Thursday, September 28, 2017

Backpacking the Uncompahgre Wilderness

I never explored the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  I've driven through them and they looked impressive.   I've seen many photos of various mountains in the range and have been drawn to them.  I have a short list of backpacking destinations in Colorado and the San Juans have a couple spots on that list.

The Uncompahgre Wilderness was one of these destinations.  Anchored by its namesake peak, 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak, the wilderness is comprised of endless jagged peaks and sprawling, high alpine tundra.  The Wilderness has over 100,000 acres with more than 100 miles of trails and many more trails nearby outside the wilderness boundary.

After a lingering monsoon season slowed down, I decided to plan a trip to the Uncompahgre Wilderness.  My original plan was a trip around 60 miles that circled Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peaks, the two 14,000 foot summits in the Wilderness.  This would allow me the chance to climb the peaks.  The route I envisioned was a loop that climbed the East Fork Trail before heading west to loop around Wetterhorn Peak.  I would continue east along the Ridge Stock Driveway before dropping back north via the Big Blue Trail or the Ridge Stock Driveway.  I would close the loop by hiking the Alpine Trail, just north of the Wilderness boundary.

I planned my trip to begin September 17th.  Because of potential weather concerns, I started from the Alpine Trailhead by the Alpine Guard Station.  I started on the Alpine Trail at around 9700' in elevation.  There was a 30% chance of showers and thunderstorms.  The Alpine Trail travels mostly through the forest and tops out around 11,500 feet on Big Mesa.  I figured I'd be safer at the lower elevations.

By 8AM I was on my way.  According to my car's thermometer, it was only 29F,  but a clear blue sky would warm up the day soon.  The Alpine Trail begins in a meadow along the Big Blue Creek over easy terrain.  Less than an hour into the hike, I came to a crossing of Big Blue Creek.  Unfortunately there were no easy rock hops.  I took off my shoes and socks and forded the creek.  It wasn't too deep or wide, but it sure was cold.

The start of my hike

The Alpine Trail above the Big Blue Creek

Looking down the Big Blue Valley

The ford of the Big Blue 

Cliffs along the Alpine Trail

Soon after the ford, the trail climbed away from the creek.  The trail traveled through forest and a series of open parks that topped out just below 11,000'.  When I entered the first park called Big Park, I spotted two coyotes making their way through the meadow.  In the distance I could see some cattle ranging in the park.  I don't know if the coyotes were interested in the cattle or just passing through.  I watched the coyotes make their way to edge of the park before slipping off into the woods.  They didn't stand still long enough for a photo, but they did look back at me a few times while on the move.  In a small clearing a little further along I saw a lone bull Elk on the edge of the woods.  It was a rather small bull and he slipped into the woods quickly when he saw me.

Big Park

Fire Park

Pleasant forest walk

First glimpse of the higher mountains

The Alpine Trail stayed relatively flat before it dropped off relatively steeply to the Little Cimarron River.  I passed a trio of archery elk hunters in this section.  Some nice sections of aspens were starting to turn color in this stretch as well.

Aspens above Little Cimarron

Passing through aspens

Looking at the tree canopy

I crossed a dirt road at the river.  There were several groups of elk hunters using the area as a base camp.  The trail climbs away from the river on a series of switchbacks as it makes its way toward Big Mesa.

The weather was fairly nice to this point, but clouds started to move in just after 11 AM  I soon heard rumbling, but thought it was a plane.  Quickly I realized it was thunder.  The storm moved in quickly and soon I was in a light rain.  I didn't immediately put on my pack cover.  The rain picked up after a few minutes.  As I stopped to put on my pack cover, it started sleeting. The temperature cooled down quite a bit in the short period.  The rain was fairly short lived and just as quickly as it started, the sun came out and the thunder slowly moved away.  I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be the outlook for the rest of my day.

I caught a few glimpses of nearby high peaks and could see that a little snow speckled the mountains.  I don't think I traveled more than a couple miles before the thunder started again.  I moved across the open Big Mesa and could see showers moving my way.  The wind picked up and the temperature dropped again before I faced some light showers.  The full brunt of the storm seemed to miss me.  The open summit of Big Mesa had some nice views of the scenery ahead.  I was a little nervous about the constant thunder and couldn't appreciate the scenery as much as I liked.

