Uncompahgre Peak and the San Juans

During this year’s long Independence Day weekend, my friend Chris and I traveled to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to hike a 14er and do some camping and off-roading over high mountain passes. We left Utah on Friday afternoon with only a general idea of where we would end up for the night. Of the several easier 14ers in the San Juans, we chose Uncompahgre Peak while on the road, and I pointed the Jeep toward Lake City and then Nellie Creek. We hoped to find a place to camp along the road to the trailhead. All of the spots we passed on the lower half of the road were occupied and I was worried that we’d have to camp at or near the trailhead. Surprisingly, a short side road had a decent place to camp at its end, and we claimed it. It was shortly after 10PM. I fixed a quick dinner paired with a beer that I’d picked up earlier in Grand Junction. Chris and I had each recently bought cots, and we slept on them out in the open.

UT-CO state line
UT-CO state line

10:30PM dinner
10:30PM dinner

We awoke before 5:30 with our sleeping bags covered in a light layer of frost. I had slept fairly well but not nearly long enough. We were on our way up the road to the Uncompahgre Peak trailhead after a quick cup of coffee. It was cool and comfortable hiking weather when we hit the trail at 6:30. We hiked the first mile along Nellie Creek in the shade. Above the switchback that climbs a ridge out of the creek drainage, the sun appeared and warmed things up. I had felt fit enough to do this hike without much effort, but it was actually wearing me down pretty badly. I had to stop frequently to rest, and as we climbed higher I got a headache and felt my pulse throbbing in my head. When I started feeling nausea, it was clear that the altitude was affecting me. The symptoms were bearable, however, and I continued slowly ascending the trail. We had to cross a few snow fields that were pretty easy, even without traction devices.

Crossing Nellie Creek
Crossing Nellie Creek

Uncompahgre trailhead
Uncompahgre trailhead

Starting up the trail
Starting up the trail

Uncompahgre Peak
Uncompahgre Peak

Still climbing in the shade
Still climbing in the shade

Colorado Columbine
Colorado Columbine

Closer to the sunshine
Closer to the sunshine

Chris on the trail
Chris on the trail

Hikers coming up the trail
Hikers coming up the trail

Crossing a snow field
Crossing a snow field

Uncompahgre Peak
Uncompahgre Peak

View toward Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak
View toward Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak

Wetterhorn Peak
Wetterhorn Peak

Panorama facing east
Panorama facing east

Some easy scrambling was required to get on top of the summit block of Uncompahgre. Some steep and rocky stretches of trail led to the summit, which Chris and I shared with only a few other people. Most everyone else had already summited and were on their way back down. I was relieved to have made it to the summit, knowing that I should start feeling better as I descended. The total ascent was about 3,000 feet in under four miles and had taken me five hours. I didn’t really feel better while hiking back down the trail, but I did make good time, reaching the trailhead about 2.5 hours after leaving the summit.

A short scramble
A short scramble

Wetterhorn and wildflowers
Wetterhorn and wildflowers

Rocky trail near the summit
Rocky trail near the summit

Chris on the summit of Uncompahgre Peak
Chris on the summit of Uncompahgre Peak

View northeast into Big Blue Creek
View northeast into Big Blue Creek

Marmot near the trail
Marmot near the trail

Coxcomb Peak and Redcliff
Coxcomb Peak and Redcliff

A different, rockier route down from the summit
A different, rockier route down from the summit

Descending from Uncompahgre
Descending from Uncompahgre

It was relatively early in the day but I was ready to find a place to camp so I could rest for the remainder of the day. We found a pretty nice primitive campground along Henson Creek that was completely deserted, so we settled in for the evening. I felt well enough to have a couple of beers that we cooled off in the creek. After dark a deer visited our camp, three times! At first it seemed cute, but after chasing the deer off two times, it returned and got within 20 feet of us before we noticed it as we sat around the camp fire. Neither of us really wanted to sleep outside with the deer acting so strangely, so we rearranged our gear and slept in the back of the Jeep.

Whitmore Falls along Henson Creek
Whitmore Falls along Henson Creek

Camp
Camp

Shadows climbing in the canyon
Shadows climbing in the canyon

Deer creepin’ on our camp
Deer creepin' on our camp

It was nice to sleep in on Sunday morning. Chris and I casually repacked our gear into the Jeep while eating breakfast and just enjoying the quiet morning. We hit the road at about 10:30AM, planning to drive over Engineer Pass toward Animas Forks and eventually to Silverton. We stopped many times to investigate mining ruins. Among my favorites were the San Juan Chief and Frisco mills. Getting to walk/climb around inside these massive structures is a unique experience. In Utah, the Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining has been working hard for years to close and reclaim abandoned mine sites, so I congratulate Colorado for leaving these intact (and, in some cases, stabilizing or restoring).

