Uncompahgre Wilderness


Uncompahgre Peak is one fourteener that really stands out from the pack. For starters, it's all alone. Plenty of thirteeners and one more fourteener dot the Uncompahgre Wilderness, but none protrude nearby. Its unique almost flat top rises starkly against the sky. Reaching the top is an arduous hike, but relative to most fourteeners, it's easy. And the trail circles around a high ridge with magnificent vistas across a wild land known as the Big Blue.

The Big Blue Wilderness, changed to the Uncompahgre in 1993, is over 100,000 acres of evergreen forest and alpine tundra. This is high country - over half above timberline. Black bear and mountain lion rule this land. Legend has it that the first climbers of Uncompahgre Peak found that grizzlies had beaten them to the summit. The mountains and valleys are sculpted by volcanoes and glaciers. A half dozen or more streams drain the heights - the forks of the Cimarron River and Fall, Big Blue and Elk Creeks flow north headed for the Gunnison River - and ultimately the Colorado hundreds of miles to the west.

Uncompahgre At a Glance:

Location: Southwestern Colorado, between Lake City, Ouray and Gunnison; in the Uncompahgre National Forest
Size: 102,000 acres
Landscape: Evergreen forest and alpine tundra; over half above timberline with two 14,000 foot peaks and numberous 13,000 footers.
Activities: Hiking, Climbing

With a low point at 8,400 feet, the wilderness becomes snow free in spots by early June. At the higher elevations, snow persists into July and comes again by early October. Summer thunderstorms and winter snows generate 25 to 40 inches of precipitation annually. The water feeds wildflowers in late summer. Autumn is spectacular with golden aspen and the bugling of the elk in rut.


I have approached the Uncompahgre Wilderness from both east and west and both have offered spectacular hikes. For all-encompassing vistas across a vast wilderness, the Uncompahgre Peak trail is unsurpassed in my mind. All in all, 75 miles of trail criss-cross the wilderness, allowing days of backcountry trekking. Here are a few favorites.

Uncompahgre Peak - 6-7 miles round trip; 2,909 feet elevation gain; Access: From Lake City, take Henson Creek Road to the Nellie Creek jeep road at 5.5 miles. Turn north for 4 miles to the trailhead. (4WD required).
The trail to Uncompahgre is across open tundra. The long steady grade contours around a basin to the southeast of the peak. The wild peaks of the Big Blue to the southwest look like truly impassable terrain - a spectacular sight. The flat top of Uncompahgre stands out the entire way. As it approaches the summit, the trail turns into a steep scramble - nothing is easy at that altitude but no technical skills are needed to reach the summit. From the top at 14,309 feet, the panorama is incredible.

Bear Creek National Recreation Trail - 9 miles round-trip to Yellow Jacket mine; leads to longer backpack loops into the Uncompahgre Wilderness; Access: From Ouray, follow Highway 550 south two miles to south side of tunnel. Trail begins on west side of road and crosses over tunnel to head east; parking on east side of road.

This spectacular trail is the legacy of miners who staked their claims along Bear Creek in the late 1800s. I find time for a stroll at least part way along every time I pass through southwest Colorado - and I have never tired of this route yet. The trail climbs steep switchbacks for the first mile, up a steep rocky slope. The views of Victorian Ouray are great. The route then enters Bear Creek Canyon, edging along a cut in the cliff face forming the north wall of the canyon. As the trail proceeds up the canyon, Bear Creek comes tumbling down in cascade after cascade, sometimes running what seems like a thousand feet below the ledge on which you find yourself walking. Landmarks along the way include Grizzly Bear mine and Yellow Jacket mine.

Around Yellowjacket the trail forks. Heading east, it enters the American Flats section of the wilderness, added in 1993, and connects with the Ridge Stock Driveway. This country is alpine tundra, broken by the sharp point of Wildhorse Peak and the deep cut of Cow Creek Canyon. Backpackers can connect with the Horsethief Trail, and head northwest back to Dexter Creek Road just out of Ouray. This route crosses the Bridge of Heaven, a high ridge with more awesome views (and which makes another great dayhike destination out of Ouray). Hikers that take the right fork around Yellowjacket find themselves atop Engineer Pass.

Middle Fork to East Fork, Cimarron River - 14 mile shuttle or 22 mile complete loop; 3,200 foot elevation change; Access: From Highway 50, 20 miles east of Montrose, turn south on Forest Road 858 to Silver Jack Reservoir. Follow the Middle Fork Road (861) to the Middle Fork Trailhead or the East Fork road (863) to the East Fork Trailhead.
This loop connecting the Middle Fork and East Fork of the Cimarron River makes a fabulous 2 or 3 day backpack. If you start with the Middle Fork, you will have an easy walk for about 6 miles to Porphyry Basin, then a steep climb to the pass between Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre peaks. Here you are surrounded by 13'ers and 14'ers: Precipice Peak to to the north and counterclockwise to Redcliff, Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Uncompahgre. From the pass, follow the drainage down to the East Fork. You will connect with an old mining road that will take you to the East Fork Trailhead. The Middle Fork and East Fork Trailheads are about 8 miles apart, a good walk along the road if you did not have a car drop.


If you are looking for a tough scramble but not technical climbing, your best bets are Uncompahgre Peak and Matterhorn Peak (13,590 feet). For the technically minded, Wetterhorn is a 14er with a steep and gravely stretch near the summit where ropes are recommended. Coxcomb, at 13,656 feet, is another challenging summit requiring technical skills.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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