View from High Mesa

My next round of rain moving in while on High Mesa

I began my descent toward Silver Jack Reservoir.  It didn't take long for another round of thunder to move in.  Again, the brunt of the storm just grazed me and I only had light showers.  On the descent toward Silver Jack Reservoir, the trail passes some interesting rock spires.  I initially planned on descending the last section on a spur trail to the Jackson Guard Station, but never saw the trail.  This spur would have saved me a mile of road walking.

Rock towers along the Alpine Trail

My next storm moving in

By the time I reached the valley by the reservoir, the sun was shining again.  Up until this point, my entire hike traveled on the Alpine Trail.  There isn't much information on the Alpine Trail, but from what I gathered, It sees a fair amount of dirt bike use.  I did see the occasional track along the trail.  I chose this trail because it provided an opportunity for a loop.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but the Alpine Trail isn't too bad.  It features a nice walk in the forest, broken by sections of meadow.  Other than the trio of hunters and another lone hunter, I didn't see anyone else.  The National Forest website lists the trail at 18.2 miles.  A couple other sources listed it at 17 miles.  Either way I made great time on the trail, covering the distance in about 6 hours.

Cows along the Alpine Trail

Yet another round of storms heading my way

From the end of the Alpine Trail, I had a 3 mile road walk ahead of me to reach the East Fork Trail.  The road walk is on a fairly quiet forest service roads,  FSR 858 and FSR 863.  Fortunately there is great scenery of cliffs and jagged peaks along the way.  While walking the road, clouds quickly moved in yet again and I faced rain most of the road walk.  The rain stayed fairly light before picking up.  When it started sleeting again, I stopped to put on my pack cover and rain jacket.

Cliffs just south of Silver Jack Reservoir

The view south of Silver Jack

The same view over changing aspens

Most of the route from Silver Jack and along the East
Fork featured cliffs

More weather moving in

I'm not sure of the peaks, possibly
Courthouse and Dunsinane Mtns

I eventually reached the trailhead for the East Fork Trail in a steady rain.  I took advantage of an overhang outside of the outhouse building to eat a snack under cover.  From the trailhead, I officially entered the Uncompahgre Wilderness.

Courthouse Mtn and Chimney Rock?

Closeup of Courthouse and Chimney Rock

Looking up the East Fork

Above the East Fork

More cliffs above the East Fork

The East Fork Trail travels along an old mining road much of the way.  The area has a mining history that predates the Wilderness.  The Silver Jack Mine was once accessed by this route.  I'm not sure of the specifics, but there may be a an active gold mine called the Robin Redbreast Lode that was grandfathered in before the area became designated a Wilderness that occasionally uses a helicopter in this area.

The route along the East Fork Trail is quite scenic.  The east side of the trail features numerous cliffs and the west side numerous rocky peaks as it travels along the East Fork of the Cimarron River. Unfortunately the rain lingered for a while longer, interfering with the scenery.  As the sun finally came out, I was greeted with the heaviest rain of the day.  The rain finally passed giving me at least temporarily clear skies.

Officially in the Wilderness

Cliffs on the east side of the East Fork

With the rainy summer, it's quite green

With numerous showers and storms throughout the day, the trail became quite muddy.  It was very clear that numerous horses have used this trail earlier in the day.  The horse tracks created a mess in the mud, leaving the trail in pretty bad shape at spots.  So much for "leave no trace".

The East Fork


Newer snow at higher elevations

My goal was to find a place to camp for the night around 630PM.  Around 530, once again the rain rolled in with occasional thunder.  The rain was fairly steady and the temperature cooled down again quite quickly.  Again, occasional sleet accompanied the rain.  Around 6PM I found a previously used campsite fairly close to the river with a little shelter in the trees.  I quickly set up my tent before while more sleet fell.  By this point I was starting to get cold and put on several layers before cooking dinner.  The rain let up for a bit while I ate.  By the time I finished eating, the skies actually looked like they would clear.  I was in my sleeping bag before 8PM.