Leaning cabin near Redcloud Gulch
Leaning cabin near Redcloud Gulch

Thoreau’s Cabin and footbridge over Henson Creek
Thoreau's Cabin and footbridge over Henson Creek

Starting the climb up to Engineer Pass
Starting the climb up to Engineer Pass

Dark clouds over Engineer Pass
Dark clouds over Engineer Pass

Ruined stone cabin
Ruined stone cabin

Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre on the horizon
Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre on the horizon

Snow drift at Engineer Pass
Snow drift at Engineer Pass

Engineer Pass
Engineer Pass

Road cuts on Darley Mountain
Road cuts on Darley Mountain

Descending from Engineer Pass toward Animas Forks
Descending from Engineer Pass toward Animas Forks

San Juan Chief mill
San Juan Chief mill

San Juan Chief mill
San Juan Chief mill

Steam boilers at the San Juan Chief mill
Steam boilers at the San Juan Chief mill

San Juan Chief mill building
San Juan Chief mill building

California Gulch
California Gulch

West Fork panorama
West Fork panorama

Frisco Mill
Frisco Mill

Frisco Mill
Frisco Mill

Frisco Mill
Frisco Mill

Frisco Mill
Frisco Mill

Old truck along the West Fork
Old truck along the West Fork

After refueling in Silverton we began searching for a place to camp. The South Fork of Mineral Creek was the first turnoff we saw from the highway, so we decided to check it out. I wasn’t expecting it to be so crowded! Primitive camping is allowed along the sides of the road, but nearly all of the good spots were occupied. Eventually we found a spot about 300 feet off the road that was flat, grassy, and surrounded by tall bushes that offered plenty of privacy. We waited out a rain storm before making several trips hauling gear between the Jeep and our camp. We set up tents and enjoyed a camp fire as the skies cleared. It didn’t feel particularly cold that night but I woke up to heavy frost on my tent and gear.

Searching for a camp spot
Searching for a camp spot

Soft light on the mountains near sunset
Soft light on the mountains near sunset

Camp at dusk
Camp at dusk

Morning frost
Morning frost

The plan for Monday was to drive over Black Bear Pass into Telluride and then home. The drive from Highway 550 to Black Bear Pass was narrow and incredibly steep in places. I was dreading an encounter with an opposing vehicle but it never happened. It was also an incredibly scenic drive, with great mountain views and fields of wildflowers. Unfortunately, we hadn’t checked online for conditions before making the drive. San Juan County had cleared all the snow off their side of the pass, but San Miguel County hadn’t yet done so from the Telluride side. From Black Bear Pass we could see that the road was impassable. We made a short, steep hike near the pass to find a geocache, then descended back to the highway the way we’d come up, fortunately once again not meeting any oncoming vehicles.

Climbing to Black Bear Pass
Climbing to Black Bear Pass

Crossing through a plowed snow drift
Crossing through a plowed snow drift

Small lake in Mineral Basin
Small lake in Mineral Basin

Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala)
Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala)

Road through a big drift
Road through a big drift

Black Bear Pass
Black Bear Pass

Mount Sneffels
Mount Sneffels

Unplowed road north of Black Bear Pass
Unplowed road north of Black Bear Pass

Hikers atop Trico Peak
Hikers atop Trico Peak

Colorado Columbine
Colorado Columbine

Plan B was to continue to Ouray, stopping along the way at more old mines and buildings. The hike to the Colorado Boy mine was short and easy, leading to an immense building over a vertical mine shaft. Several houses in Ironton were fascinating to walk through. We attempted to drive to an old railroad turntable and a suspended foot bridge near Corkscrew Gulch but ended up on the wrong side of the canyon. By then it was about time to start heading home so we drove toward Ouray. Both Ouray and Ridgeway were ridiculously busy, so we pressed on to Montrose where we each thoroughly enjoyed a burger, fries, and shake to end the trip. The rest of the drive home went quickly, though it was almost depressing going from the mountains into the valleys where it was 104 degrees.

Houses near the Idarado Mine
Houses near the Idarado Mine

A very orange Red Mountain Creek
A very orange Red Mountain Creek

Mine entrance at Guston
Mine entrance at Guston

Colorado Boy Trail
Colorado Boy Trail

Old Man’s Beard
Old Man's Beard

Colorado Boy Trail
Colorado Boy Trail

Colorado Boy mineshaft
Colorado Boy mineshaft

Colorado Boy headframe
Colorado Boy headframe

House at Ironton
House at Ironton

Wallpaper and picture frame
Wallpaper and picture frame

Newspaper on the wall
Newspaper on the wall

Corkscrew Gulch
Corkscrew Gulch

Uncompahgre Gorge
Uncompahgre Gorge


Photo Gallery: Uncompahgre Peak and the San Juans
GPS Track and Photo Waypoints:
[Google Earth KMZ] [Gmap4 Satellite] [Gmap4 Topo]

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