a bit steeper at times. It's also longer and you're probably a little more tired. You'll be gaining about 700 feet in the next 1.7 miles to the upper lake.
As you hike along the trail, there's another creek crossing with a nice waterfall and a turnoff for Cottonwood Pass Trail 743 (the Upper Sand Creek Lake Trail becomes Number 862 here) . At that turnoff, you're just about one mile from the upper lake. Keep hiking until you come to another creek crossing and a view of the mountains. At this point, I think you can go either way. I recommend turning left and hiking a short distance over two more small hills to the lakeshore. However, if you go left, you'll arrive at more of an inlet on the lake. If you want a better view of the entire lake, you may want to go right, cross the creek and hike up a couple more switchbacks to lake and go exploring to find the best lunch spot.
Details: The hike from the upper trailhead to both lakes is about 10 miles with about 2200 feet of elevation gain without any extra exploring around the lakes.
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Directions: From Westcliffe, take Highway 69 south about 4.5 miles to County Road 119 (Colfax Lane). Turn right on CR 119 and follow it about 5.6 miles to a "T" intersection. Turn left and follow the road another 5.2 miles to the Grape Creek Trailhead/Lower Music Pass Trailhead/Rainbow Trail.