Lake City CO, 81235
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The uniquely shaped summit block of Uncompahgre Peak (14,309-ft.) is a well know landmark in the San Juan Mountains. From a distance the peak looks like a formidable climb but the ascent up the mountain’s southern ridge is quite doable for hikers that are well acclimated and reasonably fit.
Hiking to the summit is well worth the effort. For most of the way the trail climbs through beautiful meadows with unobstructed views of the peak’s south and east faces. Beyond the meadows the trail ascends the mountain’s south ridge. As you approach the summit there is one short, steep scramble before you get back on a good trail for the final stiff climb to the top. The broad summit, which stands apart from the surrounding peaks, offers stunning panoramic views in all directions.
Pick a nice day and get an early start so that you are down from the summit before the onset of afternoon thunder storms, a frequent occurrence in the Rockies. Also, be forewarned that the final 4.0 miles drive to the trailhead is up the rough and narrow Nellie Creek 4WD road. Do not even think about taking a passenger car up this road.
Walking up the Nellie Creek road will add 8 miles (RT) and 2,115-ft. to the climb making this a 15.8 mile (RT) hike with an elevation gain just under 5,000-ft.
Trailhead to Uncompahgre Peak View of Uncompahgre Peak from the trail The trail starts at the northeast end of the trailhead parking area (see driving directions below) and ascends northwest on moderate grades through meadows and spruce-fir forest, staying to the right (northeast) of Nellie Creek. At the 0.6 mile mark 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 trail, reached 0.9 miles from the trailhead. At the junction the Big Blue trail heads right (north), the path to Uncompahgre Peak turns left (west). 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. Two miles from the start the trail swings southwest, heading toward the southern end of the basin. Reach a junction with the El Paso Trail, turning left (southeast), to Matterhorn Creek at the 2.4 miles (12,940-ft.). Bear right at the fork. 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, swinging toward the edge Uncompahgre’s south ridge and then steeply ascends along the south ridge, staying slightly below the ridge crest. At 3.1 miles a low point in the ridge provides interesting, albeit restricted views to the west of Matterhorn Peak. Past the viewpoint the trail climbs steep switchbacks up a rocky east facing hillside to the crest of the south ridge, reach in 3.4 miles (13,860-ft.). At the crest take a breather and enjoy the wonderful views of Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks, Courthouse Mountain and the other peaks and ridges rising to the west. The trail now crosses to the west side of the ridge for a short traverse along a narrow, rocky trail with enough exposure to make some people uncomfortable. Next comes to 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. At the top 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. Once atop the ridge the going is much easier. Follow the trail as heads north/northeast, climbing 340-ft. up a steep scree covered slope to the large plateau at the top of the peak. Uncompahgre Peak stands apart from its surrounding summits, providing breathtaking vistas in all directions. 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 cascade to the horizon. When you are done soaking in the views, reverse course and enjoy the scenic hike back to the trailhead. At the top remember to keep an eye on the weather. If thunderstorms are building it is best to descend and head back to the trailhead.