Climbing Colorado’s Wetterhorn Peak

Wetterhorn Peak, as seen from nearby Matterhorn Peak.

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

I’ve mentioned in numerous writings that the San Juan Mountains are my favorite range. There are mellow hikes, but also vertical climbs that can test your nerves.

Although my experience is more limited than some, I’ll say that my favorite mountain in the San Juans – or anywhere, for that matter – is Wetterhorn Peak.

Wetterhorn (14,015 feet) offers the best of all worlds when it comes to peak-bagging. It’s easily accessible from Lake City, it has a reasonable route length and offers a combination of pleasant alpine hiking, solid climbing on steeper pitches, and at-times dizzying exposure that can spook some, but is fairly manageable.

And unlike a lot of San Juan peaks, Wetterhorn offers stable rock throughout the climb. Add this to the gorgeous profile of the mountain and its impeccable summit views and you have probably the most bang for your buck in terms of Colorado alpine adventure. Let’s get on with the route description.

At the trailhead, with a good view of Matterhorn Peak. But that’s not the target here.

Hike a good trail up Matterhorn Creek Basin until your reach your first sign at 0.75 mile. At that junction, go right.

The sign is a little confusing. But at this junction, go right.

Continue up the trail to the next junction, then go left. The trail will take you toward the base of Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. At the base of that ridge, hike northeast through a yellow dirt section before the trail gives way to rockier terrain.

Go left at this trail junction.

Hike over rockier terrain on the way to Wetterhorn’s southeast ridge. The peak is shown here in the background.

Getting closer to the peak.

From here, you gain the southeast ridge, and the yellow dirt section of the route. It’s still easier hiking at this point, but that will soon change.

Climb the rocky gullies leading up to a prominent rock formation called the Prow. Note: If there is snow present in these gullies, they become trickier to traverse. As is the case on most mountains, bring foot traction and an ice axe if you think snow and ice will be on the mountain. You’re entering Class 3 scrambling/climbing here, and the runouts on some of these gullies end in a sizable cliff face below.

Rockier, class 2 hiking here. The mountain gets more rugged from here on.

Class 3 scrambling over and up some rocky gullies. Snow in the gullies will make things trickier.

When you reach the Prow, there is a notch to the right; go over the notch and work your way down to an angled rock slab ramp that goes down to the base of the final pitch. The exposure to your left is significant, but the rock is solid and if you stay close to the wall to your right you shouldn’t have any problems.

Once you’ve cleared the gullies, hike up this slope to a notch to the right of the Prow (seen to the left).

Once you reach the bottom of the ramp, the final pitch is before you. Climb up solid rock until you reach one last ledge. From here, you have two choices. Turn left and walk along a narrow, exposed ledge before going up easy Class 3 climbing to the summit. If you don’t want to walk the ledge, just keep climbing straight up on steep but solid rock until you reach the top. The summit pitch is stable, and handholds/footholds are plentiful.

At the bottom of the ramp past the notch, the climbing of the final pitch is all that’s left. It’s about a 100-foot climb to the top.

Looking up at the summit pitch. Lots of stable handholds and footholds here.

Looking down the pitch from near the summit.

On this look down, you get a clear view of the Prow and the ramp below.

A look at the ledges, about halfway up the summit pitch. Walking these ledges is completely optional.

From there, you’ll reach a flat summit that will give you some room to stretch out and enjoy views of Matterhorn Peak, Uncompahgre Peak, and the many 13ers of the Cimarrons to the north.

Summit view of Matterhorn Peak (foreground) and Uncompahgre Peak.

Hiking is Class 1 until you get past the yellow dirt, where it turns into Class 2. Climbing can get steep, but the handholds and footholds are solid and do not exceed Class 3. Route length is 7 miles with 3,300 feet of vertical gain. Note: You’ll need to bring your own water supply, as Matterhorn Creek and many of the waterways that feed it are spoiled by mine tailings and are not suitable for drinking or filtering. There are dispersed campsites along the road all the way to the trailhead.

GETTING THERE: In Lake City, take Second Street to Henson Creek Road and turn left. This is also called the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Drive 11 miles to the Matterhorn Creek trail road, turn right. If you have a car with good clearance and preferably four-wheel drive, go 0.7 miles to the trailhead.

Want to read the original trip report? You can see it here. And be sure to watch the video at the end.

Bob Doucette

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