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Incomparable Uncompahgre Peak

Check off the San Juan’s tallest fourteener

If you are going to climb a Colorado fourteener this summer, why not go big?

At elevation 14,309 feet, Uncompahgre Peak is the highest point in the San Juan Mountains. The first recorded ascent was by the Hayden Survey in 1874. Surely they were preceded by the Utes who named the mountain “hot water spring” in reference to the “miracle waters” in Ouray.

The isolated and hulking landmark is detectable from all over Southern Colorado. It is easy enough to climb on an excellent trail with just one short test of courage. The drive up the Nellie Creek Road from the Alpine Loop is more troublesome than the hike. The shortest approach from Durango is over Engineer Pass, a technical four-wheel drive shelf. The safest choice is to travel by way of Lake City.

Climbing any fourteener is a communal experience. If you would like to explore the area off-grid, on your return traverse the east ridge and then climb razorback Nellie Point, 13,106’, on fractured volcanic blocks.

Uncompahgre Peak

From the Nellie Creek Trailhead – elevation 11,420 feet – cross into the 102,721-acre Uncompahgre Wilderness. The trail parallels Nellie Creek on the north. The superbly crafted footpath with stone steps and log water bars is maintained by Colorado Fourteeners Initiative volunteers. In half a mile, walk through a cluster of highly textured solidified lava boulders with diamond-shaped vesicles that have tumbled from Nellie Point.

At 0.9 mile, pass the junction with the Big Blue Creek Trail, the optional return route. Rise from the deep recesses of the lower basin into tundra immensity at treelimit. The Matterhorn Creek Trail branches south at 2.5 miles just before the track intersects the broad south ridge at elevation 13,000 feet.

Fissures in the ridge create westward visual corridors. The closest neighbor is Matterhorn Peak, one of my favorite climbs. And then there is Wetterhorn Peak – 14,015 feet – presenting daring fourteener enthusiasts with a thrilling exposed ledge assault.

Switchback up a southeast-facing slope. Once, I saw a family of foxes hunting in the boulders. More recently, there were many picas and a few marmots.

Cross over to the west slope at elevation 13,840 feet where the trail braids and the crux begins. There are two choices, each with mild exposure. I prefer climbing the first broad couloir on a wide staircase with solid stone ledges. The more popular route passes to the north side of the next wall. The slick surface up the steep pitch is a mix of pounded dirt and stone.

The challenge over, scamper up the backslope of Uncompahgre, reminiscent of Mount Whitney – massive and grand. The most notable difference is rock type. The lower-48 champion is solid granite. Uncompahgre was formed by three separate lava flows; the upper surface layer is comprised of quartz rhyolite.

Crest Colorado’s sixth-highest peak at 3.8 miles. The summit is extraordinary for its expanse, but the straight down 700-foot plunge on the northeast face is a little spooky. Uncompahgre is a visual bastion over-looking a multitude of indomitable peaks. If you are ready to head back, just retrace you steps. However, if you would like to add to this extraordinary hike, consider the following options.

East Ridge Traverse

Return to the south ridge. The first westward breach occurs at elevation 13,440 feet. Leave the trail and descend east on a pleasant slope. Work your way north to the east ridge of Uncompahgre. The easiest route is down a green ramp on the south side of a subtle outcrop. Aim for the big boulders on the basin floor and then cut up to the ridge.

While walking eastward, be sure to glance back at the uncommon vista of Uncompahgre’s vertiginous facewall. Other than one short section of ridgecrest boulders, this is sweeping tundra country. The monocline slopes gradually up from the south and plummets north onto a rock glacier runout that terminates in an exquisite verdant basin. Stay close to the precipice for the most exciting adventure but be wary of cliff suck because rim rock is eroding from the wall.

At 6.8 miles – elevation 12,380 feet – cross the Big Blue Creek Trail at the pass. If you would like to return to the trailhead, turn right.

Nellie Point, 13,106’

It is 1.5 miles roundtrip to informally named Nellie Point; allow up to 1½ hours. Off-trail, climb the first tier capped by a vertically-faced orange rampart. The ascent transitions from a gravely mix to tundra and stone. It is never too steep. Stay near the cliff for an astonishing visual experience and sensation. A tall cairn rests on the level platform at 12,800 feet.

Now ascend through random fallen boulders. What appears to be the summit cone is actually the western terminus of a ridge. The angular blocks with sheered faces are great fun and free of the usual gravel found on volcanic surfaces. Flank the false summit on the north.

The subtle highpoint is marked by a tall cairn a good distance off. The spine is as playful as you want to make it. Squeeze through cracks; hop from one plate to another. Sparse entries in the peak register imply this is a quiet thirteener resting in the shadow of its lofty neighbor. Take in, if you can, the astounding rendering of the full might of Uncompahgre Peak.

Return To Trailhead Via Big Blue Creek Trail

Retrace your steps, intersect the Big Blue Creek Trail and turn left. The old stock driveway makes sweeping switchbacks down a south-facing hillside to meet back up with the Uncompahgre Peak Trail. In the afternoon light of autumn golden grasses and the scarlet leaves of alpine avens combine to create a velvet landscape.

http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.

Travel basics

Travel from Lake City:

This route is recommended for all but serious four-wheel-drive enthusiasts. From Lake City, follow signs to the start of the Alpine Loop heading toward Engineer Pass. A sign marks the Nellie Creek Trailhead turnoff 5.2 miles from Lake City. There is ample parking for those who must walk the 4.1 miles up Forest Service Road 877, Hinsdale County Road 23. High clearance, four-wheel-drive low and sturdy tires are mandatory. The track is rocky and steep. At 1.8 miles, cross Nellie Creek and make a hard left. At 2.2 miles, the road forks; take the left switchback. Cross the creek again at 2.6 miles. Allow 25 to 45 minutes for Forest Service Road 877. There is a large parking lot and pit toilet at the trailhead but no treated water.

Travel from Silverton Over Engineer Pass:

Allow three hours to drive the 30 miles from Silverton to the Nellie Creek Trailhead. The west side of Engineer Pass is a perilous, no-nonsense shelf. It is a test of ground clearance and has several very steep pitches. For 1.5 miles, the visibility of on-coming traffic is restricted and pullouts are few. It is 13.3 miles from Engineer Pass, 12,800 feet, to the Forest Service Road 877 turnoff.

Distance and Elevation Gain:

Uncompahgre Peak alone is 7.6 miles with 2,900 feet of vertical; 9.7 miles with 3,750 feet of climbing for both mountains.

Total Time:

6 to 8½ hours


Class 1 trail to the Uncompahgre crux and then Class 2-plus with mild exposure; navigation easy. Off-trail to Nellie Point; low Class 3 on the summit ridge with mild exposure; navigation moderate.


Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado 7.5’ USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping

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