Uncompahgre Wilderness gets its name from a Ute Indian word meaning, in one translation, "dirty water". This Wilderness is located in the north-central region of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. There are two fourteeners and at least twenty-five thirteen thousand foot peaks in the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Big Blue Creek flows off Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 feet) in this rough and majestic section of the San Juan Mountains, which was formerly known as Big Blue Wilderness Area. The name changed came along with the addition of BLM land, including the rolling gentle tundra of American Flats, to the south.
Uncompahgre Peak's unusually broad, flat, and tilted summit falls away almost vertically on three sides for as much as 1,500 feet, a landmark visible from far away. Its fourth side lies gentle and inviting to many climbers. Below Uncompahgre Peak, the Wilderness is a mountainous land of towering rock castles and sweeping ridges that some claim form the most splendid scenery in the state. Technical climbers find endless routes to challenge their skills. Wetterhorn Peak (14,015 feet) stands not far southwest of Uncompahgre Peak. Water off Wildhorse Peak near the southwest corner combines to create the turbulent and deep Cow Creek Canyon, which is ragged and densely forested enough to prevent any trails being carved in its depths. American Flats lies south of Wildhorse Peak. Numerous forks of the Cimarron River rush out of the central section of this Wilderness, flowing north to eventually become one. You'll find a few small lakes with trout, and many trout in the many streams.
About 110 miles of trails reach up numerous waterways into this beautiful Wilderness. The trail up Matterhorn Creek provides access to Wetterhorn Peak after three miles of hiking. Most climbers approach Uncompahgre Peak on three miles of trail up the Nellie Creek.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Uncompahgre Wilderness.
The American Flats portion of the Uncompahgre Wilderness is located approximately 5 miles east of Ouray and approximately 11 miles west of Lake City in Hinsdale County. Access to the area is via the seldom used Horsethief Pack Trail off Hinsdale County Road 30.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Colorado Wilderness Act - Public Law 96-560 (12/22/1980) To designate certain National Forest System lands in the States of Colorado, South Dakota, Missouri, South Carolina, and Louisiana for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System
The American Flats area is characterized mostly by gently rolling hills of alpine vegetation. A portion of the area also contains steeper alpine mountain ridges with associated drainages. American Lake lies close to the center of the area.
Recreational opportunities include hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and limited fishing. Hiking is easy to moderate and the scenery lends itself nicely to photography.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
American Flats is usually accessible from late July through late September. Temperatures range from the low 30s at night to the mid 70s in the daytime. Afternoon showers are common and often severe and snow is possible any time of the year.
Safety and Current Conditions
Because the area is very open and exposed (elevations range from about 11,200 to 13,300 feet), it is advisable to carry rain gear at all times and to hike early in the day and vacate the area early in the afternoon to avoid lightning strikes. Be sure to carry plenty of food and water, map and compass (and know how to use them), and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Drink water often to avoid altitude sickness and do not over exert yourself.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.