Uncompahgre National Forest
The Uncompahgre is a prime spot for hikers who crave high altitude. In this rugged terrain, the line between hiking and climbing can get a little blurry; many of the Forest's 13,000-foot and higher peaks are accessible to hikers without technical mountaineering knowledge. Along with blustery summits, which are among the Forest's most popular attractions, hiking destinations include alpine meadows, pine and spruce forests, abandoned mines, and stunning waterfalls, many of which don't require legs of steel to reach.
Before hiking in the Uncompahgre, you should have an idea of what kind of experience you most want to have. Because the overall area is broken up by so many high peaks, there are no long trails that allow you to survey the Forest as a whole. Instead, each geographically distinct region has its own trail network that lets you explore a part of the Uncompahgre in depth.
The Uncompahgre Plateau
Separated from the rest of the Forest by a stretch of private land, the Uncompahgre Plateau region is drier and flatter than the more alpine regions to the southeast. Many of the trails here are cattle paths that hikers share with grazing herds. Transfer Trail leads to the Roubideau Canyon, one of the many red rock gorges criss-crossing the Plateau.
Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area
The Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area has around 20 miles of hiking trails among some of Colorado's highest peaks. Blue Lakes Trail is a fine day or weekend hike past three spectacular alpine-tundra lakes that runs between Yankee Boy Basin (the most popular access point for ascents of Mount Sneffels) and the Wilderness interior.
Uncompahgre Wilderness Area
Formerly known as Big Blue, the Uncompahgre Wilderness is the largest Wilderness in the Forest, with over 100 miles of trails to prove it. One of the longer hikes in the Forest, the Little Cimarron-Fall Creek loop takes you above the timberline and into mountain-lion country at almost 13,000 feet. The Alpine Trail in the Cimarron Ridge area north of the Uncompahgre Wilderness is another multiday option in similar terrain.
Twin Peaks Trail is just one of many challenging day hikes that light out from the town of Ouray into the surrounding mountains. Starting at Ouray's western edge, Twin Peaks climbs over 2600 vertical feet to a 360-degree panorama of the Forest. The Horsethief Trail climbs to the well-known Bridge of Heaven, a thin ridge with sheer drop-offs on either side offering great views of the surrounding area. A very popular hike in the same area is the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail. This diverse trail offers great views of Victorian Ouray, a hike along a cut in the cliff face of spectacular Bear Creek Canyon and ruins of the Grizzly Bear and Yellowjacket mines.
Telluride Area/Lizard Head
In the area around Telluride, day and overnight hikes also originate within town limits. Trails range from the Cornet Creek, a half-hour trip from the center of Telluride to a 125-foot waterfall, to the Wasatch Trail, a moderate to difficult trek among lakes, waterfalls, and mine ruins. Further south, trails in the Lizard Head Wilderness among the high peaks offer some of the most difficult hiking in the Forest. The Lizard Head Trail here leads to the nearly 12,000-foot pass between Lizard Head and Cross Mountain, yielding spectacular views of the San Miguels.
In general, the Forest Service (USFS) warns that trails may not be well marked. A compass and a current USGS topographic map come highly recommended, especially since bad weather can spring up notoriously fast. Lightening and snow are the most dangerous threats in the Uncompahgre backcountry, a real menace to hikers out on exposed ground at higher elevations. Also, the USFS advises all travelers in the backcountry to wear a blaze-orange hat and vest during hunting season.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication