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On Walkabout On: Handies Peak, Colorado via American Basin

Basic Information

  • Name: Handies Peak
  • Range: San Juan Mountains
  • Where: Lake City, Colorado
  • Elevation: 14,048 feet (4,283 meters)
  • Distance: 6.4 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 2,415 feet
  • Difficulty: Medium
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Handies Peak

Handies Route

Topographic Map

Handies Peak Map

Note: You can print bigger images of this map by going to this link and then right clicking with your mouse and then saving the map to your computer for printing.

Elevation Graph

Handies Elevation Graph

Narrative

As regular readers of this website know, I have done plenty of hiking in Colorado, but most of it has been in the mountains that are easily accessible from Colorado Springs.  One of the mountain ranges that is a long drive from Colorado Springs that I had yet to do any hiking in was the San Juan Mountains in the southwestern corner of the state.  I had driven through these mountains a few months ago after returning from a trip to Arizona which really motivated me to get over to the San Juans and do some hiking.  So after getting off of work on a recent Friday I made the five hour drive to the village of Lake City located in the heart of the San Juan Mountains with a friend of mine, Dave who likewise has been wanting to hike in the San Juans.  The drive from Springs was uneventful and it was really dark and raining when we arrived that night.  We had planned to camp out, but due to the heavy rain we decided just to get a place to stay in Lake City.  We ended up staying at the last cabin available in town which allowed us to avoid setting up camp in the driving rain storm.

The next morning Dave and I woke up early and headed off from our cabin at 6:00 AM to the trailhead.  We drove south down Highway 149 that followed the rapidly flowing Lake Fork of the Gunnison River that flowed through a spectacularly narrow gorge:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

We were quite impressed by this large cabin that was built right above the gorge as well as a large cave that had been hollowed out over the centuries below it:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

After driving a short distance down Highway 149 we reached the exit to Country Road 30.  This road leads past Lake San Cristobal and eventually becomes an improved dirt road.  Here is a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) map of the route we followed:

This route is also part of the longer Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway that provides a spectacular loop four wheel drive route through the heart of the San Juan Mountains.

From the start of the route we drove through a wooded valley that was interspersed with green meadows that was quite beautiful.  We even saw a few elk grazing in one of the meadows:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Eventually the road became rougher as it entered into a narrow and steep canyon.  On this stretch of the road a sturdy vehicle is highly recommended:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Eventually after traveling 12.5 miles from Highway 149 the dirt road reaches the Grizzly Gulch Campground.  When we drove through here in the early morning the place was packed with campers because there are trailheads to Handies Peak from here as well as the neighboring 14ers Red Cloud and Sunshine Peaks.  I definitely plan to come back here in the future to hike up these peaks.  However, we were not going to use this trailhead to hike up Handies.  There is another trailhead further up the road at American Basin where we planned to hike from.  We had long heard about the beauty of American Basin so we wanted to check it out for ourselves.  Just past the Grizzly Gulch Campground, the road becomes much more rugged and a high clearance, four wheel drive vehicle is a must.  Do not bring a Subaru Outback type of vehicle here.  A couple of miles passed the campground the rugged road meets an intersection where a right turn takes travelers across Cinnamon Pass and deeper into the San Juans or a left turn takes travelers into American Basin:


View Larger Map

We began driving up into American Basin and the road even got worse.  So we decided to park my buddy’s Toyota Tacoma on the side of the road and walk instead of beating up the truck further.  As we walked up the road the sun was rising beautifully over American Basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As we walked in I noticed that American Basin just like many other valleys in the San Juans was once home to a mine:

 

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

This place is so isolated and remote that trying to keep a mining operation going all those decades ago must have been extremely difficult.  Near the old mine was the parking lot and trailhead for Handies Peak:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Due to the rough nature of the road there was only a few vehicles parked at the trailhead compared to the hordes of vehicles parked at Grizzly Gulch.  So for people looking to hike up Handies and have few people on the trail, I highly recommend making the difficult drive to American Basin then.  From the beginning the trail up to Handies Peak begins a steady ascent into the upper regions of American Basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As the trail ascends up the basin the rocky peaks up ahead dominates the view:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Something else that catches the eye is amount of waterfalls cascading down the side of the various mountains surrounding the basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a view looking down the basin, back towards the trailhead where the water empties into a creek that will eventually flow into the Gunnison River:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama view looking down American basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Besides all the scenery to check out, American Basin is also home to a large colony of marmots that can be spotted just about everywhere you look:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Eventually the 13,806 foot American Peak comes into view at the head of the basin.  Below the peak there is a large pile of rocks that have eroded off of these mountains over the centuries and incredibly there is actually a lake in it that is one of the sources of the Gunnison River:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Water leaking through the rocks that contain this alpine lake flows through the basin and on to the Gunnison River:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Sloan Lake is the name of this alpine lake that is dramatically backdropped by the rugged peaks of the San Juans:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

