Monday, July 6, 2015

Backpacking Colorado's Uncompahgre Wilderness

The Uncompahgre wilderness, (previously known as Big Blue Wilderness), is located five miles northwest of the quaint Colorado town of Lake City and ten miles east of Ouray.  It comprises 102,721 acres in the Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests with elevations ranging from 8400 feet to 14,309 feet. Over 100 miles of trails are available, and because about half of the wilderness is above timberline (11,500 feet at this latitude) the vistas are spectacular. Alpine flowers bloom in late July and August. Elk, bighorn sheep, ptarmigan, and marmots reside here. Here I am, contemplating Uncompahgre Peak, which we are about to backpack to and then hike up.

Uncompahgre, a name given by the Ute Indians to the area around Ouray, Colorado, has been translated variously as "red water spring" and "hot water." A public hot springs pool still exists in Ouray. The area is also known as the "Switzerland of America." Several decades ago I hosted a foreign exchange student from Carpi, Italy, which is in the extreme northern part of Italy. Luca, upon seeing this area of Colorado, remarked that it did indeed resemble the Alps of Switzerland.

Uncompahgre Peak's unusual broad, flat, tilted summit (seen above) falls away almost vertically on three sides for as much as 1500 feet, a landmark visible from far away. Its fourth side lies gentle and inviting to many hikers. As seen below, views from atop Uncompahgre Peak display a vast wilderness of towering rock castles and sweeping ridges that form some of the finest scenery in the state. Below is a photo from the top, and predominant are Wetterhorn (14,015 feet) and Matterhorn (13,546.)  The two Swiss names recount the area's nickname, "Switzerland of America." 

We drove in via Forest Service Road 868 (Alpine Road) off Colorado Highway 149, about 12 miles north of Lake City.  A nice campground awaits at the end of this road and is a good place to spend the night and gear up for your backpack, and the Big Blue Creek Trail (#232) leaves from that campground.  Check out the historic Alpine Ranger Station also located there (photo below.) 

My Dad's cousin, Jake Jauch, was stationed here early in his 40+ year career with the U. S. Forest Service, and my Dad visited him back in 1939 (photo below.) It was "Uncle Jake" who encouraged me to backpack the trail and who supplied me with the maps.  He and Dad rode to the top of Uncompahgre Peak to change out the sign-in sheets used by those who attain the peak, but the trail has deteriorated near the top so horses can no longer be used.  Hence, I became the second in my family attain the summit of Uncompahgre Peak, and I hope my sons and grandkids make it there sometime, too.

Slide Lake, created by a huge rock slide into Big Blue Creek in 1947, is located about 6 miles down the trail and is a great place to camp.  It is called a fisherman's paradise, and considerable fishing can also be found along the Big Blue which the trail parallels. 

Good fishing is also found in the four other main rivers in the wilderness, Fall Creek and the three forks of the Cimarron River -- Middle, East, and West.

The Big Blue valley, which extends 11 miles to Uncompahgre Peak, is the most magnificent valley I've ever seen, bar none. I've hiked here three times and hope to return more times to enjoy the incomparable beauty of the area. You can see the river winding its way with the peak in the background.

Below is our camp the second and third nights which provided magnificent views overlooking the valley. We base camped here, and it's about a 12 mile round trip from here to the top of the peak and back on trail 239.

Many people 4-wheel drive using Forest Road 877 to a parking area at the base of the mountain a few miles from our base camp. From that lot, it's another 3 miles and 3000 feet elevation gain to the top, but we wanted to come in the long way via the magnificent Big Blue Creek Trail.  The trail vanishes near the top and you have to scramble the last quarter mile or so up this loose rock scree to reach Uncompahgre Peak.  Len's taking a break here and enjoying the scenery.

Here Len and I are at the top, and the next two photos show the amazing views...

We then looped from our base camp over Silver Mountain Pass (12,480 feet) and on to Fall Creek Falls via trail 231, and then north and east back to Big Blue Creek and the trailhead.  Watching a herd of over two dozen elk circling around us and effortlessly reaching Silver Pass before us as we labored to make it up the grade, was a sight I will never forget. Their beauty, agility, and grace are beyond words.  Of course, they are far better adapted to the altitude than we flatlanders are!  


Uncompahgre Forest Headquarters
2250 Highway 50
Delta, CO 81416

Exploring Colorado's Wild Areas by Scott Warren; The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA; 221 pages.

Hiking Trails of Southwestern Colorado: A Guide to the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests by Paul Pixler; Pruett Publishing Company; Boulder, CO; 214 pages.

No comments: