“A stunning run up San Juan 14er Monarch Uncompahgre Peak.”
— Tyler Prince
Fall Colors · Lake · River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers · Wildlife
Matterhorn Creek Trailhead is difficult enough to get to in the summer months. During winter and parts of spring, the way is generally closed somewhere along the Henson road, about 10 miles below the trailhead.
While the land manager requests dogs be leashed, few runners follow this rule.
One of the more popular San Juan 14ers, Uncompahgre Peak is not only the highest in the range but also one of the most majestic. With its unique mesa-like shape, it looks almost out of place next to needle-like Matterhorn and Wetterhorn Peaks. While remote, it is nontechnical and is truly one of the most rewarding walk-up 14ers.
Need to Know
This run makes for a long day in an area prone to rapidly changing weather. Bring plenty of food, water, and rain/cold gear. Once near the summit, it's a long way back down to tree line - don't commit unless you're confident you can make it before turning weather. Fast hikers can expect a round-trip time of around 6-8hrs although most will take 10-12hrs.
Uncompahgre Peak is a favorite for trail runners stopping through Lake City. With a fairly flat, long, and scenic approach, this mountain offers excellent trails before a grueling couple miles up switchbacks to its summit. Due to its length and elevation change, even the fastest runners should expect at least 4 hrs round trip.
From Lake City, head west on Second Street. In a block or so turn left onto Henson Creek Road, AKA the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. In 5 miles, pass the Nellie Creek Trailhead sign. This is an alternate route for this run. In 4 more miles, turn right onto the North Henson Road. Up to this point, pretty much any car will do. After this turn, reasonably high clearance is needed. In 2 miles, there is another junction with a sign pointing toward the Matterhorn Creek Trailhead. It's just 0.7 miles to the upper TH from here. A Subaru/CR-V or better should be fine.
While Matterhorn Creek doesn't have a bathroom or any amenities, it is a proper TH, well signed and with a fair amount of parking. A small field next to the dirt lot provides room for around 5-6 tents.
From the upper TH, run on clear, mellow trail for about 0.75 miles. Reach a junction in a clearing, turning right and heading up some switchbacks before continuing north at 11,300 ft. Follow the trail to treeline at 11,600 ft or so. Continue up Ridge Stock Driveway before coming to a junction at 12,000 ft. Turn right, continuing up the Ridge Stock Driveway to Uncompahgre Peak Trail (turning left will take you to Wetterhorn Peak
Run along a stream on clear trail, mostly singletrack but in some parts a rocky dirt road. The going here is flat and the views are excellent. Passing through alpine tundra, continue N/NE for about a mile. Uncompahgre will be clearly visible, as will the trail. Angle to the right, hop streams for about 2 more miles on flat to slightly downhill terrain. It's frustrating losing elevation here, especially while Uncompahgre is just to your left. There are gullies you can scramble up, but these are composed of loose, steep, dangerous talus. While they may save you elevation gain, they are unlikely to save you time or energy. Sticking to the trail is recommended.
A little over 5 miles into your run, you'll finally turn off the Ridge Stock Driveway, angling left up a switchback and reaching the clear Uncompahgre Peak Trail. (NOTE: there is another trailhead to the east; if you see runners coming from here don't get confused). From here it's only about a mile to the summit (but also around 1,500 ft gain). Run up a steep dirt trail, following some switchbacks. These will stay just left of the mesa-like formation of Uncompahgre's summit. Pass through a steep, rocky portion before gaining the south ridge at 13,800 ft.
From here, the trail disappears behind the ridge, hugging Uncompahgre's west side. Come to about 200 ft of class 2+ rock, the crux of the run. After making it through this loose, steep section, come to a flat area just below the summit. There may be multiple trail segments here, but they all lead to the same place. Pick a path, angle up toward the right past the final 100 ft of gain, and reach the top. Uncompahgre has a unique, flat summit, similar to but even larger than Longs Peak's football-field-like table top.
From here, you may head back to Matterhorn Creek or, if time permits, head back to the junction to run Wetterhorn Peak
(it is recommended this double be done with Wetterhorn first - it's closer to the trailhead, so you're more likely to summit at least one peak should bad weather hit).
Flora & Fauna
This is truly one of the most scenic 14ers in Colorado. The pika and marmots seem to agree, as they are inquisitive enough to wander right up to even large groups of runners. The valleys here are full of wildflowers while mountain goats and bighorn sheep seem to stay away for the most part.