Uncompahgre Peak, the sixth highest peak in Colorado and highest in the San Juan Range, is a majestic mountain with gentle grassy slopes on its eastern, southern, and western flanks and an abrupt 700-foot cliff on its North Face. Although Ute Indians undoubtedly climbed the peak and archeological evidence of their presence has been found, the first recorded ascent of the 14,321-foot mountain was by A.D. Wilson and Franklin Rhoda of the Hayden Survey in 1874. They found evidence of grizzly bears on the summit. Today Uncompahgre is climbed from Nellie Creek Road west of Lake City on a generally steep but easy trail. The peak’s name comes from the Ute language—“Uncompahgre” roughly translates to “dirty water spring.”
- The best way to climb Uncompahgre Peak is up the South Ridge from Nellie Creek. There are two trailheads, a lower one at 9,350 feet on the Henson Creek Road, accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicles, and an upper trail at 11,400 feet for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Henson Creek Road runs west from Lake City.
- The hike follows Nellie Creek Trail #877 (a Class 1 and 2 trail) to the summit. The trail gains 5,505 feet from the lower trailhead, and 3,000 feet from the upper trailhead. The hike is 15.5 miles round trip from the lower trailhead, and 7.5 miles from the upper trailhead. A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle greatly reduces the distance and elevation gain, making it an easy day hike.
- Uncompahgre Peak is notorious for severe thunderstorms and lightning on summer afternoons. Conditions can quickly change and become dangerous. If you’re climbing Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks together, get an early start and plan to be off both summits by noon. Keep an eye on the sky and watch for storms. Remember that lightning kills. July is the deadliest month for lightning strikes.
- Uncompahgre Peak has a long list of distinctions, including 35th highest peak in North America, 21st highest U.S. major peaks, 6th highest Colorado peak and fourteener. It’s also the highest point in the San Juan Mountains and the highest peak in the Colorado River drainage basin. It’s located in the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area.
Recommended season(s): May through October.
—Stewart M. Green