Peak(s):  Wetterhorn Peak  -  14,015 feet
Uncompahgre Peak  -  14,309 feet
Date Posted:  08/01/2020
Date Climbed:   06/23/2020
Author:  jvirene
 Exploring the San Juans   

Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre- First experience in the San Juans


Preface: Philip and I had always wanted to do some hiking out in the San Juan mountains however, as they are very far from Denver, we wanted to ensure that we had flawless conditions to maximize our time and enjoyment of the hike. With my work schedule, it was a bit tough to squeeze a trip in, but obviously we were able to. Also, Harrison was able to join us on this trip, which we were excited about since he hadn’t gone with us since Crestone Needle the previous year.

Preparation: I prepared extensively for this trip, more so than on any other mountain adventure. I was very thorough in preparation because again, the San Juan mountains are very far from Denver so if we forgot anything or otherwise missed important details that would compromise the trip, we would be very unhappy. The first step was to check the weather- cloudy on the first day, which didn’t matter because we were just backpacking to the campsite and on the second day, it was supposed to be sunny and perfect. The next step was to check the wilderness regulations- rules on dispersed camping and any other requirements for making a trip in the Uncompahgre wilderness. I called the forest service, but no one picked up, their automated response indicated that dispersed camping and campfires were allowed (campfires were actually not allowed so I’m unsure why the message said they were). I then compiled all of my gear. This is the first trip where I actually brought enough food and, having ample food supplies was such a game changer for me. Finally, I mapped out the route, checked trailhead road conditions, and was all ready to go.

The drive: Next morning, I drove over to Philip’s house and put all of my gear in the reliable CX-5 that has taken us on so many mountain adventures. We then drove over to Harrison’s house and picked him up. It was around 11:00 AM when we left. We got on 285 and Philip drove the first leg of the drive out to Poncha Springs. We stopped for gas and I took over driving for the next few hours. We made a quick stop in Gunnison for some McDonalds, then made our way to Lake City. The canyon that runs outside of Lake City is gorgeous, and we stopped for pictures and scouted to see if we could find any cliff jumping. Unfortunately, the water is not deep enough anywhere we looked, so we proceeded onwards.


A couple of shots as we drove, only about thirty minutes outside of Lake City.

4WD: We reached engineer pass, and Philip took the wheel. Phil is an excellent driver on dirt roads and 4WD roads, and I know he loves driving on these roads. A good majority of the road is easy dirt 2WD, so we drove along and again, stopped for some pictures in the beautiful canyon. We found this really cool dam about fifteen minutes up the pass, and couldn't help ourselves so we had to go check it out. I'm not sure if you're allowed to go on these structures or not but it felt pretty solid and safe and no one seemed to mind so I'd bet that its totally fine.

Philip checking out the dam.
A nice shot of the river from out in the middle.

Once we reached the 4WD portion, we assessed the road. Harrison was opposed to taking Phil’s car up the road. I was on the fence; I didn’t think it was a good idea but knew that it’s Philips car and ultimately up to him. Philip, being fearless and knowing his driving ability, decided that the car was going up. We drove up the road and I was white knuckling in the passenger seat the whole way. Phil was sending it up the road, seamlessly clearing every obstacle and rock section. We did not bottom out once, but I’m sure that we came close!

Once we made it to the trailhead, we were all very relieved, and stoked to begin our hike. The car seemed like it was very happy to have just sent it up this 4/6 rated road and was not leaking or having any issues, so again, the relief was a great feeling. We stopped for a minute to take in the beauty of the mountains that we were in, then we threw our packs on and began hiking. Once again, Philip decided to bring his skateboard for the 14 miles of hiking that we would be doing the next day. Because why not?

By this point, I realized that Philip's energy is unmatched. He carries a mythical aura that blends the perfect amount of stupidity, calculated risk, and just sending it into a perfectly functional and mostly capable human being. This isn't to say that he doesn't mess up sometimes, for example the only form of sustenance that he brought on this trip was cup-noodles. It is all very entertaining!

The approach: Hiking up to the campsites was very quick, it was only a couple miles. We made our way through the trees, then we reached the meadow below the campsites and saw the gorgeous bluffs and surrounding peaks that loomed above. From the meadow, we were a bit under an hour to our objective for the night. We continued hiking, gaining a bit more elevation on a steeper trail. We reached a patch of trees which is very popular for camping, as we saw an established site with a campfire. A bit tired from the drive, we decided that this was good for the night, and setup camp.

