Uncompahgre – Matterhorn – Wetterhorn Loop

Uncompahgre – Matterhorn – Wetterhorn Loop

Hiking in Colorado's High Alpine Tundra
Hiking in Colorado’s High Alpine Tundra

This July we planned an epic adventure through Colorado’s San Juans. Staying mostly above tree line we spent 5 days hiking around the iconic Uncompahgre, Matterhorn, and Wetterhorn Peaks.

Day 1: Middle Fork

Camp on Day 1
Camp on Day 1

We drove in the night before to camp closer to the trailhead. After breaking camp at Silver Jack Reservoir, we took off through the heart of the stunning Cimmarons. We were delighted to see only 2 other cars at the trailhead – which foretold the relative solitude of the ensuing backpack.

Starting at ~10,000 feet, we started off on a wildflower studded trail through some down-fall (fortunately there is an excellent and hard-working trail crew out there working!). Once above tree line, we were enamored with the spire of Coxcomb peak. Up our first pass of the hike, we had our first glimpse of the towering Uncompahgre-Matterhorn-Wetterhorn ridge, which is one of the more impressive vistas in Colorado. With a favorable forecast and “light” winds, we set camp near the pass.

We spent the afternoon lounging in the sun-soaked tundra – which turned cold quickly after sunset. Later that evening, I awoke to photograph the milky way and the half-moon illuminated scene.

milky way, colorado, san juans, backpacking
Milky Way over Colorado’s San Juans

Day 2: Big Blue

Hiking toward East Fork. Our off-trail route is highlighted in red
Hiking toward East Fork. Our off-trail route is highlighted in red

After warming up with hot coffee and oatmeal – we checked out the topo map for our upcoming off-trail adventure. We descended back to tree line and hiked briefly on the East-Fork trail. Then it was off trail back to the tundra and over an unnamed pass north of Uncompaghre. Once at the pass, we found a very well maintained animal trail that weaved us through thickets of willow with ease.

Down in Big Blue Basin, we witnessed a spectacular

Elk Cooling off on a warm day
Elk Cooling off on a warm day

collection of wildlife. An elk herd ~500 strong was gallivanting around the tundra – cooling off in the snowfields – and cannon-balling into tarns. Trying to circle around the elk, we encountered a coyote den, which Jethro thought were actually normal dogs, and decided to chase. Fortunately for Jethro, and ourselves, these coyotes were skiddish and more interested in the Elk. After lunch, we bushwhacked towards the big blue trail, where we eventually set camp in a nicely wooded site. We enjoyed a calm evening around a fire and went to bed exhausted.

Elk run way more gracefully over tundra than I ever could!
Elk run way more gracefully over tundra than I ever could!

Day 3: Uncompahgre Hiking down into East Fork and Matterhorn Creek

At the summit of Uncompahgre
At the summit of Uncompahgre

Hiking along Big Blue trail, we once again gained access to the high alpine tundra. Once at an unnamed pass, we took the Stock Ridge Trail towards Uncompahgre peak. Here, we saw the first groups of people in nearly 36 hours! With the incessant bluebird skies and stable weather, we were afforded an afternoon summit of the 6th highest peak in Colorado. After, we strolled over rolling tundra fields in front of stunning peaks towards Matterhorn Creek. Flat campsites are hard to find in this valley. With one at tree line already occupied, we headed further on the trail to a meadow campsite filled with amenities (flat, sittin’ logs, fire ring, pre-gathered wood, easy bear-bagging). It would have been an ideal campsite had the nearby water source not tasted like stale lemonade squeezed through sweaty socks.

Wetterhorn and Matterhorn in the afternoon
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn in the afternoon

Day 4: Wetterhorn Basin

Unnamed saddle near Wetterhorn
Unnamed saddle near Wetterhorn

Leaving the sweaty lemonade water behind, we shortly departed the Stock Ridge Trail on the “Matterhorn Cutoff.” It is clear this trail is rarely used, as it was no clearer than the multiple game trails we found. After a few high-creek crossings, we made it back into a high-alpine basin flanking Wetterhorn. We continued to follow the nondescript trail leading to a few twisted ankles and multiple times losing the “trail.” Honestly, had we been hiking “off-trail” we would have had better bearings and an easier route. With ominous clouds starting to build, we trounced passed a waterfall hiking towards a high un-named pass at ~13,000 feet. On the other side of the pass, with the changing of ranger districts, we had a solid and well-marked trail to follow.

Down in Wetterhorn basin, we nestled our tent at tree line with an outstanding view of glorious wildflowers and Wetterhorn Peak. Exhausted from 4 days of strenuous high-altitude hiking we were in desperate need of some relaxation – we napped, read, and played games. Hopelessly optimistic the clouds would bring a dramatic sunset, however, yet again; bluebird skies returned 45 minutes before sunset.

Wetterhorn Basin Camp
Wetterhorn Basin Camp

Day 5: Coxcomb Pass

Today we climbed up to Coxcomb Pass near ~13,000 feet. Coming down Coxcomb is steep with multiple gorgeous waterfall crossings. Back on firm ground and finally off tundra, we quickly hiked through the woods and to our car. On the way home in Evergreen, we spent the night in Gunnison – rewarding ourselves with pizza and beer.

Departing Remarks

Down-climbing Coxcomb Pass
Down-climbing Coxcomb Pass

We had a blast on this remote high-altitude hike through Colorado’s San Juans.

Tips:

  • If driving from afar, Silver Jack campground is a great first night and is close to the trailhead.
  • the trail can be easily lost in the tundra (especially on the Matterhorn Cutoff) but with basic navigation skills, route finding is relatively easy due to the expansive views.

Pros: There aren’t many hikes that offer expansive views, solstice, off-trail tromping, spontaneous wildlife safaris, and wildflower studded trails. Also, this hike offers great cross-training that whipped us into cycling shape!

Cons: Twisted ankles while traversing on steep tundra, cursing the animals trail for suddenly disappearing

Indian Paintbrush Sunset
Indian Paintbrush Sunset

 

 

 

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