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On Walkabout On: Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado via the Nellie Creek Trailhead – Part 1

Basic Information

  • Name: Uncompahgre Peak
  • Range: San Juan Mountains
  • Where: Lake City, Colorado
  • Elevation: 14,309 feet (4,365 meters)
  • Distance: 8 miles round-trip
  • Elevation Gain: 2,711 feet
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • More Information: 14ers.com

Route Up Uncompahgre Peak

Uncompahgre Route

Topographic Map

Uncompahgre Trail Topo 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

Uncompahgre Elevation Map

Narrative

The second peak that my buddy Dave and I planned to hike up on our two day trip to the San Juan Mountains was the highest peak in the range and the 6th highest overall in Colorado, the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak.  The name Uncompahgre is a Ute Native-American word that roughly translates to “red spring water” which is likely in reference to the hot springs in nearby Ouray, Colorado that the Utes used to frequent.  On the first day of our trip we hiked to the summit of the 14,048 foot Handies Peak and the view of Uncompahgre from the summit of Handies locked in our decision to climb up Uncompahgre Peak the following day.

The road from Lake City to the Uncompahgre Peak trailhead is a scenic one as the road travels adjacent to Henson Creek as it flows through this lush canyon:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

One of the highlights along the way are the ruins of the old Ute-Ulay Mine:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The buildings remaining at the Ute-Ulay Mine includes a boarding house, a blacksmith shop, assay lab, and a few other buildings. These structures date back to the late 1800’s when 250-300 miners worked a rich vein of silver which was the richest silver strike in the San Juans at the time.  The success of the Ute Ulay Mine led to the establishment of Lake City which ultimately became the home of many miners from 1874-1940.  There is actually still some modern day gold mining activity going on below the old mine site, but it is the historical ruins that I found of the most interest.  One of the most interesting remains from the mine is this extremely old dam:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

This mine dates from the late 1800’s which makes me wonder if this is one of the oldest dams in Colorado?  There is currently a big effort being worked with the current mine company land owners and Hinsdale County to restore the mine site.  It will be great to see in the future what happens with this site after it is restored, but unfortunately my buddy and I did not have a chance to really look around because it was raining outside so we headed down the road to find the turn off to Nellie Creek Road which leads to the trailhead for Uncompahgre Peak.  The turn off was easy to find, but wasn’t so easy was trying to drive up the road.  This is definitely a high clearance four-wheel drive road, do not bring your all-wheel drive cross over SUV on this road because it will take a beating from the various exposed rocks and deep ruts:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Despite the down pour the drive up Nellie Creek was quite nice and featured this stunning two-tiered waterfall:

Waterfall Along Nellie Creek Road

We drove about half way up the road before finding a place to camp out among a large grove of aspen trees:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

There are plenty of places to  pull off and camp along the road.  With both of our tents up we then turned our attention to making a fire.  If you can believe it we made a fire in a downpour using just two matches:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

We were definitely proud of our fire making accomplishment and the camp fire was nice to have to dry out some of our clothes with and just be a source of heat considering how much the temperature outside was dropping.

It ended up raining most of the night and the next morning we woke up in the early darkness to find everything frosted over.  We were camped out above 10,000 feet so we thought there was a real possibility of snow on Uncompahgre Peak.  We packed up our camp site and made sure that the fire was properly put out before driving up the remainder of the road to the trailhead.  At the trailhead there is a large campground that even has a latrine.  Here is a picture of the campground from later in the day:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

We saw about five other vehicles at the campground which meant to use there was going to be few people on the trail that day.  Considering how popular this mountain is we figured the rain must have scared off a lot of potential hikers.  We didn’t mind because it meant we had the mountain mostly to ourselves the whole day.  At the trailhead the US Forest Service sign was humorous because it said Uncompahgre Peak was only a 2.5 mile hike and right below it someone wrote 3.5 mile hike:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

