Uncompahgre Peak (14,321ft.) is a 14er mountain located near the town of Lake City in Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness and within the greater San Juan Mountain Range. As the sixth tallest mountain in the state, Uncompahgre Peak is arguably one of Colorado’s most beautiful summits. In fact, we consider this mountain a must see for any avid hiker or outdoors enthusiast looking for the best that Colorado has to offer.
The standard route to Uncompahgre Peak’s summit is via the Class 2 South Ridge, which begins at the Nellie Creek Trailhead. This trailhead is best accessed by a high clearance 4WD vehicle to ascend the extremely rugged Nellie Creek Road. Otherwise, opt for a start at the 2WD trailhead at the beginning of Nellie Creek Road. Starting at the 4WD trailhead makes for a tough but enjoyable 7.4 mile roundtrip hike with about 3,000ft. of gain. A start at the 2WD trailhead extends the hike to 15.4 miles roundtrip and over 5,000ft. of gain; but, your car may thank you. In either case, summiting Uncompahgre Peak is a serious commitment and is considered a challenging day hike.
HIKE REVIEW SERIES: Uncompahgre PEAK
As the sixth tallest mountain in Colorado, Uncompahgre Peak is easily one of the state’s most impressively beautiful mountains. The peak is located within the stunning Uncompahgre Wilderness (renamed from the Big Blue Wilderness), which covers over 100,000 acres within the San Juan mountains. This wilderness area was designated for preservation in the Colorado National Forest Wilderness Act of 1980 and continues to be a tremendous tourist attraction with its two 14er mountains, Uncompahgre Peak (14,321ft.) and Wetterhorn Peak (14,021ft.).
Uncompahgre Peak’s name is associated with a derivation of Ute words for “rocks that make water red.” The Uncompahgre Utes, (formerly Tabeguache), a band of the Ute tribe, was based along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers. Indeed, the nearby town of Ouray, CO is named after Ute Chief Ouray, who led negations on a number of treaties with the U.S. government.
As with nearly every Colorado 14er mountain, Uncompahgre Peak is very popular and has its fair share of visitors. However, being that the Uncompahgre Wilderness is located a good distance away from Denver and serious off-roading is needed to reach the 4WD trailhead, you may see less trail traffic than your typical Front Range 14er peak. Still, we recommend planning to hike Uncompahgre Peak on a weekday as Lake City can become very busy with tourists and off-roaders during the summer months.
- Summit Elevation: 14,321ft.
- Range: San Juan
- Location: Uncompahgre Wilderness
- Nearest Town: Lake City
- Route: South Ridge
- Class: 2
- Type: Out-and-Back
- Trailhead: Nellie Creek
- Trailhead Elevation: 11,425ft.
- Route Length: 7.4 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2,896ft.
The Class 2 South Ridge route to Uncompahgre Peak begins around 11,400ft. at the Nellie Creek 4WD trailhead (or around 9,350ft. at the 2WD trailhead starting at Nellie Creek Road). The trail starts with a gradual ascent next to Nellie Creek, heading into the basin. Almost immediately, hikers are rewarded with impressive views of Uncompahgre Peak directly ahead.
Approximately .8 miles from the trailhead, reach the junction with the Big Blue Creek Trail. Turn left, staying on the Uncompahgre Peak Trail and following the sign with arrows pointing toward Uncompahgre Peak and Matterhorn Peak. Heading west across the basin, enjoy the views of Uncompahgre’s east face and continue ascending to the south ridge at 13,000ft. Around this point, reach another trail junction with the Ridgestock Driveway Trail (sign pointing toward Matterhorn Peak), used to reach Matterhorn Peak and Wetterhorn Peak. Turn right at this junction fork, staying along the Uncompahgre Peak Trail which turns to the northwest through switchbacks up the southeast slope. Around 13,800ft., the trail arches out to the west face for a short but steep ascent up loose scree. Once through the scree, the trail to the top of the plateau becomes more defined, accompanied of course with jaw dropping panoramic San Juan Range views.
