Uncompahgre Peak: 14er Hike Review

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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.


Mountain Information

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. 

Uncompahgre Peak

  • Summit Elevation: 14,321ft.
  • Range: San Juan
  • Location: Uncompahgre Wilderness
  • Nearest Town: Lake City

Trail Guide

Route Information

  • 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.
Difficulty – 0
Scenery - 0
Crowds - 0
Fun Factor - 0

Route Overview

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!

Planning Tips

Getting There

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.

Weather Forecast

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.


Hiking Boots

The Vasque Torre hiking boots are incredibly lightweight, provide excellent traction, and are quite affordable for their versatility. We like the Vasque Torre’s for everyday hiking that includes a bit of scrambling. In addition, with the “GORE-TEX” construction, you don’t have to worry about damp feet if the weather turns or you have to splash through streams or puddles along the way.

Hiking Pants

We love prAna’s hiking pants for their quality and versatility. Indeed, their Zion (for men) and Halle (for women) are great on- and off-trail, especially for travel. Constructed with a durable UPF-50 fabric, a water-repellant finish, and utility pockets, these have become a staple in our wardrobe. Remember that it can be rather chilly at alpine elevations, so consider hiking pants rather than shorts (both for warmth and sun protection).

Hiking Shirt

It can get chilly during alpine outings, particularly when you start early in the morning. Therefore, we typically opt for a long sleeve but lightweight shirt to keep us warm when it’s cold, but keeps us cool when we are working up a sweat later in the day. The no-cotton rule applies to shirts just as it does for pants and other articles of clothing.

Our preferred hiking shirt in the summer is Outdoor Research’s Echo Hoody because of its UPF sun protection qualities and lightweight (4oz.) breathable construction. The shirt has a hood for added neck protection and has thumbholes to protect your hands from sun exposure, if you opt to not wear sun gloves. Outdoor Research also makes different varieties of the Echo shirt (e.g., quarter zip, long sleeve without hood, t-shirt, etc.) if you prefer another style.

Insulated Jacket

The Arc’teryx Atom is easily our favorite insulated jacket. Yes, there may be lighter weight alternatives on the market, but we love the style, fit, packability, and function. Wear the Atom during early morning starts or when you reach the mountain summit. It’s a great addition to an outdoors wardrobe and comes in handy when the temperature dips.

Hiking Socks

For most of our hiking needs, we like Darn Tough socks over the multitude of options on the market. They last long and have an ironclad guarantee. In addition, Darn Tough has a variety of designs, ankle lengths, and cushioning options to choose from. We like the Hiker quarter length with light cushioning.

Headwear/Face Covering

We often wear a Buff as a neck gaiter to protect from the sun, given its UPF 50 protective construction. Buffs are also a great option to use as a face covering on the trail. In fact, there are 12+ ways of wearing a Buff, so it’s a versatile piece of gear.

Day Pack

To summit Uncompahgre Peak, we like REI Co-op’s Flash 22L pack for its affordability, lightweight design, and overall versatility. This pack has enough storage for a day hike and side pockets are available to store Nalgene bottles or other equipment. It is also hydration reservoir compatible. We think the 22L version has the perfect capacity, though REI does have an even smaller Flash 18L with a drawcord top.

Trekking Poles

Although trekking poles are optional and a matter of preference, we prefer to use them for added stability. We recommend choosing the lightest weight poles your budget can afford. The Black Diamond Distance Z is our top choice due to its extremely lightweight construction. If you are seeking just one pole, rather than two, consider Gossamer Gear’s LT5, which can be purchased individually.

recommended books

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.

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