The Uncompahgre is a prime spot for hikers who crave high altitude. In this rugged terrain, the line between hiking and climbing can get a little blurry; many of the Forest’s 13,000-foot-and-higher peaks are accessible to hikers without technical mountaineering knowledge. Along with blustery summits, which are among the Forest’s most popular attractions, hiking destinations include alpine meadows, pine and spruce forests, abandoned mines, and stunning waterfalls, many of which don’t require legs of steel to reach.
Before hiking in the Uncompahgre, you should have an idea of what kind of experience you most want to have. Because the overall area is broken up by so many high peaks, there are no long trails that allow you to survey the Forest as a whole. Instead, each geographically distinct region has its own trail network that lets you explore a part of the Uncompahgre in depth.
The Uncompahgre Plateau
Separated from the rest of the Forest by a stretch of private land, the Uncompahgre Plateau region is drier and flatter than the more alpine regions to the southeast. Many of the trails here are cattle paths that hikers share with grazing herds. Transfer Trail leads to the Roubideau Canyon, one of the many red rock gorges criss-crossing the Plateau.
Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area
The Mount Sneffels Wilderness Area has around 20 miles of hiking trails among some of Colorado’s highest peaks. Blue Lakes Trail is a fine day or weekend hike past three spectacular alpine-tundra lakes that runs between Yankee Boy Basin (the most popular access point for ascents of Mount Sneffels) and the Wilderness interior.
Uncompahgre Wilderness Area
Formerly known as Big Blue, the Uncompahgre Wilderness is the largest Wilderness in the Forest, with over 100 miles of trails to prove it. One of the longer hikes in the Forest, the Little Cimarron-Fall Creek loop takes you above the timberline and into mountain-lion country at almost 13,000 feet. The Alpine Trail in the Cimarron Ridge area north of the Uncompahgre Wilderness is another multiday option in similar terrain.
Twin Peaks Trail is just one of many challenging day hikes that light out from the town of Ouray into the surrounding mountains. Starting at Ouray’s western edge, Twin Peaks climbs over 2600 vertical feet to a 360-degree panorama of the Forest. The Horsethief Trail climbs to the well-known Bridge of Heaven, a thin ridge with sheer drop-offs on either side offering great views of the surrounding area. A very popular hike in the same area is the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail. This diverse trail offers great views of Victorian Ouray, a hike along a cut in the cliff face of spectacular Bear Creek Canyon and ruins of the Grizzley Bear and Yellowjacket mines.
Telluride Area/Lizard Head
In the area around Telluride, day and overnight hikes also originate within town limits. Trails range from the Cornet Creek, a half-hour trip from the center of Telluride to a 125-foot waterfall, to the Wasatch Trail, a moderate to difficult trek among lakes, waterfalls, and mine ruins. Further south, trails in the Lizard Head Wilderness among the high peaks offer some of the most difficult hiking in the Forest. The Lizard Head Trail here leads to the nearly 12,000-foot pass between Lizard Head and Cross Mountain, yielding spectacular views of the San Miguels.
In general, the Forest Service (USFS) warns that trails may not be well marked. A compass and a current USGS topographic map come highly recommended, especially since bad weather can spring up notoriously fast. Lightening and snow are the most dangerous threats in the Uncompahgre backcountry, a real menace to hikers out on exposed ground at higher elevations. Also, the USFS advises all travelers in the backcountry to wear a blaze-orange hat and vest during hunting season.
- Pool Creek – 3.2 miles
- Roubideau – 5.0 miles
- Spring Creek – 12.0 miles
- Transfer Trail – 6.5 miles
- Blue Lakes – 5.7 miles
- Sneffels Highline Trail – 13 miles
- Cutler Creek – 4.4 + 2.9 miles
- East Fork Trail – 12.5 miles
- Little Cimarron and Fall Creek – 20.0 miles
- Middle Fork Trail – 10 miles
- Wetterhorn Basin – 5.0 miles
- Alpine Trail – 17.0 miles
- Bear Creek Nat’l Rec. Trail – 4.2 miles
- Cascade Falls – 2.5 miles
- Horsethief – 12.0 miles
- Portland – 5.0 miles
- Twin Peaks – 2.8 miles
- Alder Creek Trail – 5.5 miles
- Cornet Falls Trail – .25 mile
- Deep Creek Trail – 12 miles
- Elk Creek Trail – 3.6 miles
- Galloping Goose Trail – 10 miles
- Hope Lake Trail – 3 miles
- Indian Trail – 10.5 miles
- Jud Wiebe Trail – 2.7 miles
- Lizard Head Trail, Part 1 – 5.8 miles
- Lizard Head Trail, Part 2 – 6 miles
- Lone Cone Trail – 10.5 miles
- Silverpick Trail – 3 miles
- Wasatch Trail – 4.3 miles
- Whipple Mountain Trail – 4 miles
- Wilson Mesa Trail – 10.5 miles
- Wilson Meadows Trail – 1.5 miles
- Woods Lake Trail – 4 miles
Uncompahgre National Forest Top Things to do
Climb Uncompahgre Peak
Rising solitary and grand, Uncompahgre Peak is the pinnacle of the Uncompahgre Wilderness Area. The trek begins across open alpine tundra, where you’re surrounded by vistas of seemingly endless mountains. The flat top of Uncompahgre Peak is in view throughout your hike, which makes the trail easy to follow. You’ll need to scramble to reach the summit at 14,309 feet, but no technical climbing skills are necessary.
Land a Lunker
Lower, Middle, and Upper Blue Lake form a haven for native trout in the shadow of Mount Sneffels. Reputed to outsmart as well as dwarf their farm-bred brethren, the trout in these sparkling waters are not the only fish you might encounter in the Uncompahgre. Countless backcountry streams host an array of angler’s delights—Northern pike, yellow perch, catfish, bass, and bluegill are all a cast away.
Mountain-Bike The High Road
The Sneffels Range Loop is a 70-mile backcountry sojourn along a historic mining route established in the gold rush days. Connecting Telluride, Ouray, and Ridgway, the ride is a multi-day excursion that circumnavigates one of the most scenic ranges in Colorado. The terrain is steep and alternates between jeep roads, doubletrack, and technical singletrack passages. The ride starts with a massive 4,500-foot climb out of Telluride, but what goes up must come down. Hold on to your helmet and be ready for a wild romp.
Drive the San Juan Skyway
The San Juan Skyway (US 550) is a high-altitude history lesson. Start in Durango, a once-bustling railroad town built to service the mining industry in its heyday. From here, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train still operates, taking passengers on a glorious ride through the clouds. Heading north, you’ll pass hot springs, downhill skiing at Purgatory, and great fishing. You’ll also drive through the highest paved pass in the San Juans at 11,075 feet. The section of Skyway that passes through the Uncompahgre is known as the Million Dollar Highway, a paltry sum compared to the priceless scenery you’ll see along the way.
Camp at a Ghost Town
Going camping in the Uncompahgre is a lot like choosing a hotel—you have your five-stars, your Holiday Inns, and your cheap motels. On the luxury end, the Matterhorn campground near Telluride features such marquee amenities as electricity and hot showers, all easily accessible from the highway. Most of the other campgrounds aren’t quite so developed, but still have running water. For a camping adventure that’s really rough-and-tumble, try Alta Lakes, where the only comforts are those you bring with you. Alta Lakes lies on the edge of a ghost town, where the spirits of prospectors are rumored to roam, still searching for the mother lode.