Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'; Peak 13,106' (Nellie Point); and the Ridge Between Them

Essence: Climb Colorado's sixth highest peak and traverse the east ridge, a sloping shelf on the south with an escarpment on the north. Ascend a playful and neglected thirteener. The inevitable communal experience on Uncompahgre is followed by solitude for the remainder of the hike. The fourteener's 700-foot-tall vertical northeast wall contrasts with immense swaths of tundra and Nellie Point's fractured volcanic blocks. I once counted 80 species of wildflowers mid-summer. The hike lies within the Uncompahgre National Forest. The first recorded ascent was by the Hayden Survey in 1874. Surely they were preceded by the Utes who named the mountain "hot water spring" in reference to the "miracle waters" in Ouray.
Travel from Lake City: From Lake City follow signs to the start of the Alpine Loop heading toward Engineer Pass. Travel in a narrow canyon cut by Henson Creek. A sign marks the Nellie Creek Trailhead turnoff 5.2 miles from Lake City. There is ample parking for those who must walk the 4.1 miles up FSR 877, Hinsdale CR 23. High clearance, 4WD low, and sturdy tires are mandatory. The track is rocky and steep. In about 0.7 mile watch for a two-tiered waterfall on the left. At 1.8 miles, cross Nellie Creek and make a hard left. At 2.2 miles the road forks; take the left switchback. Cross the creek again at 2.6 miles. There are multiple camping sites in an open meadow at 3.5 miles and more opportunities at the trailhead. Allow 25 to 45 minutes to climb FSR 877. There is a large parking lot and pit toilet at the trailhead but no treated water.
Travel from Silverton: Allow three hours to drive the 30 miles from Silverton to the Nellie Creek Trailhead. For specific instructions, please see my Wetterhorn Peak post. The west side of Engineer Pass is a perilous, no-nonsense shelf. It is a test of ground clearance and has several very steep pitches. For 1.5 miles the visibility of on-coming traffic is restricted and pullouts are few. It is 13.3 miles from Engineer Pass, 12,800 feet, to the Nellie Creek turnoff.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.7 miles; 3,750 feet of climbing for both mountains
Total Time: 6:00 to 8:30
Difficulty: Class 1 trail to the Uncompahgre crux and then Class 2+ with mild exposure; navigation easy. Off-trail to Nellie Point; low Class 3 on the Nellie Point summit ridge with mild exposure; navigation moderate.
Map: Uncompahgre Peak, Colorado 7.5' USGS Quad or Apogee Mapping
Latest Date Hiked: August 28, 2018
Quote: Walking along the plateau lip, one has the sense of being lifted, as on a mighty shelf, above the world. 
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

A hiker traverses the Nellie Point summit ridge while absorbing the full might of big-boned Uncompahgre Peak and its monoclinal east ridge. (Thomas Holt Ward, photo)

Route: From the Nellie Creek Trailhead bear west on the Uncompahgre Peak Trail to the south ridge. Hike north to the summit. Descend the south ridge to elevation 13,440 feet. Leave the trail and walk north to the east ridge of Uncompahgre. Traverse east to a pass at elevation 12,380 feet and then climb Nellie Point. Backtrack to the pass and return to the Uncompahgre Peak Trail via the Big Blue Creek Trail. 

Uncompahgre Peak 
Peak 13,106', unofficially named Nellie Point, rises directly north of the Uncompahgre Peak Trailhead, elevation 11,420 feet. Cross into the 102,721-acre Uncompahgre Wilderness immediately. Tragically, the spruce-fir forest in this region is succumbing to beetle kill.

The trail parallels Nellie Creek on the north. The beautiful path is in superb condition with stone steps and log water bars and risers. In half a mile walk through a cluster of highly textured solidified lava boulders with diamond shaped vesicles that have tumbled from Nellie Point. The commanding fourteener is visible throughout the hike. (THW, photo)

At 0.9 mile, 11,900 feet, pass the junction with the Big Blue Creek Trail, our return route. Rise from the deep recesses of the lower basin into a world of tundra at tree limit. (THW, photo)

Rock glaciers sliding into Nellie Creek indicate that Peak 13,158', "Noncompahgre," is but a remnant of its former self.

In the high basin Nellie Point is backlit by morning sun.

As the grade kicks up toward the south ridge signs caution hikers to stay on the trail to protect endangered floral species. Respect the tundra. The Matterhorn Creek Trail branches south at 2.5 miles just before our track intersects the broad south ridge at 13,000 feet.

Several fissures in the ridge create westward visual corridors. Seen below are Wetterhorn, Matterhorn, and Coxcomb peaks. Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015', presents daring fourteener devotees with a thrilling exposed ledge assault.
(THW, photo)

Switchback up a southeast-facing slope on a superbly crafted trail. In 2005, I saw a family of foxes hunting in the boulders. In 2018, there were many picas and a few marmots. Reach the base of the south-facing cliffs and cross over to the west slope at 13,840 feet. The Uncompahgre crux begins. There are two choices; the image below was shot where the trail braids. One route ascends in front of the spire, image-center, while the second pitches up on the far side of the spire's fin.

