Sunday, September 20, 2015

Handies Peak, 14,048', Via Grouse Gulch

Essence: Hike a five mile segment of the Hardrock 100 course from trailhead to summit. Solitude is likely on the extended tundra walk in Grouse Gulch. Intersect the popular peak trail emanating from American Basin. Overall effort seems reasonable on this excellent trail. 
Travel: In a 4WD vehicle with sturdy tires, 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. Park on the left at a wide pull-out at 10.5 miles, just shy of a bridge over the Animas River. Allow 1:30 from Durango.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 10.1 miles; 4,600 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 7:30
Difficulty: Class 1 trail; navigation easy; no exposure
Map: Handies Peak, Colorado 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: September 28, 2020
Reference: For a description of the full range of trails and routes up Handies Peak, consult Colorado's Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach.
Quote: At the summit all alternative routes become one...The summit itself not only occupies no space, although the whole mountain is virtually contained in it, but it is also outside time and all succession, and only the eternal present reigns there. It is utterly inexpressible in its uniqueness; silent is the Knower of the Summit and the whole Universe strains its ears to catch the accents of his speechless eloquence. Marco Pallis

Handies Peak as seen from Pass 13,020', is a gentle behemoth embracing all climbers.

Route: The trail rises from the road between Silverton and Animas Forks at 10,700 feet. Walk east up Grouse Gulch to Pass 13,020'. Give up 620 feet before meeting the incoming trail from American Basin. Follow this heavily trodden track to the peak. The Blue-Line trail is the easier American Basin approach, just 5.5 miles with 2,500 feet of vertical.
The image below shows the parking area, 10,700 feet, beside the Animas River.

Walk north up the road and cross the bridge over the Animas River. At  0.1 mile, leave the road and go right/southeast onto the trail, initially an abandoned mining road. Niagara Peak, 13,807 feet, is the fierce and noble prominence in the south.

The track makes long switchbacks up the south flank of Cinnamon Mountain, crosses its drainage at 0.9 mile, and then relaxes as it moves toward the center of Grouse Gulch. The autumnal equinox sun shines in our eyes to the pass. (THW, photo)

The trail modulates with the land, rising in a series of moderately steep and gentle gradations. The treadway, always remaining north of the watercourse, passes the toe of a rock glacier at 11,800 feet. A brilliant blue bottle gentian and scattered yarrow clusters stand out amongst the frosted remains of a glorious wildflower year. Seed heads, grasses, carmine leaves of blue bells, blood orange fronds of alpine avens--countless multitudes of plants hold the very ground down while harmonizing into a monochromatic splendor.

Big cairns dot the way. Pass the bright green stream source at 1.9 miles, 12,500 feet.

Walk briskly and in just over an hour you will surmount Pass 13,020', the divide between Grouse Gulch and American Basin at 2.4 miles. Moderate hikers will take a little longer to polish off 2,320 feet, half the total vertical. Bulky, uncomplicated Handies dominates from here on. The unofficial trail east of the pass was anybody's guess a few years ago but now it is clearly established. It makes a trajectory east-southeast.  Cross a seemingly dry streambed with water burbling under rock. (THW, photo)

Bottom out at 12,400 feet, a 620 foot drop from the pass. Join the standard trail at 12,470 feet, 3.3 miles. Click on the image below to see the trailhead in American Basin at 11,600 feet. Handies was an ideal first fourteener for my eight year old boy who set a blistering pace from this location. Mid-summer, American Basin has a reputation for stellar wildflowers.

For hikers coming from Durango, it takes about the same amount of time to begin the trek at Grouse Gulch as it does to drive over Cinnamon Pass to American Basin on a challenging 4WD road. The Grouse Gulch hike is 4.6 miles longer with 2,150 feet additional elevation gain.

A spur trail to Sloan Lake branches right at 3.9 miles, 12,920 feet. Perhaps the most interesting section of trail is the next quarter mile as the rocky path winds through small cliffs. The treadway soon returns to a smooth surface, gradually undulating through tundra to Handies' south ridge at 13,500 feet. The view east is heart gripping and it only gets better. The image below looks south to rippled American Peak, 13,806 feet, and Sloan Lake.

The final approach to the summit is inexplicably smooth for a big bruiser. Just meander up the squiggles.

Crest the broadly rounded summit crown in just over five miles. The bastion is roomy enough for all comers. Settle in on one of the jutting sitting rocks and process the wild heights. Handies is the epicenter of big-boned mountains rippling off in concentric circles.

Many of Colorado's tall ones are so arduous to achieve, descent anxiety wreaks havoc on top time. Handies is an exception which is one reason I have an abiding affection for this mountain. In the image below, two hikers are leaving the peak on the Grizzly Gulch Trail. Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak protrude above their heads. Whitecross Mountain is to their right. Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak, lock step fourteeners, are right of the gulch. The ridge leading to Point 13,795' is roiling off in a rock glacier. (THW, photo)

I am looking south to flat topped, 13,841 foot Half Peak, one of my all-time favorites. The Rio Grande Pyramid, is image-right. (THW, photo)

Off to the distant northwest is Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Just on the other side of Cinnamon Pass is a climb so appealing it is a multiple repeat. The Catwalk is framed by Animas Forks Mountain and Point 13,708'.

Returning, the short passage through the rocks is the only exception to an otherwise smooth, sinuous trail.

Turn left at 6.5 miles onto our secondary track. In the image below hikers are heading to the large cairn where the paths diverge. The American Basin trail continues down-valley while our slim pathway makes a rising traverse to Pass 13,020', shown.

Upon cresting the pass, the trail divides. The right track dead-ends at a mine. Veer left, following cairns. When the soil is dry, the trail down the upper west side is like stepping inside a cat liter box. The pitch eases and the way descends gradually through this broad, high alpine basin punctuated with boulders strewn about the tundra. (THW, photo)

This route is above timberline and exposed to lightning from start to finish. If there are storms in the area, postpone your hike. During the monsoons it is wise to get an early start so you are well off the peak and back over the pass by noon.


  1. Everyone has to do Handies via Grouse Gulch in August when the flowers are in full bloom. It is SPECTACULAR and not a soul in sight! Great camping just below the saddle. You have all the mountains to yourself!

    1. About which saddle are you writing—how far from the Animas River crossing? THX

  2. Hello, nice trip report. How is the road to where you parked from Silverton? Drivable without 4WD or high clearance?

    1. CR 2 is fine until it crosses the Animas eight miles from Silverton. The last 2.7 miles to the TH are on a pretty serious 4WD road--narrow with big sharp rocks embedded in the track. You need herky tires or they will puncture. Debra