My work brings me from Colorado Springs to the western slope of Colorado with relative frequency. I decided this summer and fall that I would try to work late in my hotel a few nights to allow myself to take part or all of a day off to summit one of the great San Juan peaks in southwestern Colorado. After reviewing the Falcon Guide “Hiking Colorado’s Uncompahgre Wilderness”, I picked Redcliff.
Redcliff stands at 13,642 feet and is about two miles northwest of Wetterhorn Peak. It shares a saddle with it’s next door neighbor, Coxcomb Peak, which is slightly taller at 13,656 feet and is located just to the south of Redcliff. I ruled out Coxcomb Peak because it requires a technical climb to summit. I picked Redcliff because it is non-technical and is accessible from the Owl Creek Pass Road near Ridgway, Colorado.
I left early from my hotel in Ouray, Colorado at about 5:15am on July 23, 2005 and drove north on US Highway 550 for fifteen minutes through Ridgway, