From Westcliffe, head south out of town on SH69 as though going to the South Colony Lakes area by the Crestones. Drive 4.4 miles south from the intersection of highways 69 and 96 in town, then turn right onto CR119 (Colfax Lane) and drive 5.5 miles to the junction where if you turn right, you'd be heading for the Crestones and South Colony Lakes. But instead of turning right, turn left, to the east, then in a few hundred yards, (quarter mile) the road again turns abruptly south and in about 5 miles comes to a trailhead parking area where passenger cars should give it up. This is the Rainbow trailhead here. Coordinates for this lower parking area at 9300 ft. are: N37° 55' 49.07" W 105° 27' 26.52".
If you have 4WD with good clearance, then proceed up the steepening 4WD road to the south and west for another 2.5 miles (appx.) to the upper trailhead at the coordinates and elevation given above. Our first drive up this road in 1995 was made in a Jeep Cherokee Sport. We found the road in surprisingly good shape, even though it was a steep single-track type road. In 2005 we returned to the same area in a Toyota T-100 pickup. In those 10 intervening years, the road condition had deteriorated considerably. It proved more of a challenge in our longer-bed vehicle, but we still made it okay. In any event, be prepared for a rough ride on a steep, narrow road with difficult rocky stretches. Reaching this upper parking area will greatly shorten the suggested backpack.
Primitive camping is available at both the upper and lower trailheads. There are no close by National Forest Service campgrounds.
A short and sweet backpack over Music Pass and into upper Sand Creek can set you up for access to the numerous 13ers that surround this basin. In fact, there are 10 accessible summits that could all be climbed in as little as 3 - 4 days depending on your pace and endurance.
From the upper trailhead parking, hike 1.35 miles on Trail #1337 to the summit of Music Pass at just below 11,400 ft. The trail starts out through forest where in early summer you may still find, patches of snow, snowbanks and resulting muddy spots. As the trail approaches the pass, it climbs more steeply and ascends out of the forest. At the top of the pass, you'll enjoy an expansive and very impressive view of the upper Sand Creek Basin and all the surrounding 13ers. Once you cross the pass, you'll be entering the "Great Sand Dunes National Preserve."
Once you've soaked in the view, follow the good trail as it drops NW into the Sand Creek drainage. There's a large meadow that extends for over a mile mostly on the east side of the creek. At the upper end of that meadow, just before the trail enters the forest, there are good campsites at approximately these coordinates: N 37° 56' 06.97" W 105° 31' 20.53" Elev. 11,060 ft. This location can serve as an excellent base camp if you don't want to move your campsite. It's 2.6 miles to here with no more than 750 feet of gain, some of which you lose. As trail #1337 drops into this meadow, it will intersect trail #743 coming in from the San Luis Valley side. So in a little over an hour, you can be in a great wilderness location and setting up your tent. Don't be surprised however, if you're sharing this location with some other groups. This seems to be a popular destination, especially weekends and long weekends.
If you desire a campsite closer to your peaks of choice, then there is also good camping at both Lower and Upper Sand Creek Lakes. We have camped at the lower lake and found several good campsites on the east side of the lake and on the north side of the outlet. To get there, you'll need to cross Sand Creek near where the trail enters the forest. There may be more than one trail in this area and crossing the creek can be difficult in runoff conditions. Once across, the trail heads NW along the creek for a ways before branching and turning SW and winding its way to the lower lake over a distance of about one mile and 430 feet of gain.
The main Sand Creek trail also continues up valley to Upper Sand Creek Lake which can serve as a good camp location for accessing Milwaukee and Pico Aislado. This trail may or may not go as indicated on the USGS topo map. When we climbed here in 1995, that summer followed on the heels of a heavy snow winter and most everything above 11,000 feet in this valley was still covered in snow. To gain Upper Sand Creek Lake will add 1.55 miles of hiking and another 700 feet of gain.
There is camping as described above at 11,060 ft. at the upper NW end of the long meadow and at both Lower and Upper Sand Creek Lakes.
Our proposed route for UN13,403 begins from the suggested campsite location at 11,060 ft. along Sand Creek. As mentioned before, there are some good campsite locations here. You can reduce your overall mileage for this day by backpacking on up to Lower Sand Creek Lake where there are several good campsites on the eastern shore of the lake and just north of the stream that drains the lake. Our basic ascent route took us up the north flank of the unranked 13,369 peak south of the lake. On our return back to camp the same day, we found a better route back down. So this account will summarize both possibilities.