The view up the East Fork  at nightfall with Uncomphgre Peak
just visible near my campsite for the night

I figured I covered at least 6 miles of the East Fork Trail in addition to 3 miles of road walking and at least 17 miles on the Alpine Trail.  That's at least 26 miles possibly more depending on which trail mileage listing was correct.  After my marathon day of hiking and a 4AM wake up earlier in the day, I was beat.  I slept like a baby.  That is until 1130PM.  I was awakened by the ground shaking after a loud crack of thunder.  Shortly a bright flash of lightning; followed instantly by a loud, ground-shaking thunder crack got my attention.  This continued and brought me completely out of my sleepiness.  I'm pretty sure the lightning was striking the summits just a couple thousand feet above me.  Luckily the thunder moved on after no more than 10 minutes, but a heavy rain continued at least a half hour longer.  At this point I needed to get out of the tent to use the bathroom, but waited out the rain.

I woke up around 630AM, feeling refreshed after a good night's sleep but lingered in my sleeping bag a while longer.  It was still fairly dark in the sheltered ravine.  The sky was clear for the most part.  I could see the mountains surrounding me speckled in snow not far above me.  My tent fly was soaked from the heavy thunderstorm overnight with plenty of condensation inside.  The temperature on my watch read 35F.

I ate breakfast and packed up.  I began hiking for the day about 745AM.  I started the day with my beanie and gloves.  My hands were chilled from packing the wet tent fly.

Uncompahgre in the morning near my campsite

The snowline dropped overnight

The trail was saturated and often beat pretty badly from the horses walking it in the mud.  I quickly passed the culprits of the trail damage.  A horse with a rider approached followed by a string of seven horses.  Another horse with a rider followed.  They were wearing hunting clothing but I didn't see any gear.  A mile or so down the trail I came across a large encampment with several large outfitter tents and various tarps in a clearing.  There were two trails in the area leading to either end of the clearing.  I'm not sure which was the proper trail but the encampment was more or less right along the one trail.  I'm not sure if this allowed in a Wilderness area, even if they are permitted by the Forest Service, but it certainly wasn't practicing "Leave No Trace."  It looked like a hunting camp, presumably from the group with the horses, since there was various tack in the trees in the area.  The other possibility is the encampment had some affiliation with the Robin Redbreast Mine. Either way the horses did quite a number on the trail.

Early morning view along the East Fork

These are the slopes above my campsite

There was one crossing of the East Fork that was somewhat tricky.  The rocks along the banks had a skim of ice.  With a little reconnaissance, I was able to find a place to step across with out getting my feet wet and I managed not to slip on the icy rocks.

Not long after the horse encampment I reached the junction of the East and Middle Fork Trails.  My original plan was to follow the Middle Fork Trail to the Wetterhorn Basin and eventually loop around Wetterhorn Peak with a possible climb of Wetterhorn Peak.  At the junction, I debated if I should follow that route, or continue along the East Fork and eliminate 10 miles or so.  By now my feet were wet through from the all day thunderstorms the day before and the morning's hike over the saturated and muddy trail.  Sections of trail through meadow with soaked vegetation didn't help my wet feet.

Matterhorn Peak
Matterhorn Peak and Heisshorn

Another look down the East Fork

Waterfall on the upper reaches of the East Fork

Old mining building

Near the East Fork headwaters

The route around Wetterhorn Peak involved a stretch of trail just shy of 13,000 feet under Coxcomb Peak on questionable trail that was potentially icy.  I also had my doubts about climbing Wetterhorn Peak at this point.  Wetterhorn Peak requires a class 3 climb with a section of sketchy exposure.  I didn't really want to take my chances on it with snowy and icy sections adding to the challenge.  I decided to continue along the East Fork Trail.

Notice the very faint trail at this point
Another look back

Uncompahgre in the morning sun

The East Fork Trail eventually ends at the Ridge Stock Driveway.  Once above treeline, the views are impressive.  The trail makes its way through a long stretch of grassy tundra between Uncompahgre and Matterhorn Peaks.  Numerous other craggy peaks come into view.  There is also a good look back into the East Fork basin.  Although not enough to obscure the trail, the snow was more consistent.  A few places the trail becomes quite faint with wooden posts marking the way.

Traveling along the last mile or so of the East Fork Trail
El Punto and other unnamed peaks

Once upon the Ridge Stock Driveway, you reach a divide.  The views really open up with a huge swath of the San Juan Range coming into view.  Now above 12,000', the air was chilly, with a steady breeze.

