Travel: In a serious 4WD, high-clearance vehicle, from Durango drive 47 miles to Silverton. Turn northeast and proceed up Greene Street, the main drag, to the north end of town. Zero-out your trip meter as you make a soft right onto San Juan CR 2. The dirt road is good at first but degenerates to a slow, rocky surface. At 10.7 miles, make a hard right and cross the Animas River. Do not attempt this ford in early season or after a hard rain. The southeast-bearing gnarly shelf road has large, sharp rocks on the bed. The abyss is hemmed in by black tipped senecio. Park in Burns Gulch at about 11,680 feet at 12.2 miles. Allow 1:45 from Durango. If you do not have a capable vehicle the walk into Burns Gulch adds 3.0 miles roundtrip. To do so, continue on CR 2 until it crosses the Animas in another 0.1 mile. Park and walk south on a dirt track paralleling the river that soon merges with the Burns Gulch road.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 6.3 miles; 3,500 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 - 7:00
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; Class 2+ with mild exposure
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: July 27, 2016
Reference: The peak, ridge, and basin system is highly complex so there is an array of climbing options, all equally spectacular. For a description of routes beyond the scope of this post, see Gerry and Jennifer Roach, Colorado's Thirteeners 13,800 to 13,999 Feet: From Hikes to Climbs, 2001. The Roaches refer to the three-peak combination as "American Pie."
Quote: What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. George Leigh Mallory
The south slope of Handies Peak slides toward Sloan Lake. The multiple north-facing couloirs and rippled crest of American Peak's west ridge advances to mighty Jones Mountain and Niagara Peak beyond.
Route: The loop works equally well in either direction. This description begins in Burns Gulch and ascends to the Jones/American saddle. Walk east to American Peak and then backtrack to the saddle. Climb Jones Mountain and finally, Niagara Peak. Return to the Niagara/Jones saddle and follow a good trail down through the basin to the trailhead. The blue-line, Class 3 scramble route may be used for climbing or descending from Niagara Peak.
Find a suitable place to park at about 11,680 feet and continue up the road on foot, keeping the main drainage on the right. At 11,800 feet (about 0.2 mile) divert onto an abandoned mine track that heads left/east. Leave it after a couple of switchbacks and walk cross-country. We lucked out on the perfect route, noted on the map above. Staying north of the drainage and rock glacier, a series of tundra ramps ascend from one hummock to another. This intimate and resplendent basin is pure pleasure, start to finish.
At 0.8 mile, pass north of an evolving lake. The crystal blue of the original lake contrasts with the transition. This image looks back on the lake and the northwest ridge of Niagara Peak. (THW, photo)
Attain a bench at 12,680 feet and locate Saddle 13,340', right of the sun in this image. A rock ramp feeds onto a game/social trail which makes a rising traverse up the folding face of the rock glacier where tundra succumbs to a mix of talus and scree. Occasional cairns and elk divots mark the track. (THW, photo)
The wildcat trail maintains a gentle grade to the basin wall at 13,200 feet. Dodge a solid rock escarpment on its right and pitch up to gain the ridge. There are two hikers in the center of the image below.
Reach the glorious and satisfying American/Jones Saddle 13,340' at 1.6 miles. Old man of the mountain (alpine sunflower) relishes the company of the uncommon dusty maiden with her grey foliage and lacy pink blossoms. Mid-summer, snowlover with its creamy fan-like blossoms is scattered on this saddle. The rippled and scalloped ridge directs east to American Peak, image-right. Roundtrip is 1.5 miles.
The fastest route to American is via the south slope trail. If you have time and inclination, skim the ridgetop to the crest and take the social trail back. From the spine look down into eponymous American Basin and turquoise Sloan Lake, shown. You will inevitably see people a stone's throw away on Handies Peak.
American's thin summit ridge is effectively a cliff on the north and rolls off steeply to the south. It is deeply notched on its northface with four principle couloirs. To get the proper feel of this mountain, from a steady perch look down the almost vertical gashes. According to Roach, early-summer snow climbers scale four of the couloirs: Traitor, Independence, Patriot, and Victory. The latter tops out east of the summit. The gullies are separated by rounded knobs. We bypassed Pt. 13,744' and upon reaching the 13,580 foot saddle, took the use trail to the summit. In this image two hikers are downclimbing from a knob back to the trail. (THW, photo)
The summit block rounds off for an easy finish on American Peak at 2.35 miles. American is well positioned on the divide between American Basin, shown, and Snare Basin. To the north Handies Peak rightly predominates. Swing southwest to the the scoop-faced, geometric Grenadiers, and then comes Mount Sneffles, Coxcomb, Wetterhorn Peak, and Uncompahgre Peak, shown left of Handies.