Breaking through the trees. Awesome views of the meadow, and Matterhorn also comes into view.
The bluffs in these mountains are super cool, and in a sense, very unique to the San Juans

Camp: We had made it to camp with plenty of daylight left, so we enjoyed our time eating dinner and watching the gorgeous clouds as the sun began to set. Philip also screwed around with his skateboard, trying tricks for over an hour. While both relaxing, Harrison and I watched him, shocked at how much energy he had despite the long drive and hike that we had just finished today. He also wanted to go climb this nearby bluff and watch sunrise from the summit, but both Harrison and I felt we needed to save our energy for the long day ahead.

Phil wanted to hike up to that little rock point.

I'm going to interrupt the report briefly to show off some of the really cool shots of the sunset that we saw. For about thirty minutes, all we did was sit in the meadow nearby camp and enjoy the gorgeous colors we saw.



Sunset solitude at camp.

The sun finally set, and we stayed up for a couple more hours to admire the beauty of the stars and the night sky. We finally decided to turn in for the night and tried getting some sleep before the big day tomorrow. I did not get very much sleep due to being cold and stoked for the next day of hiking, but this is something I’m very used to, so I managed. We woke up around 4:00 AM and after a quick breakfast and light preparation, we were ready to hike.

The hike: We decided that we wanted to summit Wetterhorn peak first, then go to Uncompahgre afterwards. Some people do this in reverse, but we wanted to be alert and awake on the class three mountain, and then if we were tired on Uncompahgre, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. We set out at around 4:30 AM, ready to start the day. The trail is very solid throughout the mountain, it was class two all the way up to the ridge. Philip, with his reliable skateboard strapped to his pack, led the way up to the class three. There weren’t any particularly steep sections and we made pretty quick work up to the class three.

The dynamic duo- Phil and his board.

Early morning colors on Wetterhorn
From further up the trail.

I really love Wetterhorn's summit block. The steep and rocky face makes it look like such a cool mountain, also a nice change of pace from the "big hills" we had been doing such as Massive and Elbert.

Once on the mountain, we ended up taking hiker’s left and got onto a route that is mostly exposed class three on solid rock. The standard route actually cuts to the right and has a lot easier hiking and less class three, but we enjoyed the route that we took. Most of the scrambling was very straightforward, and we reached the ledge section which leads up to the summit. We climbed up this portion, and I was pretty shocked when we topped out at around 7:00 AM. The three of us reached the consensus that Wetterhorn has to be one of the easiest class three fourteeners. The class three scrambling is not very sustained, and the rock is mostly solid, though there are still some loose portions.

Working our way along one of the lower portions of easy class three scrambling.

The summit: Once on the summit, we encountered a couple of other groups, both of whom thought that Phil’s skateboard was really cool. We talked with these guys about our plans to tag Uncompahgre as well, and they both said that they were doing it too. We also had some time for snacks, water, and impressed with the scenery of this new and unfamiliar mountain range, took some awesome photos of the scenery. Before descending, we also took a few minutes to locate the trail that goes out to Uncompahgre. This was a very excellent decision because although the trail is not hard to follow, it was good knowing what the route looked like


Summit views

After a few minutes worth of rest, Philip was ready for some skating. He found some flat ground and did a couple tricks.

Getting ready for the kickflip on Wetterhorn.

Downclimb: Downclimbing Wetterhorn was a very simple task. We were able to locate the trail that follows the standard route, so we did not have to downclimb some of the class three sections that we climbed up. Once off the class three, we began the long hike over to Uncompahgre.


Hardest section of down-climbing. A bit exposed but it is short and the rock is mostly solid.

The bottom section of down-climbing Wetterhorn.

Before continuing, we stopped for a minute past the class three portion of our descent from Wetterhorn to take some more pictures.

Some ski tracks off Wetterhorn. Looks fun, but the effort to reward ratio is probably not worth it.
Everyone heading towards Uncompahgre.

Uncompahgre: We had a pretty good idea of the trail to Uncompahgre and were stoked that we had already ticked off one of two fourteeners by 8:00 AM. We kept descending back towards the Uncompahgre trail and soon enough, we passed Matterhorn and reached the trail.

About 1/2 a mile onto the Uncompahgre trail, still plenty of hiking from here.
Love the colors of the in this meadow.

