| The Devil Inside
13,971 Feet (58th Highest in Colorado)
East Ridge from the Grays Creek Trailhead
Trailhead Elevation 9,660 Feet
8.4 Miles Roundtrip
Approximately 4,311 Feet Elevation Gained
June 20th, 2010
The Devil Inside
Mount Ouray is an almost-fourteener on the extreme southern end of the Sawatch Range. Some people dispute its alleged 13,971-foot height, and believe that it is actually a fourteener. Regardless of its height, it is an isolated, beautiful spot that is worth visiting. The mountain was named for the Southern Ute Chief Ouray, who was a wise and peace-loving leader. Neighboring Chipeta Mountain was named for his wife. The ridges that extend from Mt. Ouray's east-facing cirque cause the mountain to superficially resemble a large inflatable chair, and the area within the cirque is known as "The Devils Armchair." The standard route on Mt. Ouray (the west ridge from Marshall Pass) bypasses some lush meadows, an excellent Bristlecone Pine forest, and the Devils Armchair. I chose to hike the longer-but-easier East Ridge Route so I could enjoy the full experience that Mt. Ouray has to offer.
Mt. Ouray viewed from the east
GPS track of Mt. Ouray's East Ridge *Classic* route
When I arrived at the Grays Creek trailhead, there was a pair of mule deer happily munching mouthfuls of vegetation. They watched me nervously as I geared up, but they held their ground and did not move off until I started down the trail.
Moderately annoyed mule deer at the Grays Creek trailhead
There is room for about a half-dozen cars at the 2WD-accessible trailhead. The trail is easy to find on the west side of the parking area.
Trail disappearing into the woods on the west side of the parking area
I could see right away that this was going to be a pleasant hike. The forest was lush and green, and the narrow, level trail didn't leave much of a scar through it. Wildflowers were abundant, and one of the first that I saw was a small Primrose relative known as Shooting Star (Dodecatheon pulchellum). It is always found in moist soil, usually near a creek.
Shooting Star growing in a moist area beside the creek
Verdant forest, typical for the Sawatch Range
Aspen grow in abundance near the trailhead, and the ground beneath them is carpeted with grass and wildflowers. One of the most common was Mountain Goldenbanner, which is in the pea family.
Aspen growing in a meadow along the trail
Mountain Goldenbanner (Thermopsis montana) growing in the meadow
The trail is mostly on the north side of Grays Creek, but it crosses the creek twice within a hundred yards about one mile in. I lost the trail temporarily at this point, but found it again by angling away from the stream until I crossed it. It's easy bushwhacking terrain, and it's hard to get lost when there's a creek to follow.
Water tumbling over the rocks in Grays Creek
The trail leaves the forest and enters a small gorge at about 10,700 feet (best guess). Subalpine and alpine wildflowers grow among sparse stands of spruce and aspen. The trail is easy to follow straight up the middle of the gorge. The few randomly-spaced cairns in the gorge are probably unnecessary, because one is unlikely to wander far off course in a narrow gorge.
Trail winding through the lower portion of the small gorge
Fairy Primrose (Primula angustifolia) growing on the side of the gorge
Sky Pilot (Polemonium viscosum) in the gorge. If you've ever thought you've smelled a skunk at high altitude, you may have just stepped on one of these fragrant plants.
The gorge becomes broader and flatter near the top. The trees are stunted because they are growing near treeline.
Higher in the gorge
A picturesque Bristlecone Pine forest grows in the Devils Armchair. Words and pictures cannot do justice to this enchanted spot in Mt. Ouray's eastern cirque. This would be an ideal destination hike for those who are not obsessed with summit hikes. I have yet to see a more scenic spot in the Sawatch Range.
Bristlecone Pines in the Devils Armchair
Monument Plants were numerous beneath the Bristlecones. These plants only bloom once in their 20-80 year lives. Until they bloom, they form bristly little rosettes that resemble small yuccas.