Although it takes some off-roading to reach the 4WD trailhead, plan to share the summit with fellow hikers. Uncompahgre Peak is one of the most popular San Juan mountains for good reason. Descend via doubling back from the summit and retracing steps to the Nellie Creek Trailhead parking area and enjoy the accomplishment of summiting one of the most beautiful Colorado peaks!
Beginning in Lake City, CO, it’s about nine miles to the Nellie Creek 4WD Trailhead. From downtown Lake City, head to the west of town past Lake City Brewing on Bluff Street and onto County Road 20 (Henson Creek Road), which is part of the famous Alpine Loop. Stay on County Road 20 for about five miles of good road to reach Nellie Creek Road (County Road 23). This is the 2WD trailhead start, which would require hiking the length of Class 1 Nellie Creek Road.
To reach the 4WD trailhead, turn up onto Nellie Creek Road for 3.3 miles until reaching the trailhead. Plan for a slow ascent up Nellie Creek Road, which absolutely requires a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. Even the best equipped 4×4 vehicles can take 40+ minutes to ascend this road with a few creek crossings and, quite likely other vehicles ascending/descending.
The South Ridge route to Uncompahgre Peak begins at the Nellie Creek 4WD Trailhead at the end of the gnarly Nellie Creek Road (County Road 23). If your vehicle can make it here, there is ample parking at the trailhead with space for a couple of dozen vehicles. Expect mostly high clearance vehicles (Jeeps, Tacomas, 4Runners, etc.) and ATVs.
Alternatively, if you opt to hike starting at the lower 2WD trailhead on Henson Creek Road (Alpine Loop) this will add the entire length of Nellie Creek Road to the ascent. There is no parking lot here, so find a spot along Henson Creek Road or, if possible, drive up Nellie Creek Road a bit until a suitable pull off can be found.
If you plan to hike the Class 2 South Ridge route starting at the Nellie Creek 4WD Trailhead, we highly recommend dispersed camping along Nellie Creek Road and opting for an early morning start the next day. This is because the drive up Nellie Creek Road can be slow going, especially if there are bottlenecks with other 4x4s or stuck vehicles. You’ll find ample pull off camping sites all the way up to the trailhead. Just be sure to choose a site that has already been established.
If starting via the 2WD trailhead at the bottom of Nellie Creek Road, Snowden Meadow Campground is just off of Henson Creek Road, near the turnoff onto Nellie Creek Road. This a primitive first-come, first served, campsite.
Dogs are permitted on leash. Please be mindful that, as with many 14er mountains, there are some steep and loose rock sections approaching the summit. If you do opt to bring your pet, be considerate of others by keeping your pet on leash and picking up/packing out any dog waste.
Always check the weather forecast before venturing into alpine country. Thunderstorms and lightning are frequent occurrences in Colorado during the summer time, so plan ahead for your Uncompahgre Peak 14er summit adventure.
RECOMMENDED HIKING APPAREL AND GEAR
We recommend bringing along a topographical map of the area — try the “Outdoor Trail Maps Uncompahgre Wilderness” map which covers northern San Juan mountains and trails near Ouray and Lake City. A good topographical map is always nice to have in addition to a GPS device, if you’re using one. In addition, we included a couple of our favorite field guides for plant and bird identification to aid in the enjoyment of your outdoor adventure. Lastly, we included Gerry Roach’s “Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs” guidebook, which includes Uncompahgre Peak and other 14er hikes in Colorado that may be of interest.
- Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs
- A Climbing Guide to Colorado’s Fourteeners
- Colorado 14ers: The Standard Routes
- The Utes: A Forgotten People
- Rocky Mountain Wildflowers Field Guide
- Roadside Geology of Colorado
- Mammals of Colorado Field Guide
- American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Colorado
- Sibley Birds West: Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
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