Hiking Colorado’s Uncompahgre Peak

Uncompahgre Peak, as seen from the slopes of neighboring Matterhorn Peak.

Note: This is the next in a series of trip reports focusing on route descriptions rather than storytelling. Photos and beta only!

The San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado make up some of the wildest and most scenic alpine landscapes in the United States, holding everything from gently sloping mountains to jagged, forbidding peaks. Formed by geologic uplift, volcanic activity and glacial carving, the San Juans are nothing if not dramatic.

Uncompahgre Peak, as seen from near the trailhead.

On the northeastern part of the range is Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet), the highest in the San Juans and easily recognizable from its sweeping south ridge all the way to its near-shear north face.

Hiking Uncompahgre Peak is a great way to introduce yourself to this range, as it has most of the tell-tale features common to the area, and is reasonably accessible provided you have a decent four-wheel-drive car or truck that can manage the drive to the trailhead. The hike itself is straightforward on an excellent trail, with a short bit of scrambling to do just below the summit.

From the 4WD trailhead, follow the well-established trail through the trees until you break through treeline. The trail will snake generally west toward the mountain, turn south, then gain the south slopes.

Mellower trails in the middle of the route. The trails are easy to follow most of the way up.

Near 13,000 feet, hiking toward the mountain’s summit pitch. Good trail here.

Again, the trail is well-established, going at an easy incline north toward the summit. The trail begins to steepen just past 13,300 feet.

Just below the summit plateau, follow a series of steeper switchbacks to the west side of the mountain. At 13,700 feet, they will lead you to a series of gullies that are steeper and rockier. A rock tower will mark the spot where you can pick a gully to continue up. The gullies are filled with loose rock. This area is Class 2+, with some scrambling needed to ascend.

After a short series of switchbacks, the trail will take you here. Hike toward the rock tower in the middle of the photo to gain access to gullies that will take you into the upper part of the route.

A gully leading to the final portion of the hike. Some care is needed here, as loose rock abounds. But this part of the climb shouldn’t exceed difficult Class 2 scrambling.

Once you exit the gullies, the trail reforms toward the summit plateau. Follow this to the top and enjoy the views from Uncompahgre’s sizable summit.

Looking down Uncompahgre’s sheer north face. That’s a long way down.

Summit view to the northwest.

The route is about 7.25 miles round-trip from the 4WD trailhead, but if you hike it in one day from the 2WD trailhead, it’s more than 15 miles.

The classic Uncompahgre summit pic.

The proper route has relatively mild exposure, but if you do any rock hopping around the north side of the summit be careful because it’s a long way down. Uncompahgre is known for its big, sheer drop-offs, but all are easily avoided.

Word of caution: Nellie Creek Road, which leads to the 4WD trailhead, is rough. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Once at the trailhead, there are good campsites and an outhouse.

Want to read the original trip report? Check it out here.

Bob Doucette

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