There are moments when I’m in the mountains that the sun shines brightly on my face giving me a deep warm feeling to my core, the air is thick with the rich scent of wet conifers filling my lungs with each breath, and the trail makes me sweat enough that endorphins course through my entire body. I get goose bumps from the base of my neck, spreading down my spine and over my arms, and feel the surface of my skin pulse. It’s what I call Mountain Bliss. High Country Heaven. Alpine Euphora. It’s my addiction and there’s almost no better feeling chasing that high.
There are a few memorable trail experiences that have left a lasting impression in my mind because of these moments of mountain paradise, and the trails that provide them become sentimental favorites.
Snowshoeing on Sawmill Creek trail was most definitely one of those adventures full of exhilarating moments. It is absolutely stunning scenery, especially on a sunny Colorado spring day in the high country with diamond-sparkling snow contrasting against the bright bluebird sky. Straight up gorgeous.
Sawmill Creek is a moderate backcountry winter trail compared to other options in Cameron Pass. It’s moderate in both length and difficulty, while still being a true backcountry trail. This is not one that’s generally packed down like popular trails of the likes of Blue Lake and Michigan Ditch. Especially if you end up getting there after a decent snowstorm. There’s a high probability that you could be breaking trail and making tracks in fresh powder.
Sawmill Creek is west of the Blue Lake trailhead. You’ll want to park your car at the Blue Lake lot, because you’ll get ticketed/towed/plowed around if not, then walk your gear up the road to the nearly hidden trailhead for Sawmill Creek. Then climb the massive snowdrift to actually start.
I went on this trail twice on fresh powder days. I only came across two people, and that was just as I was getting started. Meanwhile the whole Blue Lake lot was full (and the trail, I’d assume too). The next day I had the entire area to myself – nobody at Blue Lake, nobody on snow machines on Long Draw. It was just me and a few birds until I started making my way back down. So, this is an amazing trail for some backcountry solitude.
As you make your way up, you’ll see views of the cliffs overlooking Zimmerman Lake and the mountain ranges way over off of Long Draw. You’ll follow the old logging road through usnea-covered trees. There’s a reason why they call it Old Man’s Beard.
The trail gradually climbs, and you’ll get hot in the process. Between the incline, the hard work of backcountry snowshoeing (or cross-country skiing), and the brightness of the sun reflecting off the snow, you’ll probably end up getting down to your base layers. I certainly did. Don’t forget UVA-protective sunglasses and a good sunscreen on this one!!
The trail split at an intersection about 2 miles in. Going beyond this split – either way – will lead you into deep powder and confusing trails. You will need route finding skills, ideally with map and compass since you’re deep in the Rawah Wilderness here and you can’t rely on previous tracks.
If you take the trail to the right (north), you’re on your way to Blue Lake. You’ll cross avalanche terrain and it requires serious winter mountaineering skills (skills that I do not have).
If you take the trail to the left (south), it takes you about 3 miles to a connection to Montgomery Pass and cirque basins from Clark Peak to ski/snowboard down. Avalanche risks can be high on this route, so make sure you know proper avy awareness skills.
I was solo on this trail both times, so I stopped at the fork to take in the views rather than increasing my winter backcountry adventure risks. It still proved to be an incredible day in Cameron Pass, and gave me every bit of my high country mountain fix, earning its place as one of my favorite winter snowshoeing trails in Poudre Canyon.
Total Length: 3.5 miles one way to trail fork, 4 miles to creek, 7 miles to bowls
Beginning Elevation: 9,482 ft.
Peak Elevation: 10,000 ft. at trail fork, 11,160 at bowls