Return on the south side social trail. The reliable platform is but a thin thread. (THW, photo)
Arrive back at American/Jones Saddle 13,340' at 3.1 miles. Looking at the image below, the Jones ridge makes a northwest-aiming arc encompassing our ascent basin.
Since Jones is a centennial the use trail is fairly well established. Upon rising up from the saddle, it diverts onto the southeast slope to avoid cliff structures on the ridge. The grey rock is loose and the pitch steep. Regain the ridge and peer into couloirs on the sculpted-off northwest face. The ragged trail leaves the ridge all too soon and makes a second bypass to the south. Do not overstay your welcome on this slope. Rather, get back on the ridge at your first opportunity--we scaled a tundra slope that worked nicely.
The best segment of ridge comes next. The spine thins but there is plenty of room to play. I prefer staying right on the taper while my friend favors the south side. (THW, photo)
Give up just 50 feet into the depression below the summit block at 13,640 feet. The path vacates the ridge once more on the south. It is functional but not a gimmie, especially after a dry spell on hard pan soil. But once back on ridge, the peak offers an accepting finish at 3.5 miles. Welcome to big daddy #78 at 13,860 feet.
The trail rolls on down a clean scree ball on the south side of Jones to 13,700 feet where tundra resumes. The track skirts the ridge on the northwest but stay on top for a view of Snare Basin and Half Peak, one of my true favorites. Rio Grande Pyramid and its notched window is image-right.
Unlike the other side of the mountain, there is nothing tricky or slow about the descent to Jones/Niagara Saddle 13,240' at 4.2 miles. Roundtrip to Niagara is 0.6 mile with 600 feet of vertical. There is a good use trail to the peak. Looking at the image below, notice the track worn into the right/north side of the ridge. After this diversion, the steep path wonders around on the east ridge to the summit at 4.5 miles.
Niagara Peak just misses the centennial cut at #101. I have scaled Niagara on each of its three ridges and due to familiarity and its fierce and noble countenance, it is my favorite slice of American Pie. If you have the energy, desire, and sunshine, walk just under a mile south to Crown Mountain, bypassing a ridge obstacle on the west. Continue northwest another 0.3 mile to "North Crown," Pt. 13,699', the higher of the two. Below, Crown Mountain is image-center and North Crown is on the right.
Our route scampers back east to the Jones/Niagara saddle at 4.8 miles. Accomplished scramblers may descend the much slower and trickier northwest ridge described at the end of this post.
Back on Saddle 13,240', locate a tall cairn that directs onto the most trodden trail of the day. It pierces the headwall and then holds strong while it descends gently through the talus-filled upper basin.
Flower-infused tundra overwhelms stone. Eventually, it smothers even the trail and cairns take on the job. We lost track of the route altogether at 12,140 feet and gave up on it. By now, the way is obvious. Just head left/west into the center of things and cross the creek. Bump into the road that will take you back to your vehicle in another half mile.
Niagara Peak's Northwest Ridge, Bottom Up:
This route is 1.8 miles with 2,800 feet of vertical to the peak. Leave the Burns Gulch road at about 11,240 feet and cross the creek. Intersect the northwest ridge near the bottom to avoid garbage rock on over-steep slopes. The image below shows the Animas River, the Burns Gulch road going up the green hillside, and the northwest ridge of Niagara terminating left of center at the summit.
Once on the ridge, stair-step up outrageously delightful ledges.
Gain Pt. 13,419' and then descend on a sweet, skinny ridge before ascending once again to roughly 13,400 feet. Encounter the crux of this climb at about 1.3 miles. You must downclimb a 50-foot, Class 3 slot, shown. My field notes from five years ago state, "This is the funnest part of the day." Since I am not terribly brave, scramblers may trust the holds are good clear to the bottom. Friends tell me there is a bypass on the right/south but never leave a ridge unless you must. Once past the crux it is a simple climb to the peak.