This trail is really awesome, it is a well-built class one that weaves through a gorgeous valley. On this portion of the hike, we saw some beautiful wildflowers, mountain bluffs, and a lot of gorgeous colors in the rock. I will say that hiking towards Uncompahgre does take a good bit of time, and it felt like it dragged on for a while. We debated whether we wanted to shave off mileage and hike up the steep rocky gully or continue along the easy trail and have a bit of a longer day. We followed the trail until we were next to the gully, and we assessed. This gully is pretty steep and rocky, so we decided that hiking up the trail would be more enjoyable and less exhausting.

Looking back at Wetterhorn and Matterhorn.
Getting closer to Uncompahgre.
A good view of the gully that goes up to the left on Uncompahgre, though we viewed it as an option, we opted for the trail instead.

We really started to feel soreness creep into our legs when we started ascending up to the standard trail of Uncompahgre. There are a couple steep portions along the trail, which none of us enjoyed. I asked Phil how the skateboard felt, and I knew that he was not enjoying carrying it. Still determined however, he insisted on taking the board up to the top and we pressed on.

Finally reaching the standard route of the mountain.

Once we reached the portion where the standard route meets up with our trail, we took a bit of a longer break for more snacks and to rest our legs for a minute. From this point, we still had a very long day ahead of us, and around 2200’. It was obvious that Uncompahgre is a lot more popular since, we saw plenty of other people on the trail. A couple of them saw Phil’s skateboard and very cleverly asked if he was going to skate down the mountain. Eye roll. We continued hiking, and luckily there was only one more section of steep trail left. We weaved our way up the mountain and finally, reached the last section of rocky trail.

Summit: We reached Uncompahgre’s summit and though a bit tired, we were all super excited to have hiked both mountains. Again, we took a well-deserved break to refuel and take in the gorgeous scenery. Since Uncompahgre is the tallest in the San Juans, I think it takes the cake for the best view in the San Juans (though I could be wrong as I have much more to explore). Philip and I looked at each other, and we both knew that it was time to flex on everyone else on the summit. We found flat ground, and both did some tricks. I could tell that everyone was jealous that they couldn’t do skate tricks on the tallest mountain in the San Juans. Joking aside, I’m pretty sure that the dope summit shots that we got on both peaks justified hiking 16+ miles with a skateboard, but you’d have to ask Phil about that since he was the one carrying the board.

A shot on Uncompahgre's summit.

Phil on the board again.

Descent: Once we felt rested and energized, we were ready to begin the long hike back to our campsites. Descending the upper portion of Uncompahgre took some focus, since it is a bit steep and there’s a bit of loose rock to watch out for. This part is still rocky trail, but we were much happier when we got back to the class one dirt trail. We reached the trail junction where the standard route splits off and continued on our route back towards Wetterhorn. We stopped to take a couple more pictures of Wetterhorn and after the long hike, we finally reached our campsites. Knowing that we still had a six-hour drive ahead of us, there wasn’t much time to rest at camp. We took about twenty minutes, then packed our stuff up. Hiking with my pack on felt much slower and more exhausting after hiking with a light day pack all day. Luckily, it was all downhill from here and we made it to the car within another hour.

Hiking back down the upper standard route trail back to our junction.

The drive back: I let Philip handle the 4WD portion of the drive back, and we were equally nervous to see how the Cx-5 would handle it. Driving down was a lot easier since we retained momentum and had already seen the obstacles. Still, I didn’t want to be the one to screw up his car. He handled the drive down like a champ, and then I drove the rest of the way home.

Packing out back to the car.

Review: This was such a sick trip and I honestly would do it again because I enjoyed it so much. The San Juan mountains seem to have so much more color and variety than the other ranges in Colorado. The bluffs in that area are really impressive and quite the change in scenery from peaks that we normally see. Wetterhorn was a very fun and easy class three mountain, the scrambling was solid and enjoyable, though I wish that it was more sustained because there were only a couple short sections. Hiking over to Uncompahgre was awesome because the trail gave us the full San Juan experience; beautiful scenery throughout and a nice long hike. We were all very exhausted by the end of this hike, but it was totally worth it. If you’re fine with a bit of a longer day of hiking, I’d totally recommend linking up Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

Nice Day
08/02/2020 09:53
I plan on doing this same route during this first week of September and seeing your report validates my decision. Thanks for the beta.


Hello again from Arkansas
08/03/2020 16:58
That was a heck of a fun and beautiful day, you€„˘re right!

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