From the Sand Creek campsite at 11,060 feet, locate the trail to Lower Sand Lake and gain the one mile and nearly 500 feet in elevation to the lake. We began our peak-bagging hike in earnest by striking out across the lake outlet and moving into the forest on the other (south) side of the outlet. We then contoured toward a small lake/pond on the map that’s really part of a swampy area, at the north foot of the unranked 13,369 summit southeast of Tijeras. Once to this small lake, (11,340 ft.) we began hiking up, encountering some difficult, rock ledges that required some route finding and scrambling in some very steep sections. Once above these obstacles, we had to fight our way through many willows and relentless mosquitoes and bugs. About half way up, the willows began to thin out, as did the bugs. This part of the hike was an unending, uphill slug on mostly grass until we were about 400 feet below the summit. Then we contoured west, avoiding the summit and struggled across rocky slopes and shallow couloirs. Finally, we came to the saddle west of the unranked 13,369 summit. A man we had talked to the evening before had told us about a hidden ramp that led up to this saddle from the rock-filled bowl southeast of the Tijeras summit. From Lower Sand Creek Lake, this looked like an improbable route and the man said his memory was a little fuzzy since it was several years ago he had hiked that route, so we ignored his advice and went the way described above. We should have listened to him. We could have gained this saddle much more easily. That route is as follows:
From the same campsite, walk south and follow along the east shore of the lake in the trees using trails. Continue past the south end of the lake and begin ascending SW through thinning forest into the large basin under the SE face of Tijeras Peak. There will be a minor drainage to follow and eventually cross that empties into the lake. It comes in from the south. As you head SW and west into this basin, there will be some steep sections to work through. The trees also extend higher in elevation than what the USGS map indicates, but eventually you'll make your way out of the trees and into the rubble-filled basin. Proceed west past the base of a rock buttress that extends down from Pt. 13,495, and as this basin begins to turn south, work over close to that buttress. There is (was) a trail that we found that led through the rubble to the upper part of this wide ramp. The last few hundred feet of gain will change from rocky rubble to more tundra and easier hiking. The ramp then brings you out near the saddle between Pt. 13,495 and unranked 13,369. See our Google Earth image for this route. It's indicated by a blue line.
Continuing from the saddle mentioned above, you can avoid the unranked summit of 13,495 by hiking up a little and then contouring along the eastern flank of the summit over to another saddle south of it. (Just to mention - on Google Earth this unranked summit falls about 70 feet short of the USGS map measurement.) The contour is relatively easy, on some loose rock, but mostly secure. It didn’t take long to reach that next saddle. From the saddle, begin your climb to the summit of 13,403. This was a rocky summit and the north ridge section was a mixture of large blocks of rock, tundra benches and a lot of slow, navigating. With patience, you'll eventually gain the summit of UN13,403. From there, the summit of Cleveland Peak is just a short distance away. Study your route south, but if the weather is questionable, the continued ridge hike south will be very open to the weather and the climbers most feared nemesis - lightning. Gary Neben reports soloing this same four-summit combo in 8.5 hours. For us, this was a 10 hour day and we scarcely paused for any breaks.
The route for Cleveland Peak begins from the summit of UN13,401, north of Cleveland. Cleveland is sequenced with UN 13,401, UN 13,050 (Dead Man Peak) and UN 13,384. One way mileage and elevation gain for Cleveland are measured from the summit of UN 13,401. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
The connecting ridge first heads a little east of south and then turns SW. Though only a little over a half mile south, it may require a good 45 minutes to get to Cleveland because of the narrow, rocky ridge that leads over there. If you did not have so much to do this day, this would be a fairly entertaining stretch of ridge, but the pressure of climbing so many summits in a day and the possible exposure to weather may compel you to press on through as quickly as possible. After a while, the slow going tested our patience. It is never technically difficult, but you have to be careful and pick your way among the large rock blocks and tundra and dirt benches. Most of the time, we were never too far off the ridge crest. Most of the time, if we were off the ridge, we were on the west side. Where the ridge turns SW toward Cleveland, it is similar in difficulty. As with all such complicated routes, detailed instructions like "turn at this large rock and swing around the back side," are almost impossible to offer. Just remember that with good route choices, this does not have to exceed Class 2+ and a less than good choice should probably only lead to a brief 3rd class scramble. Also, see Gary Neben's description on Mountain Handbook for some useful tips.