Get Out! Hike to and from Uncompahgre Peak a great one
I wasn’t sure this backpacking trip was even going to happen, at least not in the way I first imagined it.
Our planned route of heading down FS 868 to the Failes Creek trail head, hiking up and over the ridge to the Big Blue Trail and then making a loop back down the Fall Creek trail was partially closed because of the East Fork fire.
Anxiously I watched, checking the Forest Service website and InciWeb for daily news of the fire’s progress or containment. It became clear pretty quickly that Fall Creek and anything involving Little Cimarron Road (868) was out of the question.
In order to at least keep part of our trip, including a day hike to Uncompahgre Peak intact, we chose to drive around to the Big Blue Road and do an out-and-back trip. By then the fire was 40 percent contained and hadn’t shown any signs of growth. We felt confident the fire wouldn’t pose a problem, and it didn’t.
So, off we went: me, the boyfriend and Flatlander Dad as I’ve taken to calling him.
Last year we took him to 12,500 feet, and this year we were aiming for the top of a Fourteener, though that’s always iffy. Since the boyfriend and I had been on this trail before, we had a good idea of where to camp for the first night. Although we got a late start, not leaving the trail head until around 1 in the afternoon Wednesday, we managed to make quick work of our six miles and were at our first camp by mid-afternoon.
A little more overgrown than the first time I’d stayed here, the camp still proved its worth. It had a small copse of trees that was perfect for a sheltered kitchen area, and we found two nice flat areas for tents.
Carrying 30 pounds for six miles at over 10,000 feet made us all hungry and tired, so we made quick work of dinner and dessert and were in bed as soon as it got dark. A brief sprinkling of rain lulled me to sleep, and I awoke to blue skies and birds. Maybe I’d wandered into a Disney film ...
Because our second day was going to be a short one, we lingered over cups of coffee and breakfast and took our time packing up. Even once we were back on the trail we meandered along, taking pictures of columbines, waterfalls and meadows.
Just after the first large creek crossing of the day (a wear-your-camp-shoes-not-your-hiking-boots trek across Big Blue creek), we briefly got confused by a trail split. In the end, it turned out that either way would have gotten us to our eventual destination, but the left-hand fork was more of a spur trail while the right was the official trail.
We hiked into our second camp, just across the creek from the Big Blue Trail/Fall Creek junction, early in the day and found a camp with a view that I’m sure people would pay money to see. Towering over us at the end of this little valley was 14,309-foot Uncompahgre Peak. I had this view from everywhere: from my tent, from the creek, from the grassy knoll outside the tent.
I was in awe of our good fortune and of the mountain itself. We could sit with our monocular and look for hikers on top and elk down below in the valley. That day, Thursday, there were so few clouds that a night hike to the top of Uncompahgre would have been possible. I hoped we’d have the same luck on Friday as we tried to summit.
However, 5:30 a.m. Friday morning I awoke to howling winds and rain. “Well, this doesn’t sound good,” I thought to myself. Would there be any hiking at all, much less to the top of a Fourteener? I had my doubts. Even when I got up a little later, I still wasn’t sure, and neither was anyone else. Our hike would require us to climb two miles farther on the Big Blue trail to the top of a ridge. From there we’d drop down 500 feet to meet up with the Nellie Creek trail and continue to the top of Uncompahgre. When the clouds began to thin and show a little blue sky around 7:45 a.m., we took off. We figured we could at least get a nice view from the ridge top, if nothing else.
The first part of our hike was beautiful. The trail wound through the woods by a creek where the banks were covered with pink, white and purple wildflowers. Once we reached higher ground, we saw a herd of elk grazing across the meadow. Our trail climbed higher until we finally saw Uncompahgre peeking over at us, and we reached the top of our ridge. Of course, that excitement was quickly tamped down by the discovery of that 500-foot drop in elevation ahead of us and the distance we’d still have to go to summit the mountain.
It was already almost 10 a.m. Still, we could see plenty of people heading up the trail, so we trudged down the hill and joined them.
Hiking to the top of a Fourteener is no easy feat. Not only are you gaining elevation at a rather quick pace (usually), you’re also watching clouds for signs of storms, making sure you don’t step on a rock wrong and twist an ankle and often dealing with exposure (though there’s little of that on this trail).
We slowly made our way up, stopping every few minutes to breathe and drink some water. During one of these stops, we discovered a spur trail that would take us back across to our ridge on our return journey without forcing us all the way back down the trail and back up the side of a steep hill. Hurray, for discoveries.
The hike upward to the top of Uncompahgre continued; we stopped for a snack with probably a mile or less to go. We weren’t to the actual mountain yet, but we were getting close.
We eventually would have made it up, if it hadn’t been for the gray clouds gathering overhead. I saw the first one drifting over the peak as we surveyed the switchbacks ahead of us. It was a tough discussion and a tough decision, especially for Flatlander Dad, who might not have another chance to attempt one, but after reading story after story about storms on top of Fourteeners, we weren’t willing to risk it. Others continued up the trail unconcerned, but we turned back.
By the time we reached that spur trail, about half an hour later, the clouds were darker. We quickly headed off through a high meadow back to the Big Blue ridge top. When we got there after about a quarter-mile of hiking, we looked back, just as thunder rumbled overhead. Black clouds swirled above Uncompahgre, and Dad said, “Decision confirmed.”
I’m sure others made it up and down without injury, but for us, it was much better to be safe than sorry. We hiked quickly back to the treeline, not wanting to be the tallest things around for very long. Back at camp we all realized we were exhausted; our eight-mile, day hike had worn us out.
It rained off and on for a while, but it stopped before dinner, and we ate while watching the elk farther up the valley. We stared at Uncompahgre for a long time and decided that looking at it from camp was better than standing on top anyway.
Saturday morning dawned clear and bright, the storms from the day before seeming to just melt into nothingness. We hated to leave this camp; it had been our home for two nights, and we’d enjoyed its luxurious sitting rocks, stump recliners and hidden creeks. Still, we also knew that by Sunday afternoon we’d be enjoying Pringles and beer at the car, so we got motivated and were back on the trail in no time.
The great thing about out-and-back trips is on the way in you can scout camps for later in your trip when you’re on the way out. From our Uncompahgre camp we planned to hike five to six miles back down the trail. We had seen a great edge-of-the-woods camp on the way in and were aiming for that one.
Back across Big Blue creek we went, hiking boots around our necks. Back down the trail, past the waterfalls and campsite from night No. 1, past Slide Lake and its many trout, and across a meadow to our last camp of the trip. It had its share of slow-moving black flies, but this camp worked well for us. It had great logs to sit on, plenty of places for tents and a nice creek for washing up.
I slept really well that last night, either because I was so relaxed or because I was exhausted from four days of backpacking. Whatever the reason, I woke up Sunday morning refreshed.
As with any trip, the final few miles are always the longest (it seems). I felt like we were hiking, but not moving, for hours. Eventually we reached the Uncompahgre Wilderness sign; ahead I could see the car. We saw people. We’d hardly seen any, except when hiking Uncompahgre, in five days. Once we reached the car we changed into clean clothes, took our celebratory “We made it!” pictures and enjoyed lukewarm beers and salty Pringles potato chips.
Another successful backpacking trip was in the books. We hiked about 28 miles total, no one got injured, we didn’t have to hike or eat in the rain, and we saw parts of Colorado that few people ever see.
This portion of the Uncompahgre Wilderness is great for backpacking, and when Little Cimarron Road is open the Failes/Big Blue/Fall Creek loop is excellent for a three-to-four night backpacking trip.