- Distance: 7.95 miles (round-trip) from the 4WD Nellie Creek trailhead or 15.8 miles (round-trip) from the 2WD trailhead at Henson Creek.
- Total Elapsed Time: 7 hours
- Elevation: 11,400-ft. – 14,321-ft.
- Elevation Gain: 2,921-ft.
- Difficulty: strenuous-difficult due to elevation gain on a fairly long and steep ascent
- Water Usage: I took up 1.5 liters in a bladder plus two 48 oz water bottles. That was more than enough water. I only drank about one liter.
At first glance, the trek up Uncompahgre Peak with its north face flanked by a 700-foot cliff seems to require ropes, helmets and extensive climbing experience and maybe a bit out of reach for the recreational hiker. But with hard effort for 7 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, you can bag the sixth-highest fourteener in Colorado. This is exactly the type of hike we like to highlight for people. As in life, there are so many things that appear to be impassable. And when you overcome those doubts, fears or uncertainties to accomplish something meaningful, we want to help you capture that deep sense of satisfaction and awe that you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Uncompahgre Peak, topping out at 14,321 feet, is the sixth tallest fourteener in Colorado, the tallest peak of the San Juan Mountains and located just a few miles from the charming town of Lake City, CO. The summit is a crown jewel with a distinctively flat and tilted rocky pinnacle, rising near vertical on three sides. Its fourth side is less steep and offers the hiker the ability to scramble up its field of loose rock for about 120 feet (20-30 minutes).
On most of our journeys and especially on this one, we see unexpected things. All along the way, the hiker is treated to stunning panoramic views of the San Juan Mountain range, which is green, lush and sprinkled with yellow, purple, white and blue wildflowers. Most of the hike is spent walking up a wide-open mountain meadow as you enjoy the sounds of sparkling streams and sights of pristine alpine ponds. You will cross the stream, which is about 10 feet wide and shallow enough to easily walk through with your hiking boots. You also have excellent views of Wetterhorn and Matterhorn along the way.
In Falcon Guide’s Climbing Colorado’s Fourteeners, Uncompahgre is listed as one of the “Harder” Fourteeners (scale being: Easy, Hard, Harder, and Hardest) “requiring only Class 1 hiking with a little Class 2 scrambling”. Some people describe it as an “Easy Class 3 or Hard Class 2”. The hike is much more of an endurance test than a technical climb. Be prepared for the rigors of high-altitued hiking. The scramble at the end is challenging and steep but its short (about 125 feet) and there are a lot of solid holds. So, if you prefer, you can have four points of solid good contact at all times during the scramble. Just be careful of uphill climbers who could dislodge a rock that would tumble your way.
The most popular route for climbing Uncompahgre Peak is Uncompahgre National Forest Service Trail Number 239, which starts from the end of the Nellie Creek Road, east-southeast of the peak. The Nellie Creek Road is a four-wheel drive road accessed from the Henson Creek Road (CO 20), about 4 miles west of Lake City. There is a parking area at the trailhead, which includes an outhouse and is a popular place to camp overnight. Camping overnight enables you to hit the trail early (around 5am-6am) to avoid the typical noon-time pop-up thunderstorms. , starting from the east, passing over a south-trending ridge, and finishing on the west slopes of the summit plateau.
The last section of the trail right before the summit is the most difficult part of the hike, a 125-ft. scramble up a steep eroded slope of loose rock. There are several routes for climbing the slope. Pick the way that looks best to you and scramble to the top of the ridge. There are plenty of great solid hand holds. Be careful, though, and test them. Some of the rocks are loose. Also be careful not to dislodge rocks onto the head of your friends downhill.
At the top of the ridge be sure to turn around and note where you ascended the ridge so you can find your way back down on the return. There should be rock cairns marking the best place to descend.
Expansive views to the west encompass Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks and, in the distance, the summits of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. To the north/northwest are the peaks and valleys of the Uncompahgre Wilderness. To the south/southwest the peaks and ridges of the San Juan Mountains fill the skyline.
Nellie Creek Road (Decision: to walk it or Drive it)
The drive up the Nellie Creek Road to the Trailhead becomes an important part of the experience and requires a key decision: drive or walk? If you drive, you need a four-wheel-drive vehicle with 9” of ground clearance. If you walk, it adds about 8 miles round-trip to your hike, and requires you to walk through two creeks that have meaningful water flow (in other words, water shoes required). We decided to drive and took notes along the way. The 4 miles up took close to an hour. On the way back down, we drove it in about 40 minutes.
We drove a Jeep Gladiator with 4WD, 10” of ground clearance and an exterior body width of 73.8” (plus a few more inches for the tires). Vehicle width is important, too, given the boulder in the road, which is after the first creek crossing, that you need to maneuver around without getting too close to the edge (see pictures). There are multiple spots to pullover and stop to set up camp along the way if you feel the vehicle won’t make it. You definitely need 4WD and ample ground clearance to get over the large rocks, ruts, potholes and creek crossings. I have heard you can get by with less ground clearance, but I wouldn’t attempt it with too much less. Check out other blogs, and posts on Colorado 14ers for more guidance on this.