Wetterhorn Peak hiding behind Matterhorn Peak


El Punto and its neighbors

Wetterhorn Peak

Morning dusting of snow on the tundra

The trail made its way across the tundra between patches of dirt and a dusting of snow.  For the most part, the route winds its way around the south of Uncompahgre Peak and its numerous cliffs and rock faces.

The Ridge Stock Driveway travels along Uncompahgre

Continuing along the Ridge Stock Driveway 

Every direction has craggy mountains

View toward El Paso Creek drainage

El Paso Creek drainage

The trail eventually makes its way to the east side of Uncompahgre, where the summit trail begins.  By now it was getting chilly with the breeze, so I put on some extra layers and eat a quick snack.  I decided to climb Uncompahgre.  Reaching the summit requires less than 3 miles round trip from the turnoff to the peak.

Rock features below Uncompahgre

Wetterhorn and Matterhorn Peaks

El Paso Creek drainage

Wetterhorn and Matterhorn Peaks closeup

Wetterhorn Peak

UN 13,158

Travel to the summit is pretty straightforward on the well worn trail.  After traveling through tundra, the trail switchbacks over rockier terrain.  There is one minor scramble up a rocky section with loose rock.  Once past the scramble, the terrain mellows again as it travels the last half mile to the summit.  There are several segments of trail that all lead to the large flat summit.  Although I made decent time to the summit, I felt like I was dragging.  This is the first 14er I have climbed wearing a full backpacking pack.  I saw a few other groups of hikers heading down from the peak on my climb but had the summit to myself.

Near the beginning of the Uncompahgre climb

Looking south

The hike ahead

Wetterhorn and Matterhorn along a pinnacle below Uncompahgre

View across the cliffs enroute to Uncompahgre

Precipice Peak

Approaching the crux of Uncompahgre

Maybe class 2+ section on Uncompahgre

The summit of Uncompahgre is quite interesting.  The views are incredible.  The entire San Juan Range is visible.  This is the highest point in the San Juans after all and the 6th highest point in Colorado at 14,309'.  There is a great vantage point of my entire route for this trip.  The summit is a great vantage point for the nearby, jagged peaks such as Wetterhorn, Coxcomb, and Redcliff among many others.  Perhaps most interesting is the giant cliffs to the north that drop off from the large flat summit.  After enjoying the view and a snack I headed back down.  The descent back to the main trail went quickly with the aid of gravity taking less than half the time than the climb.

Precipice Peak

Wetterhorn towering over Matterhorn with western
San Juans beyond

Big Blue drainage with Ridge Stock Driveway above it

My route up the East Fork

Uncompahgre's large summit area

View south over Alpine Loop toward Handies and Redcloud area

Patches of autumn

Down the Big Blue drainage

A closeup of Precipice Peak

Coxcomb and Redcliff 

Descending the south ridge

UN 13,158 ahead

Making my way down from Uncompahgre

Back on the Ridge Stock Driveway, I descended toward Nellie Creek over open tundra.  The trail stays above treeline and the hiking was all downhill.  As I reached Nellie Creek, I stopped to enjoy a trailside waterfall.  The trail dropped below 12,000' before the descent finally ended at a junction.  I began climbing as I continued on the Ridge Stock Driveway.  The other trail dropped to the Nellie Creek Trailhead.

Nice tundra walk
UN 13,106

UN 13,158

Looking back at Uncompahgre

Looking toward the Nellie Creek drainage

Waterfall in Nellie Creek

From the junction, the trail switchbacked its way to a dividing ridge.  The trail was well worn.  As it reached the ridge, a few posts marked the way as well.  As I reached the summit of the ridge, I reached one final post that was broken on the ground.  At this point the trail seemed to stop.  Ahead I could see a sign.  The sign indicated the direction for the Ridge Stock Driveway and the Big Blue Trail.  The Big Blue Trail was my next segment.  The arrow on the sign didn't appear to be pointing in the right direction.  There wasn't a trail visible in any direction.  I dropped down into the basin that appeared to be the upper reaches of Big Blue Creek.  I soon found horse tracks and a faint trail.

UN 13,106


Fall color down the Nellie Creek drainage

Trailless area before dropping into the
Big Blue drainage

The Big Blue Trail comes into view

As I dropped into the basin the trail and horse tracks became more prominent.  As I dropped further down the trail, the horse tracks seemed to be more damaging to the trail.  Eventually the trail became quite muddy and pitted with rough horse tracks.  At one point I passed an unmarked junction.  A less traveled, but drier trail headed to the left.  A muddier, horse worn trail continued straight.

