On July 26, three of us started a backpack into the Uncompahgre Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. We started by hiking south on the Middle Fork Trail in the valley of the Middle Fork of the Cimarron River. We were a group of three, Dave Callais, Cheryl Ames and myself, all trip leaders with the Colorado Mountain Club. Dave has hiked the full Colorado trail and is a hiking instructor with the club. It was great being with such experienced backcountry travelers. Both knew the names (and Latin names) of the flowers and with this group, I would not get lost. Cheryl had begun studying butterflies, which were plentiful.
We began hiking on a level trail through a healthy evergreen forest with many types of flowers. The trail eventually began to ascend more steeply into the upper basin of the valley. We hiked through dense, wild gardens full of chiming blue bells, geraniums, white bistort, fireweed, purple elephant heads, and various yellow flowers, including yellow monkey flowers in the wet spots. In one meadow, we found the tall corn lilies with their stalks of tiny white flowers.
Above us, the western ridge was carved with castle towers and spires and with peaks such as Dunsinane Mountain and Precipice Peak. The interesting skylines are the results of deposits and intrusions of volcanic materials from major eruptions in the area which occurred some 30 million years ago. We were astounded by the colorful natural gardens and by the dramatic and enormous stone sculptures.
We camped in a stand of trees at the top of the valley near tree line. I spent the afternoon sitting on a knoll in front of camp among purple penstemons, multi-colored paintbrush and lovely columbines, taking pictures and reading the Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery in the mountains of Italy in winter. To save weight, I had torn Eco's book in half and only brought the portion which I hadn't read. The afternoon was sunny and warm with occasional clouds passing over.
In the morning, we awoke early to cloudless skies and crystalline clear, dry weather. Above us, sharp Coxscombe Peak and the deeply eroded cliffs shone in the early morning sunlight. We started our next hike climbing steeply through the treeless alpine terrain in the direction of the peak, which stood above us at an altitude of 13,656 feet above sea level. The slopes were decorated with white stands of bittercress, along with columbines, paintbrush, purple sky pilot and other flowers.
On this climb, I was mostly in the lead, up the first steep climb and the second climb, to what I thought was our high pass. Instead, as the tail leveled, I found that there was to be a third climb. We stopped for a long break after the second climb, next to a pond, where we could see the narrow Wetterhorn through a gap in the mountains, at a height of 14,000 feet. We climbed on to the top of the pass where we could see a vast array of the San Juan mountains. I love these climbs to views where there are no signs of human existence, but instead, only wilderness in view. Beyond the various mountains, we believed we could see the high peaks, Mount Sneffels and Mount Wilson.
From the pass, we descended steeply into the remote Wetterhorn Basin. The only trails into this large basin come into it over one of four high passes. We made camp in a stand of trees, again near tree line, and the sharply triangular Wetterhorn Peak, a volcanic intrusion, towered over the basin and our camp.
Early the next morning, we climbed over a pass just to the west of Wetterhorn Peak and then descended into an enormous alpine basin just below the sharp peak. We had to explore to find the faint trail down and had to work our way down a steep, sloping meadow. We stopped at a small pond and admired the views of the peak and of the mountains beyond the basin. By the pond, we found the trail down into the lower basin. A black wall, several hundred feet tall, kept us from descending by a direct route. Instead, we descended on a trail traversing a vertical slope. The trail was narrow and highly eroded with a long drop on the left side. We descended very deliberately, concentrating on each step, and sometimes holding onto the rocks on the right side of the trail to keep our balance. A harassing horsefly bit me twice as I struggled to keep my balance, adding to the excitement. When we got down into the meadows below, we noticed that there were two thin waterfalls dropping white down the black wall below the peak.
We crossed the basin and climbed over a large grassy knoll and descended into the Matterhorn Creek Valley. We crossed the valley on an old jeep trail and started climbing the Ridge Stock Driveway trail which crosses much of the wilderness area. We crossed the creek to find a campsite in the grass and flowers, just above tree line. The site was interesting with a small stream sliding down a dry, eroded landscape with 13,589 foot Matterhorn Peak high above the site at the top of the valley. While we were in camp, a shepard on horseback, with a pack mule, drove a large herd of sheep by our camp with three border collies and a large white Great Pyrenees. It was early afternoon, warm and sunny with puffy clouds rushing over, so we had time to explore the area on our own. I also bathed some in the cold stream and spent time relaxing.
On our final morning, we hiked over a marvelous pass. Near the top, we were under the Matterhorn Peak with a clear view of the Wetterhorn Peak behind it. As I crested the pass, I was surprised by enormous Uncompahgre Peak looming above us. This was not a sharp blade of a mountain like the other peaks we had hiked under. Instead, this was a monumental structure, an impressive rock, as full as any you might find. A month ago, I was in the Powderhorn Wilderness, many miles away, but on the high mesas of the wilderness, distant Uncompahgre dominated the scenery. I climbed to the 14,300 foot top of this peak in 2010. On this miraculous pass with no name, we were surrounded by the three highest peaks of the area.
While the others rested on the pass, I dropped my pack and climbed onto a ridge above where I could see into the El Paso Creek basin to the south. From the pass, we descended into the East Fork basin. Down at tree line, we stopped at a small derelict shed. While the others explored, I sat, entranced, watching the cloud shadows race across the alpine meadows.
It was a long hike down the East Fork valley. The ridges above were carved into peaks, spires, and hoodoos with a number of tall, thin waterfalls. We passed through striking stands of the deep purple larkspurs. The rest of the hike was an increasingly hot slog up and down, bothered by biting flies. We looked for a final campsite but could not find any flat spots; so we decided to hike the full twelve miles to the trailhead. At the trailhead, as is our custom, we retrieved the beer we had stashed in the stream four days before and toasted the completion of our trip.
Because of the constantly changing landscape, the unique geology, and the incredible flowers, Uncompahgre is my new favorite wilderness area, rising above Maroon Bells/Snowmass, Mount Zirkel, Lost Creek and Dolly Sods in West Virginia. It may have just been the wonderful weather, with the whole backcountry shining in the bright sunlight. Nevertheless, the beauty of this vast, open landscape is still glowing in my memory.