14,048 Feet (Ranked 40th in CO)
Southwest Slope from Bottom of American Basin Road (Approximately 11,343 Feet)
July 26th, 2009
7.3 Miles Roundtrip
Elevation Gained: Approximately 2,750 Feet
The first European-American to climb Handies Peak was probably a prospector. When the Hayden Survey Party summited the peak in 1874, they found prospector’s test pits as high as 13,500 feet, and presumed that theirs was not a first ascent. Miners extracted an incredible amount of silver and gold from the San Juans, and several abandoned mines are visible on the approach to Handies Peak. The Cinnamon Pass Rd. that leads to the Handies group was originally a narrow Ute Indian trail that was widened to accommodate wagons. The San Juan Mountains had been Ute Indian territory until 1873, when Chief Ouray signed a treaty ceding the land to the United States.
Relics from the mining era at the Silver Creek/Grizzly Gulch Trailhead
The American Basin approach to Handies Peak is considered to be one of the most beautiful approaches to a fourteener. The abundance of wildflowers in the basin is mind-boggling. It is also considered one of the easiest routes on a fourteener; the Grizzly Gulch route offers more of a challenge with regard to distance traveled and altitude gained, but it lacks (not by much!) the aesthetic appeal of the American Basin route.
It was pretty clear that Handies Peak at the height of the wildflower season was a suitable introduction to the San Juan Mountains. I was pleased to have my son Ian join me on this one. We loaded up the Jeep and made the journey from Boulder to Grizzly Gulch in about 6.5 hours. We decided that the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead was a better camping spot than the American Basin Trailhead, because it has a pair of outhouses. There were easily fifteen or more cars at the trailhead, with at least two or three people per vehicle. Unlike many of the places I’ve camped, the people were generally quiet and respectful. Since the trial of notorious cannibal Alferd Packer took place in nearby Lake City, I thought that Ordeal by Hunger (a story about the Donner Party) was appropriate reading material for this trip. While I slept peacefully in the back of the Jeep, Ian got soaked sleeping in his tent when it rained for more than an hour. Age has its privileges! We rose before dawn, drove the short distance to the lower American Basin Trailhead, and hit the trail by 6:05.
We started at the lower trailhead to allow for more elevation gain and more time spent in the scenic basin. We parked at a pullout and started up the rocky road. The creek crossing would have been easy for most vehicles, but hikers have to pick their way across carefully. The last part of the road is really pretty rough and best suited to 4WD SUVs, but there was an AWD Subaru Forester at the upper trailhead.
The first people that we encountered were a pair of professional photographers that were also there to enjoy the wildflower bounty. A handful of people had already started up the Class 1 trail to the summit.
The view was impressive as I looked up the basin. The ridge on the northwest side of American Peak provided a scenic backdrop. The scene reminded me of an impressionistic painting of formal gardens in front of a palace. As the sun rose, it revealed nasty clouds that promised precipitation at some point in the immediate future.
The abundance of water in the basin provides an ideal habitat for wetland wildflowers. The individual flowers on the Elephant Heads bear an uncanny resemblance to a pink elephant’s head. Parry’s Primrose was named for Colorado’s first resident botanist, Charles C. Parry. Parry Peak was named in his honor, and he is credited for naming Grays, Torreys, and Engelmann Peaks after fellow botanists.
Elephant Heads (Pedicularis groenlandica)
Parry Primrose (Primula parryi)
Dark clouds moved in, and we hiked in a steady rain for about a third of the hike. It was still early, so there was minimal lightning danger.
By the time we reached Sloans Lake, the summit was entirely obscured by clouds.
Clouds enveloping the summit, which should have been visible just above the snowfield in the left/center of the image.
We followed the switchbacks on the excellent trail, and found ourselves hiking right into the clouds. Our rain jackets kept us reasonably dry, and the temperature remained comfortable – probably in the low 50’s.
The switchbacks led us to a saddle just below the summit. The whole mountainside was covered in small yellow flowers known as Alpine Avens (Geum turbinatum). Although the area is protected habitat for the endangered Uncompahgre Fritillary butterfly, we didn’t see any sort of insect life on this blustery day.
Ian hiking through a meadow of Alpine Avens towards the saddle. In the upper part of the image, a hiker is visible descending from the summit.
Once we were above the saddle, we hiked through sandy scree to the summit. This was really the only steep part of the hike.
When we hit the summit, the views were somewhat of a mixed bag. The skies had cleared to the west, but we were unable to see Sunshine and Redcloud to the east. Sloans Lake and American Peak, visible to the southwest, were stunning.
American Peak rising behind Sloans Lake. Two hikers are visible in the left/center of the image.
We descended the north ridge for a short distance so we could look down into American Basin. When we returned to the summit, a pair of hikers and a dog had arrived. Well, at least we had the summit to ourselves for about 10 minutes. One of the hikers, who was from Grand Junction, snapped our image.
American Basin viewed from near the summit of Handies Peak
Father & son on the summit. That’s some sort of Aussie Shepherd in the background; it was his first fourteener summit.
Matterhorn and Wetterhorn, I believe, were visible to the north.
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn viewed from Handies Peak. Uncompahgre’s big square top (not pictured) was visible to the east of Matterhorn.
We enjoyed the summit for about 15 minutes, and then started to head down the trail. I took plenty of time to enjoy the plant life and take pictures on the way back.
Moss Campion (Silene acaulis ssp. subcaulescens)
Western Paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis)
Alpine Bistort (Bistorta bistortoides)
Frosty Ball (Cirsium scopulorum)
Subalpine Larkspur (Delphinium barbeyi)
Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea)
Rosy Paintbrush (Castilleja rhexifolia)
The Color Purple
The Kitchen Sink - purple, gold, blue, and white
There can be no doubt that Handies Peak is among the easiest fourteeners to summit. But the views from the top and the journey through American Basin also make it one of the most worthwhile.
 William M. Bueler, Roof of the Rockies, 3rd edition (Golden, Colorado: Colorado Mountain Club Press, 2000), 57.