Looking back up the head of the Big Blue drainage

Losing the trail in the meadow

I followed the more worn trail which seemed to travel near the creek.  The trail generally followed an open meadow.  At sections the trail seemed to disappear in the thick grass.  Eventually I would always reach the muddy, horse trodden trail again.  I lost the trail once again in thick grass.  I passed a large clearing that had at least ten free horses grazing and no people to be seen.  I'm not sure if they were set out to graze on the public land or if they had people nearby.

A bright grove of aspens below a nameless peak

After crossing the meadow the trail reemerged and I reached a steeper segment of trail that climbed above the creek.  Suddenly the trail ended with no obvious route ahead.  On the other side of the creek, there seemed to be a possible trail.  I crossed the creek and reached a more obvious trail.  I'm guessing I was off the actual trail for a while and following the path of the loose horses.  Once on the actual trail, travel was much better.

Crags above a meadow on the Big Blue Trail

The trail left the meadow around the creek and traveled mostly in the woods above the creek.  The views in the open meadow were pretty nice.  There were several good looks back at Uncompahgre and its giant cliffs on its north side.  I still had occasional views when the trail crossed small meadows.  I passed by numerous pockets of colorful aspens as well.


Looking back at Uncompahgre and an unnamed peak

By now it was later in the afternoon.  My day was approaching 20 miles. I took a much needed rest at an established campsite by Slide Lake (not really a lake- looks more like a spot that floods when the creek is high).  I had only  about 5.5 miles left until I reached my car, so I decided to finish my trip today.

The last 5 miles went by quickly since I was feeling refreshed from my break.  The trail stayed relatively close to the creek.  There were several nice sections of yellow aspens.  The willows and other vegetation in the meadows along the creek also had some nice color.  Much quicker than expected, I reached the wilderness boundary sign.  Just ahead I reached the Big Blue Trailhead.

The creekside willows in full autumn color

Aspens along the Big Blue Trail

Looking back up at the Big Blue from the trailhead

From the trailhead, I had a mile of dirt road remaining to reach my car.  Knowing the end was near, the last mile seemed long.  I reached my car before 6PM, much earlier than I expected.  I covered about 24 miles for the day.  I surprised Puma when I made it back to my house a day earlier than expected.

Although the area around Uncompahgre Peak has tons of information, it's a little difficult finding specific details on other trails along this route.  I found the details from the USFS and a couple other sources had slight variations in distances.  Based on the various sources, this hike covered around 50 miles including the roundtrip climb of Uncompahgre Peak.  Distances differ a little bit depending on source.  Even a Forest Service sign and website have slightly differing numbers.  So the actual distance of this hike could be up to a couple miles longer or shorter depending on which source is correct but either way it was right around 50 miles.

Craggy peaks as a storm moves in south of  Silver Jack

Courthouse Mountain?

My original plan was to add another 10 miles or so and hike this trip in three days.  I finished the 50 miles in two days.  This trip, or the longer version I originally planned, could be broken up into several more days.  The longer version could easily be stretched out into a week long trip.  Even at the higher elevations, there are plenty of water sources available.  A large portion of this route, particularly in the wilderness travels above treeline so there is a lot of exposure.  While I was caught in numerous thunderstorms, I was generally below treeline.  Be aware at higher elevations above treeline, the risks of thunderstorms are much greater.  Parts of this route had sections with no visible trail.  This route probably isn't best for the beginner and you should have some confidence in route finding.

Matterhorn Peak and Heisshorn

Looking back toward peaks above East Fork drainage

I highly recommend visiting this area.  Even non-hikers can enjoy the magnificent scenery of the San Juans on numerous scenic highways.  For hikers there are nearly endless trails to explore the region.  There are options for backpackers that would like to enjoy extended trips in the area.  In peak season, expect to see others, particularly in the areas close to Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks.  The one thing I took away from this trip, at least when writing this blog is, "Uncompahgre" is a cumbersome word to type repeatedly.

Waterfall in Nellie Creek

If you enjoyed this post, check out and "Like" Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures on Facebook where I post photos more frequently and revisit past adventures.

Tomcat with UN 13,158 in background