Uncompahgre National Forest Trip

Valley looking down West Fork.

This trip was a long time in the making. Initially we had planned on going to Glacier National Park but our advanced backpack permits were cancelled due to Covid. Thankfully a good friend moved to Colorado a bit ago and we decided to make this our backup plan.

After a good amount of time researching our options in the area we settled in on a basic itinerary that would ease us into the elevation and hopefully give us time to get acclimated while still seeing some great country.

Trip outline. Click for full size.

Day 1 of our trip had us driving down from Montrose, up some twisty mountain roads and to the Middlefork Trailhead where we dropped off one car before driving to the West Fork trailhead. It took us a lot longer to get our cars situated then we initially thought. Plan on about 2 hours if you end up doing something similar.

Another thing to note, the very beginning off the 4×4 trail from the road is probably the worst part of the road. I was hesitant to drive my Subaru Crosstrek up and we decided to walk that portion which probably added about 20-30 minutes of hiking. On our way in we saw a few Honda CR-Vs and Forresters driving back from the trailhead. Take your time in the beginning and you should be able to make it fine.

Day 1 via CalTopo Profile

Day 1 was a short but strenuous hike. As mentioned earlier between our late start to the day, and being unaccustomed to the elevation, we really had to slog our way up the mountain. The climb ups was at least gradual, and we had a nice hike through tree cover to begin the day. Crossing a nice stream and getting a glimpse of what lay ahead of us.

Looking down towards West Fork Trail.
Stream crossing.
A break in tree cover.

We followed the path of the Cimmaron river for a bit. Stopping and camping for the night in a beautiful valley. We were excited to have a couple of miles under our feet and to have found a great campsite. This quite honestly might’ve been the best camp site I’ve stayed in.

West Fork Valley
Our campsite hidden in the rocks.
Felt like we were in the Lord of the Rings.

We had a great night playing cards and getting settled in for the night while acclimating to the elevation. I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of our tent flapping in the wind and buckling. I was all groggy and trying to get my bearings when I finally noticed we had several inches of snow on our tent! I frantically started knocking snow off of our tent to keep it from collapsing.

Snow from overnight.

We got off to a very late start again. I was feeling the elevation, and I knew we had a couple thousand more feet to gain. We wanted to wait for the sun to come out and melt some snow, fearing that it would be deeper higher up. Thankfully the sun came out in full force and melted everything.

We started the day with our first pass of the trip. We had to climb up some rocky parts to get over the pass which was at approximately 13600 feet.

Approaching Wetterhorn pass.
Climbing up the pass.
Looking back down into the valley.
Finally up over the other side.
Survey marker up near the pass.

We got a lot of great views on the way down, seeing lots of Marmots and Eagles/Hawks scoping them out for a meal.

We went down the trail looking for the split to head towards the Middle Canyon trail which was described in our map as a “hikers paradise”.

We found the junction and got started hiking. This area was wide open and had great views into multiple valleys. The trail was sparse or non-existent in spots so we had to check our GPS and maps every so often while keeping an eye out for trail marker posts.

Looking for trail markers.

Myself I was not a fan of the Middle Canyon trail. It wasnt bad by any means but I didnt think it was nearly as scenic as other portions of the trip. I was also really feeling the elevation at this point and starting to get tired. We had another pass to get up and over before we could call it a day.

I didnt get many pictures past this point for day 2. We were burning daylight and had to make camp while we still had light. So we pulled off of trail at the flattest section we could find, filtered some water, and crashed hard.

Here was our trip summary for day 2.

Up one pass, down, up another, and down…

We wanted to get off to an earlier start this day, so we started breaking camp a bit earlier. Still taking the time for breakfast and coffee. As we were eating we kept hearing a strange sound off in the distance. At first we thought it was coyotes or something before the strange sound kept getting closer. Eventually we were greeted by this!

More sheep!

We even came across a cool sheep dog that was with the herd. When he saw us he got right between us and the herd and took his time staring us down. Didnt get a good picture of him at the time though. After that mornings excitement we got moving again. Day 3 as planned had us covering more miles and a few more passes.

The trail got sparse again in places at this point of the trail. We hadnt seen anyone except a far off sheep herder who waved at us as we were looking through our binoculars trying to figure out if there was some distant bear or elk.

Lots of trail junctions on this section too as we headed up towards the Middle Canyon trail.