The road is just slightly larger than a single lane, so you must maneuver to make room for oncoming traffic. There isn’t much traffic on the road. We saw just a handful of other vehicles. Sometimes it requires a negotiation, and there are some pull-offs along the way. Having a passenger get out of the car and spot/guide you around other vehicles is warranted at times. You just need to work with the people going the other way. You will see recreational ATVs from Lake City on the road. They can easily maneuver around you.
There are some steep drop offs along the way, which can be nerve-wracking, but the road will keep you focused on driving and less so the edge.
The two creek crossings definitely provide some color and entertainment to the drive. The water was flowing pretty heavily, but pretty shallow and our truck rode through without a problem. After the first creek crossing there will be a fork in the road with the option to turn right, and the road is not marked. Make sure you stay to the left.
The trail, which is well-marked with signs at multiple junctions, starts at the northeast end of the trailhead parking area and ascends northwest on moderate grades through meadows and a spruce-fir forest, staying to the right (northeast) of Nellie Creek. At 0.5 miles the trail leaves the last of the trees behind and enters a rocky gully where it climbs switchbacks up the gully’s north wall to a trail junction with the Big Blue Creek trail at 0.9 miles.
At the junction, the Big Blue Creek trail heads to the right (north). The Uncompahgre Trail turns left (west) to Uncompahgre Peak. Ahead are stunning, unobstructed views of Uncompahgre’s east face and distinctive summit block, which from this angle looks somewhat like a huge lopsided wedding cake.
Follow the trail as it traverses along the top of the gully’s north wall. In a short distance, you will see Nellie Creek tumbling down a rocky cleft in the wall. At this point the trail starts curving northwest, climbing through the pretty meadows with ever improving views of Uncompahgre Peak. Vistas to the south extend to the peaks rising above the Henson Creek Valley.
At 2.0 miles the trail swings south, heading toward the southern end of the basin. Reach a junction (12,940-ft.) at 2.4 miles. Here the El Paso Trail branches left (southeast) toward Matterhorn Creek. Bear right at the junction to stay on the Uncompahgre trail. From this point you still have 1.5 miles and a 1,370-ft. climb to the summit.
Beyond the junction the trail makes a wide arc to the northwest, heading toward the Uncompahgre’s south ridge and then ascends steeply along the east side of the south ridge.
At 3.1 miles a low point in the ridge provides interesting, albeit restricted views of Matterhorn Peak to the west. Past the viewpoint the trail climbs steep switchbacks up a rocky east facing hillside to the crest of the south ridge (13,860-ft.) at 3.4 miles. At the crest take a breather and enjoy the wonderful views of Matterhorn, Wetterhorn Peaks, Courthouse Mountain and the other summits rising to the west.
The trail now crosses behind to the west side of the ridge for a short traverse along a narrow, rocky trail with some exposure. Next, comes the most difficult part of the hike, a 125-ft. scramble up a steep eroded slope of loose rock. There are several routes climbing the slope. Pick the way that looks best to you and scramble to the top of the ridge.”
POINTS OF INTEREST
- Views of Uncompahgre’s east face as you ascend the trail
- Views of Nellie Creek tumbling down a rocky cleft of a gully wall
- Expansive views to the west encompass Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks and, in the distance, the summits of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. To the north/northwest are the peaks and valleys of the Uncompahgre Wilderness. To the south/southwest the peaks and ridges of the San Juan Mountains fill the skyline
- At the parking lot, notice the small waterfall to the west of the parking lot
- Wonderful Sunset and Sunrise views
- Elk meandered through the parking lot at night
- Marmots came out of hiding along the trail around noon
- Wild flowers (see below)
- Signature photo op near the summit’s cliff wall
Park at either i) the Hensen Creek lot if you’re walking up the Nellie Creek Road, or at the ii) 4WD parking lot at the trailhead. There are ample spaces in either lot. At the 4WD lot there is a round dirt area and no marked spots. There should be enough room there for about 6-7 cars. When we were there, only 3 were taken including ours. There is an outhouse that you can see in our picture
DAY HIKE PACKING CHECKLIST
- 1-1.5 liters of water –
- Hiking boots
- Hiking socks
- Hiking poles
- Selfie-stick (if you want to take awesome summit photos)
- Healthy Snacks and Energy bars
- Electrolyte powder
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Wicking shirt
- GPS device
- Headlamp (bring extra batteries)
- Convertible hiking pants
- Water shoes to cross the creek (if you are walking up the Nellie Creek Road)
- Extra layer and light shell depending on weather conditions
- Suntan lotion -remember to reapply multiple times throughout the hike
- Lip balm- makes sure it has one with SPF protection
- First-aid kit preconfigured for hiking
- A small pocket knife
- Uncompahgre Summit Flag – there’s no better way to take summit photo than with a flag
Take note of the wonderful flowers along the way
LINKS TO OTHER RESOURCES
There is a lot of great information out there. The information above includes firsthand information from our hike as well as information from the sources listed below.
History that’s important to know and fully appreciate the place
The peak’s name comes from the Ute word Uncompaghre, which loosely translates to “dirty water” or “red water spring” and is likely a reference to the many hot springs in the vicinity of Ouray, Colorado”
The first recorded ascent was by the Hayden Survey in 1874. Surely they were preceded by the Utes.
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