I prefer the first gully but some people consider it frightening. Climb a wide staircase with stone ledges. There is dirt on surfaces but the steps are solid. Exposure is mild over the 120 feet of vertical gain.

In this image I am topping out of the couloir at 14,000 feet. The spire is image-right. (THW, photo)

The more popular route remains on the main trail until it passes to the north side of the next wall. The surface is a pounded dirt/stone mix with mild exposure. This image looks down on that route.

The challenge over, scamper up the backslope of Uncompahgre, reminiscent of Mount Whitney--massive and grand. The most notable difference is rock type. The lower-48 champion is solid granite. Uncompahgre was formed by three separate lava flows; the upper surface layer is comprised of quartz rhyolite. In 1998, I aborted my climb at 14,200 feet because lightning was striking the mountaintop. Other people chose to disregard the warning. Be wise; the mountain will be there.

Crest the tallest peak in the San Juan Mountains at 3.8 miles after 2,900 feet of elevation gain. The summit is extraordinary for its expanse but the straight down plunge on the northeast face is a little spooky. 

Uncompahgre is a visual bastion. To the northwest, Precipice Peak and Dunsinane Mountain straddle the Middle and West Forks of the Cimarron River. (THW, photo)

Eastward lies our ridge traverse and Nellie Point's lengthy razorback ridge.

East Ridge Traverse
Return to the south ridge. The first westward breach occurs at 4.7 miles, 13,440 feet. Leave the trail and descend east on a pleasant slope. Work your way north to the east ridge of Uncompahgre. The easiest route is down a green ramp on the south side of a subtle outcrop, shown image-right. Aim for the big bounders on the basin floor and then cut up to the ridge. This image was taken from the east ridge looking back on the pastoral scene with hikers on the standard trail at skyline.

Gain the ridge at about 5.2 miles. One of the delights of this segment is the uncommon vista of Uncompahgre's imposing east face. (THW, photo)

Begin walking east, rising up and over subtle Point 13,017'. Other than one short section of ridgecrest boulders this is sweeping tundra country. The ridge slopes gradually up from the south and plummets north onto a rock glacier runout that terminates in an exquisite verdant basin.

Stay close to the precipitous precipice for the most exciting adventure. But be wary of cliff suck because rim rock is eroding from the wall.

Just before the saddle there is a fascinating cluster of shiny black, brown, and blue stones impregnated with streaks of translucent crystals. (THW, photo)

At 6.8 miles, elevation 12,380 feet, cross the Big Blue Creek Trail at the pass. Nellie Point is left of image-center.

Peak 13,106' (Nellie Point)
It is 1.5 miles roundtrip to the crest; allow up to 1.5 hours. Climb the first tier, capped by a vertically-faced orange rampart. The ascent transitions from a gravely mix to tundra and stone. It is never too steep. Stay near the cliff for an astonishing visual experience and sensation. A tall cairn rests on the level platform at 12,800 feet.

Now ascend through random fallen boulders. What appears to be the summit cone is actually the western terminus of a ridge.

The angular blocks with sheered faces are great fun. They are clean of the usual gravel found on volcanic surfaces. We climbed on the north side of the false summit.

Once on the ridgetop, the subtle highpoint is a good distance off. The spine is as playful as you want to make it. Squeeze through cracks; hop from one plate to another.

Reach the summit cairn and peak register at 7.5 miles. If signatures are an accurate indication of visitation this is a very quiet thirteener resting in the shadow of its lofty neighbor. Look south to see your vehicle at the trailhead. Look back on the day's entire route and an astounding rendering of Uncompahgre. If you have more miles and time to spare, walk out to Peak 13,091', Little Nellie Point, shown below just right of the cairn. I can't vouch for this option but it looks tempting. (THW, photo)

Return To Trailhead Via Big Blue Creek Trail
Retrace your steps and intersect the Big Blue Creek Trail on the pass. The trail makes sweeping switchbacks down a south-facing hillside to meet back up with the Uncompahgre Peak Trail at 8.8 miles. In the afternoon light of autumn, golden grasses and scarlet alpine avens combine to create a velvet landscape. (THW, photo)

The three Uncompahgre brothers are seen in relationship from Engineer Pass: Wetterhorn Peak, 14,015'; Matterhorn Peak, 13,590'; and the monarch, Uncompahgre Peak, 14,309'.


  1. Nellie Creek road is stupid bad...particularly the first switchback after the second creek crossing...and I'm used to bad mining roads. Perhaps the best protocol is to just rent an ATV from lake city (which is quite close) and scoot up the road for the hike. Some trail remediation by 14ers has been going on and the trail itself is in good shape.

    1. Hi Dave, Thank you for the update on road and trail conditions. Debra