Looking at the map I was excited for this part, because it mentioned having some old mines and springs along the way. We never saw any old mines unfortunately, I’d love to go back and look for them sometime. But we did come across one big spring that was very interesting looking. At times it smelled super sulfery, other times very irony.

Springs! Not hot though.

We did actually run into a lot of people on this day of the trip. The first was a woman who was hiking like 15+ miles a day from Houston. We met her on the way up a pass, she was headed for American Lake, which I still havent tracked down on the map. She hadnt seen anyone for 3+ days and stopped and chatted with us for a bit.

We then saw a couple who were hiking in from the Middle Fork trail to climb Matterhorn and Uncompahgre peak. They gave us some helpful info on the trail ahead and where we could take a shortcut and get water.

I didnt get too many pics the rest of the day as we were trying to make camp and were running late because of all the damn water filtering we had to do!

Day 4, spirits were high! We had a nice spot to camp and had a couple of games of “Thats Clever” under our belt. We had all slept well and had some good food for dinner that night, eating some Backpackers Pantry meals. So that morning we got off to a quick start, breaking camp quickly and pounding some coffee before hitting the trail.

We had one final pass of our trip. After that it was going to be all downhill. Unfortunately we got slowed down on our way up. We ended up being surrounded by sheep!

The sheep dog is back! Guarding his flock.

We had to wait for them to move off the trail and were in a stand off for a bit. They’d get pissed if we got to close, and yet they didnt want to move off the trail away from us.

We ended up seeing the sheep dog again, and eventually we saw the shepherd coming up the trail. He was nice but all business, and was making excellent time up the mountain with two other sheep dogs. He didnt speak English so we exchanged a few words in broken Spanish before heading on the trail.

I tried to find out more about sheep herding in the area but wasnt able to find much. This article did an OK job giving a brief overview of the history and industry in the area, but I’d love to find out more.

We had reached the pass and were excited to start heading downhill. About this time though I really started to feel sick. I had a runny nose, a sore throat, and congestion in my sinuses plus I could hardly see out of my right eye. Squinting your way down a mountain is not an enjoyable experience. Because of that we tried to push making it out a bit faster.

Middle Fork Valley
Headed down towards the trees again.

We finally reached the trailhead and our car and celebrated with some victory beers we stashed in a cooler. I drank one then promptly zonked out for the next few hours.

Our 4th day of hiking:

And the profile for the whole trip:

Random Notes

  • I only packed a Thermarest Zlite for a sleeping pad. It was plenty warm with my Sierra Designs backcountry quilt but it was just not that comfortable on rocky services. It was really nice to have as a quick sit pad for breaks and around camp though and it only weighed about 13 ounces.
  • I packed a REI Flexlite chair as well and if I was doing the trip again I’d leave it behind. It was hard to find even enough ground lots of time at camp and I would’ve been more comfortable sprawled out on the Zlite. I could’ve left this at home and saved a pound, or taken a heavier and more comfortable sleeping pad.
  • The Platypus Gravity filter worked pretty well for the most part. But it simply wasnt enough for 3 people at elevation. I was probably drinking close to 8 liters of water a day and it still didnt seem like enough. We ended up having to backflush this 2-3 times on our trip and it didnt end up as effortless as I had hoped it would be. For 1-2 people its fine. Any more and you need another filter.
  • Rehydrating meals takes longer at 10-12,000 feet! Who knew? Count on freeze dried type meals taking 20-30 minutes to prepare.
  • Our Garmin InReach worked really well, but I forgot to pre-download the maps for the area which really sucked. You can still get a GPS reading, bearing, weather report, etc but you cant look at the maps unless you’ve downloaded them ahead of time.
  • Hiking sticks were a god send on the trip. I had no knee or ankle joint pain on the trip.
  • CalTopo is a wonderful resource for planning trips like this far away, but look at other sources too. We found some trails called different things or even completely missing from the CalTopo maps.
  • Our used REI Half Dome worked great for our trip. Held up to strong winds and several inches of snow. And we had room for 3 while playing cards at night.
  • I ended up going to the doctor once we got into town. My eye was so bad I couldnt see out of it by the time we got back. Ended up being something called Viral Pinkeye, which the doctor said you can catch just like a cold! I was the only one to get sick out of the group, and also the only one that washed their face in the river on our second night of camping. The same river we saw a bunch of sheep hanging around the next day. I’ve probably washed my face in a river like that with unfiltered water and Dr Bronners a hundred times and not gotten sick before so who knows. Something I will be mindful of in the future though.

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