Cow Benchmark OverviewCow Benchmark is the high point of the Amphitheater mountains located directly south east of Ouray. At 13111 feet, Cow Benchmark towers a vertical mile above the town of Ouray. Several routes may exist with varying difficulty however you should be able to attain the summit with nothing more than than class 2 or low class 3.
The are several route options to access Cow Benchmark. The Bridge of Heaven route form Horsethief trail is about 15 - 16 miles with over 5000 feet of elevation gain. This trail offers outstanding alpine scenery but not much water. The advantage is that much of the hiking is on a good trail until you are above timberline and by then access is obvious. Accessing Cow Benchmark from the Bear Creek trail requires less elevation gain and mileage (4500 ft and 11 or 12 miles ) however much of this is off trail bushwhacking. Water is plentiful on this route. The trail to Chief Ouray mine looks like it could lead into the drainage below Cascade Pass and offer a steep direct route from Ouray route.
The Ouray Trails group link under external links has a map of the trail network in the area.
Getting ThereHorsethief trail is the starting point. The trail starts 3.5 miles from highway 550. From Ouray drive north and take CR14 towards the Bachelor / Syracuse mine tour. Don't turn back south towards the tour instead stay moving east. (Left will take you towards the Mount Baldy trail head) There is a potentially difficult creek crossing depending on the runoff. The road does require high clearance 4WD to reach the Horsethief trail head. High Clearance 2WD can park before the creek crossing. This will add about 2 miles RT to the hike.
Bear Creek trail is about 3 miles south of Ouray on 550. It is signed with a big pullout.
Red TapeAccess is seasonal and the road requires a 4WD to reach the Horsethief trail head. Bear creek can be accessed year around but the area is highly avalanche prone
CampingDeveloped camp sites exist at Ridgway State Park and several private camp sites in and around Ouray. There is a forest service campground in the Ouray Amphitheater. There are undeveloped camp sites in the area.
External LinksOuray Trails description of Horsethief trail
NWS weather forecast in the area around 10000 feet.
Ridgway state park
Route OptionsBridge of Heaven route: Obtain the Bridge of Heaven using Horsethief trail (4.2 miles 3100 ft one way). From the Bridge of Heaven you will need to loose 600 feet and then regain the elevation as you head toward Cascade Pass. Follow this trail around the back of the mountain towards Wildhorse pass and approach the peak from the backside. Total trip mileage will be around 15 to 16 miles and 5500 feet of elevation gain. Dexter Creek to Difficulty Creek trails are another option to get near the base of Cow Benchmark, however this route is longer (possibly shorter if you do not have 4WD and cannot cross the creek to get to Horsethief trailhead).
There used to be a trail (Old Horsethief) to access Bridge of Heaven directly form Ouray. I heard this was closed off due to access being blocked from a private mining claim.
Bear Creek route: Follow bear creek trail past the first mine, then over a creek crossing where there is a nice waterfall just up the creek (this is a real waterfall, there are several smaller waterfalls early on the trail) There is also the remains of a cabin near this waterfall. After this waterfall you will come into a meadow flanked by aspens on the side and as of 2008 some downed aspens due to an avalanche. Climb up the grassy slopes of this meadow and once basically on the hill, walk across the side through several smaller drainages (potentially dry) basically following the creek you just crossed but well above the creek (not bear creek). Eventually this creek will turn to easterly , this is the bottom Cow benchmark. You can cross the creek and gain some elevation but don't, you want to follow the creek up the drainage to another drainage that leads north into grassy slopes. If you gain elevation on the slopes of Cow you will need to loose it as it cliffs out before this drainage. Follow this new drainage up the grassy slopes. The grassy slopes of Cow will be back to the west, and it will not really look like the same mountain. Once high in the tundra, start to head towards Cow on some faint trails that should exist. Don't gain the ridge to early, as you may need to descend to avoid a couple obstacles. Aim to gain the ridge at the grassy area before Cow (which is about 12,900).