Uncompahgre Peak

Date hiked: 11/14/16

Mileage:  13.4 miles

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 0 groups.


At 14,321 feet, Uncompahgre Peak holds the status as the highest point in the San Juan Mountains. And rising up at the convergence of four low drainage basins (Big Blue Creek, East Fork Cimarron River, El Paso Creek and Nellie Creek), Uncompahgre is also one of the most prominent peaks in the state, with panoramic views around every horizon. With a gentle approach and an illustrious profile, visible from dozens of miles off, this was by far one of my favorite 14ers yet.

Nellie Creek provides the easiest access to the mountain, and whether hiking or driving, this rough 4×4 trail follows a cautionary route along its namesake creek. Though the grades inside this narrow drainage basin never grow too steep, keep in mind that hiking it does add an extra eight miles and 2,500 feet roundtrip.


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Nearing the trailhead.

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Nellie Creek


The upper trailhead at Nellie Creek.

From the trailhead, the route continues along Nellie Creek, wrapping west and heading higher into the basin towards treeline. At about 12,000 feet, barely a mile from the upper trailhead, Uncompahgre Peak slams into view, and these formidable sights never shy away for the remainder of the hike.


Head left at the Big Blue Creek trail junction. The sheer northeastern face, jutting up at nearly 90 degrees, could pose an interesting climb. But as with most peaks in the San Juans, the rock is volcanic in origin, and therefore highly unstable. Like Lizard Head, an ascent could be disastrous.

Cutting through the open tundra, now on the Ridge Stock Driveway trail, the route continues to pull westward towards the mountain’s class-two south ridge. Soon, the elevation picks up, and about 2.6 miles from the upper trailhead, just before the first hard push to the summit, stay right as the Ridge Stock Driveway trail starts to descend into Matterhorn Creek.

Gaining vantage over the surrounding valleys, Wetterhorn and the highest peaks of the Sneffels Range, including the infamous Mount Sneffels, make up a rugged horizon.


A look back on the trail.


Turn right here. Along with a number of other hiking opportunities, continuing straight will eventually take you over to Wetterhorn Peak. Click Here for a great map of the Uncompahgre Wilderness that may help in preparation.


On the ridge, finally.


Wetterhorn Peak, just to the left of the cliff. The furthest summits make up the Sneffels Range, with Mount Sneffels rising closest to Wetterhorn.


About three miles from the upper trailhead, the easy part ends, and a class 2+ scramble begins. The trail levels, however briefly, halfway through before the last rush to the summit on more exposed terrain. Though it doesn’t look like it from below, nothing surpasses a hard class-2 on this approach.

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Much unlike a lot of the other peaks in the San Juans, Uncompahgre Peak rises along a broad plateau, rather than reaching an abrupt summit. Though I was fortunate enough to have the peak to myself, you could easily find your own corner even on a busy weekend day.

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Looking southwest towards Matterhorn and Wetterhorn. Ouray lies well out of sight, sunken deep within a valley directly behind Wetterhorn. Uncompahgre is the Ute word for “dirty water” or “red water spring”, which is a reference to all the hot springs in and around Ouray.


Grand Mesa, the Uncompahgre Valley, Montrose and Courthouse Mountain. It was a shock to realize just how far these views extend. I think I can see my apartment from here!


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(From Lake City): From Highway 149 (Gunnison Avenue), turn west onto 2nd Avenue. Turn left onto Bluff Street, which then becomes CR-20/Alpine Loop. Follow this easy 2WD dirt road to CR-24/Nellie Creek Road. There is a sign here pointing to Uncompahgre Peak. With 2WD or low-clearance, park here. Otherwise, turn right, and the upper trailhead is four miles up the way.

2 thoughts on “Uncompahgre Peak

  1. Nice trip report that brought back memories for me. One summer over 30 years ago, my dad and I were pushing the summit-by-noon rule when we were caught in an electrical storm on top of Uncompahgre. The hair on our arms was standing straight up, the rocks were making a sizzling sound, and the air all around us felt energized. After a quick picture at the top, we literally ran back down to lower ground. Still my favorite 14er, even though it was almost my last.


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