Sandy McNabb Hill and the adjoining hills to the east are always enjoyable to hike. Using the hills and their surfeit of trails you can make short easy loop hikes all year round from the campground. They are especially useful when Hwy. 546 is closed at Sandy McNabb Recreation Area and you are looking for somewhere to go other than Death Valley. Our latest foray was in mid February when we discovered the ski trails weren’t in great shape. Leaving the skis in the car we put on the hiking boots and set out for the hills, which as usual didn’t disappoint. Their grassy south slopes were completely bare of snow and for once it was great to eat a leisurely lunch sprawled on the grass.
You won’t find Sandy McNabb Hill on your topo map or on the Gem Trek map. For some unaccountable reason the contour lines were deleted sometime in the 1950s. In part this is due to two topo maps with different contour intervals joining at this very spot.
Start at the Sandy McNabb Interpretive Trail parking lot. Shortly after crossing a bridge over a spring between signs 3 and 4, the trail divides. Keep left. The trail meanders through pine woods, crossing a track and then the Sandy McNabb ski trail at sign 4. Between signs 5 and 6 it intersects Sandy McNabb ski trail for the second time. Turn left and climb to a junction. Turn right onto Alder ski trail. A short distance along at a post at a corner turn right onto a faint trail.
The trail soon becomes clear and climbs about 70 vertical metres up the west ridge of your hill, between forest on the left and grassy slopes rolling away on the right. Arrive at the first top which looks over the Sheep River valley to the Front Ranges. Walk the summit ridge to a second top—a superior viewpoint because it also takes in the view to the east. The surprise here is the southeast slope that plummets in cliffs and rubble all the way down to the Sheep River, so thwarting any attempt to “get along the bank.”
Returning the same way gives a hike of about 4.3 km. On reaching the interpretive trail turn left and follow the scenic trail above the bank of the Sheep River back to the parking lot.
You can extend your hike to about 9 km by taking in the two hills to the east. From the top head down the east ridge. On meeting a fence, keep to its left and descend to Logger’s Loop ski trail. Turn right, pass through the fence and arrive at the very obvious gap between Sandy McNabb Hill and a knobbin to the east. At a post turn right off the ski trail onto a narrow trail (“connector trail”). After a few metres head up the steep grassy knobbin on your left past a salt lick. Descend the far side to a col. From here an intermittent trail climbs much less steeply up the west ridge to the summit area of Sandy McNabb Hill East.
From just over the top a more defined trail heads down the east ridge on meadow. Shortly it zigs down a south ridge a way, then heads east again descending through aspen woodland (Keep left, then right at questionable junctions) reaching the “conector” trail at the start of the long meadow.
There are two alternative routes here. You can stay on the sunny open slopes above the Sheep River by turning right and following the “connector trail” trail back to the gap below Sandy McNabb Hill or you can turn left and head east for 540 m to where an old access road in the forest heads north to Loggers Loop ski trail which can be followed back, in the shade, to the aforementioned gap.
At the gap either head back over Sandy McNabb Hill or use Loggers Loop and Alder ski trails that sneak along the north base of the hill. This idea is not as good as it looks on paper! Apart from the mud, the east end of Alder is an impassible slough (shows as a pond on the topo map), and you have to bushwack around one side or the other.