I ended up measuring 4 miles for the trail using my Garmin Fenix GPS, but the bottom line is the distance on this sign is not correct.  Also at the trailhead there are some nice signs put up by the Colorado Fourteener Initiative (CFI) that provides some nice maps and overview of the Uncompahgre Wilderness:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

After a short walk from the trailhead we entered into the Uncompahgre Wilderness:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

From the start of our hike we could see frost still on the ground and as we proceeded a short ways down the trail we got our first glimpse of Uncompahgre Peak and it was covered in snow:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

In about 30 minutes we found ourselves above the treeline and enjoying more views of the snow covered summit of Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Above treeline the trail heads west towards Uncompahgre Peak while to our southwest loomed another peak often confused with the other 14er in the area, the Wetterhorn:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

This peak is actually a 13er by the name of Broken Hill which is quite an impressive looking mountain in its own right.  Further up the trail this mountain becomes even more impressive to see.  The trail eventually reached a fork where somebody was clever enough to spot a rock that looked just like Uncompahgre Peak to place on the top of the trail sign:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

As we continued up the trail the views of Uncompahgre covered in fresh August snow just continued to amaze:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama from the lower trail that shows Ucompahgre Peak in the center of the picture and the 13,256 foot Broken Hill on the left:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

As the trail continued to gain in altitude, Nellie Creek that the trail ran adjacent to continued to shrink in size as it cut its way through what appeared to be ancient lava rock:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The San Juan Mountains look very unique compared to most of the other mountains in Colorado because its rich volcanic history.  Two extinct supervolcanoes that eroded over time due to glaciers from the last ice age and continuing weathering is why many peaks in the San Juans are so rugged and why some mountains have red or yellowish colors.  The caldera from one of the extinct volcanoes in the area can still be seen today at the Wheeler Geologic Area near Creede, Colorado.

Uncompahgre Peak and the mountains around it are of volcanic origin, but are not volcanoes themselves.  Instead they are the remnants of rocks that were pushed up by these supervolcanoes long ago and eroded over time:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

As we continued up the trail, at about the 12,500 foot level is when we began to cross over the area that received snow the prior night:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

As the sun continued to rise and the temperature rose the snow on the lower slopes of the mountain was visibly melting pretty quickly:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

On the slopes below the mountain the trail takes a large horseshoe route instead of just going across the high plateau towards the peak.  This is because the area has been signed off as being a protected area for the endangered species of butterfly that lives on the mountains:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama picture I took looking towards Uncompahgre Peak that shows the entire sealed off endangered butterfly field that the trail horseshoes around:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The horseshoe route on the trail leads towards an overlook that provides some excellent views of the increasingly impressive looking Broken Hill:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

As the trail began to head north and gain altitude the views of Broken Hill became even more impressive:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Here is a panorama picture of Broken Hill on the left and the various peaks of the San Juans that are separated by a high plateau from Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

In this cluster of peaks are three other 14ers, the 14,034 foot Red Cloud, the 14,001 foot Sunshine, and the 14,048 foot Handies Peaks which are commonly known as the Handies Group and were all covered in fresh snow:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Here is a closer look at Handies Peak which we had climbed the previous day before it was covered in fresh snow:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Here is a look at Red Cloud and Sunshine Peaks that I plan to climb on a future trip to the area:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

From the end of the horseshoe the trail ascends north towards the craggy rocks of the upper section of Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Along this section of trail there are various viewpoints from huge cliffs looking towards the west:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The views of the colorful high plateau peaks and the surrounding snowcapped mountains were tremendous:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The most impressive peak to see was the 14,015 foot Wetterhorn Peak that sticks up over the high plateau like a shark fin:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

The cliffs on the west side of the trail had to be near about a 700-1,000 foot drop:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

Eventually the trail begins to work itself into the rocky cliffs of Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado

It is here is the upper reaches of the rocky crags of Uncompahgre Peak that the hike becomes a bit more difficult especially since the mountain was a hit by an August snowstorm.

Next Posting: Uncompahgre Peak via the Nellie Creek Trailhead – Part 2

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