Monument Plant (Frasera speciosa) in the Bristlecone forest
Gerry Roach's thirteener guidebook suggests staying on the north side of the Bristlecone forest and hiking all the way into the Devils Armchair. However, there is a lightly-traveled cairned route on the south side of the forest. It would hardly qualify as a trail, but it was easy enough to follow.
Bristlecones and aspens in the Devils Armchair
I could not find any marked route to get up the east ridge, so I just took the path of least resistance up the grassy slope. The 0.4-mile slog was steep, but mercifully short.
Starting up the side of the east ridge
I aimed for the huge flat spot on top of the broad ridge; it is easy to identify on topo maps (I used Trails Illustrated #139, La Garita/Cochetopa). The slope eased up as I approached the crest of the ridge.
Approaching the top of the grassy slope
I had enjoyed the hike through the forest along the creek. The hike up the gorge was an interesting change of scenery. The hike through the Bristlecone forest in the Devils Armchair was dramatic. Now I was about to begin a spectacular ridge run with views of the Front, Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo, and San Juan mountain ranges. Once I was on top of the ridge, I was able to stay on a good-quality trail all the way to the summit.
Trail on top of the ridge
There were a couple of big bumps on the ridge that looked like they might involve some grunt work, but there was nothing technically challenging about this ridge.
Following the ridge towards the summit
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the trail on the steepest knob had plenty of switchbacks. The trail's gentle grade allowed me to make surprisingly good time in spite of the significant elevation gain.
Steep knob on the ridge
Switchbacks on the knob
The trail dipped down on the south side of the ridge for a short section before coming out on top again. The trail turned to the northwest, and headed directly towards the summit.
On top of the ridge
The tall pole sticking out of the large summit cairn left no doubt that this was the true summit. I had to pass through one small patch of snow on the summit cone, but the route was otherwise entirely snow-free.
Mt. Ouray's summit cairn
The Sangre de Cristo and Sawatch ranges stretched out as far as I could see in either direction, with as many mountains as there are stars in the sky. The closest significant summit, however, was Antora Peak. It is the southernmost thirteener in the Sawatch Range, and it looked like it would be worth a visit some time in the near future. Occasional gusts of wind caused barometric fluctuations that made my altimeter to read between 13,970 and 13,993 feet. I'm satisfied that Mt. Ouray is not a fourteener, but it is probably taller than its advertised 13,971 feet.
Summit shot with Antora Peak in the background
Looking down the east ridge
Looking down into the Devils Armchair. Note the reddish tinge to the rocks on the northeast ridge. The Bristlecone forest is between the two ridges.
There wasn't a gray cloud in the sky, so I probably could have stayed on the summit for hours if I had wanted to. I was short on water and didn't have any food, so I hit the trail after about 15 minutes of enjoying the 360-degree views.
Starting back down the east ridge
The good trail made it a breeze to descend to the flat spot on the ridge. When I got there, I tried in vain to find any sign of a trail down the side of the ridge. I finally gave up and just bailed off of the side. The ridge is not steep enough to be dangerous, so any descent route would probably work. However, I found it much easier to descend on the grassy tundra rather than the stable-but-annoying talus. When I reached the bottom of the ridge, I picked up the cairned route through the Bristlecones.
Following the trail through the bristlecones
From the Bristlecone forest, it was a quick trip back down the gorge to the creek. I avoided the navigational error that I had made earlier, and managed to stay on the trail all the way back to the trailhead. I met some people there that were returning from a non-summit hike on the trail. Their white dog was having fun in some black mud along one of Gray Creek's unnamed tributaries. I'm sure that was a fun trip home!
Heading back down the gorge
Hiking Mt. Ouray's East Ridge Route was fun from start to finish. I saw wildlife, wildflowers, interesting trees, and fourteeners in four different mountain ranges. Although it is not technically in a wilderness area, it certainly had the same feel as the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness. I'd enthusiastically recommend this route to hikers of any skill level.
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