The lake is easily accessible from the trail leading up the Handies Peak.  We found the water to be a deep turquoise color and could see a number of large trout swimming around in the lake.  On the way back down the mountain we planned to try and catch a fish using the fishing pole that Dave packed:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama view of Sloan Lake that I shot using my iPhone:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking up towards the summit of Handies Peak from Sloan Lake:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

From Sloan Lake the trail begins to gradually ascend up the side of Handies Peak which means even more spectacular views looking down American Basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking back towards Sloan Lake:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a look at the trail down below as we ascended further up the mountain:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

The more we ascended the mountain, the more the views of the surrounding rugged peaks of the San Juans became visible:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

In a little over an hour of hiking we then arrived at the saddle that leads to the summit of Handies Peak.  From the saddle we had some nice views looking towards the east for the first time:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama view of the view to the east from the saddle:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

From the saddle the trail then steeply switchbacks up towards the summit of Handies Peak.  It was on this section of the trail that Dave and I passed the remaining people on the trail that had started the hike ahead of us.  Here is the view looking back down on the switchbacks from near the top of the mountain where Sloan Lake is visible way down below:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

In just under 2 hours we reached the summit and found ourselves at least momentarily as the only people on top:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a view from the summit looking down towards the Grizzly Gulch trailhead:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Eventually people we passed on the way up arrived on the summit along with a few people hiking in from the Grizzly Gulch trailhead.  The most we had on top at one time was about 10 people.  Like other 14ers I hiked up I found the people we spoke with to be really great people to share a peak with.  We even met a gentleman from Ohio who hiking his 29th 14er.  He went by the trail name “Bookmark” because he handed out these nicely carved wooden bookmarks he made himself.  Bookmark if you happen to read this post, thanks again for the bookmark!

All of us on top of the mountain that day agreed that this had to be one of the best views of all the 14ers.  From Handies Peak we had a 360 degree view of nothing but rugged mountains in all directions.  There was probably no mountains more rugged than the Needles Mountains that includes four 14ers that could be seen in the distance to the southwest:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

These rugged mountains can only be accessed by either a very long hike or being dropped off at the trailhead by the Durango & Silverton Railroad.  I definitely want to check out these mountains some day.

Here is a panorama photograph from the summit of Handies looking towards the south:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

To the southeast there was a number of impressive, rugged peaks, but none of them were 14ers.  Regardless they were still quite impressive:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Rising out towards the east was this large peak which appeared to be a 14er or at least close to being one:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

I thought maybe this was the 14,014 foot San Luis Peak, but I am not sure.  If anyone knows please leave a comment and let me know!

As I scanned to the northeast I could once again see Grizzly Gulch and two more 14ers, the 14,034 foot Red Cloud and the 14,001 foot Sunshine Peaks which are visible in the upper right of the photo:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama photograph looking at Grizzly Gulch with Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks visible across the valley in the center of the photo:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As I continued to scan to the north, the view is dominated by the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre and the 14,015 foot Wetterhorn Peaks:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at these two great peaks:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Seeing Uncompahgre Peak from Handies convinced us that this would be our next mountain to climb the following day.  We were undecided on whether to climb the 14,150 foot Mt. Sneffels next or Uncompahgre.  Considering the storm that was forecasted to come in that night, we did not want to take the chance of climbing up wet and icy rock near the summit of Sneffels that requires more advanced climbing than Uncompahgre.  Plus the fact that Uncompahgre just looked so impressive from Handies further convinced us to climb it instead:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at the Wetterhorn which will have to wait for a future trip to be climbed, but was quite impressive as well:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

To the northwest was more rugged peaks that formed various lush green basins that drained water into the creeks and rivers below:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As I continued to scan to the west I could see the pointy summit of Mt. Sneffels rising up above all other nearby mountains:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is the view looking further to the west:

Picture of the San Juans from Handies Peak

Out in the far distance I thought I could make out the Wilson Group that contains three more 14ers:

wilson group1

If my assumptions about the Wilson Group and San Luis Peak are correct, this means that all fourteen 14ers in the San Juan Mountains are visible from the summit of Handies Peak.  How is that for an awesome view!

Once again here is another panorama of the beautiful San Juans from Handies Peak:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

After spending about an hour on the summit enjoying the views, eating snacks, and chatting with fellow hikers; Dave and I decided to start heading back down to American Basin.  We made very quick time going down the trail and were back at Sloan Lake in about 30 minutes and could see many hikers slowly making their way up the mountain:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look of some of the hikers on the summit of the mountain as viewed from Sloan Lake:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Since the weather was still holding with partly cloudy skies Dave decided to try to catch a fish in the lake:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

He packed a small pole and spent about an hour trying to catch a fish:

Fishing at Sloan Lake

Unfortunately he came up empty and we had to start moving off of the mountain because of the storm clouds that were moving in:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As we hiked down the trail I took more notice of the various mining shafts that were strewn all over American Basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Looking at these holes got me thinking that the effort to bring supplies to support a mining operation in such a remote area had to be extremely difficult.  I figure they must have used large mule trains to supply the mining operations from Lake City.  I cannot imagine they mined here in the winter months though which would mean it would be a short mining season for them.  Despite being a short mining season it must have been profitable for them considering the number of mines we saw.

Something else we saw on the way down was many more marmots:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

The only mountain that I have been on that I have saw more marmots on would have been Wheeler Peak in New Mexico. You can read more about my hike up Wheeler Peak at the below link:

Handies Peak is a close second with all the marmots we saw on the mountain:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Something else we took more notice of on the way down was the number of waterfalls visible throughout the basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

As we neared the trailhead at the bottom of American Basin, the clouds became increasingly thick and we could even see some small snow pellets begin to fall from the sky:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Yes snow in August is not uncommon in the Colorado high country.  In fact that night these mountains ended up being coated in fresh snow.

Here is a panorama view near the trailhead looking back up American Basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Finally we were back at the trailhead with the basin up ahead looking more spectacular in the mid-day light:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

There was also many more vehicles parked at the trailhead to include a number of 4×4 tour operators.  There was also a number of people that drove four wheelers and dirtbikes to the trailhead as well.  It ended up being quite a busy place during the day.  What surprised me a bit was how many people were starting up the trail around noon time with a storm rolling in.  The rule of thumb in the mountains of Colorado is to start heading down off the mountain at noon to avoid afternoon thunderstorms, but so many people do not follow this advice.  I am surprised not more people get killed or seriously hurt in the mountains when I have seen so many people walking up mountains in obvious poor weather conditions.

Anyway at the trailhead we also had a chance to take a closer look at the mine we saw earlier in the morning which was easily the biggest mine we saw in the basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

I did some Internet searching to find out what was mined in American Basin that was worth the extraordinary effort these miners went through work there in such remote and challenging conditions.  All I could find was this record from the Denver Library that reported a tin mine strike in American Basin in 1882.  However, according to the book “A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners: Twentieth Anniversary Edition this area was also home to a number of silver mines.  According to the book silver mining in the region was booming until the silver crash of 1893 and was pretty much ended altogether in the 1920’s.   The Hayden Survey that mapped the San Juans in 1874 hiked up to the summit of Handies Peak and noticed prospector holes up to 13,500 feet in altitude.  Additionally the Hayden Survey party found that the local miners were already calling the mountain Handies Peak which caused the party to believe that it was likely named after a early prospector in the region.  The book also says that Handies for a short time was called “Tobasco” because one of the mines in American Basin was financed by the Tobasco company.  The name did not last and Handies Peak is what endures to this day.

Here is one last picture I took of American Basin from the trailhead before beginning the walk back down the road to the truck:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

American Basin is just a spectacular place and well worth the effort it took to get there to check out.  From the trailhead we proceeded to follow the road that is adjacent to this creek back to our truck:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Along the way we made sure to admire a few more of the various waterfalls trickling down the steep slopes of the basin:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

After a few minutes of walking we were back where we had parked the truck and bid farewell to this beautiful corner of Colorado:

Picture from Handies Peak, Colorado

Conclusion

If you love mountains than you will love the San Juans and if you love the San Juans than you will love Handies Peak.  The mountain may not be rugged and imposing, but the views from the summit of Handies of the region’s other imposing peaks makes this a must do hike for anyone that loves mountains.  I was so impressed by these mountains that I am planning to make a return trip to the area in September to hike both Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks.  I cannot wait to get back to the San Juans!

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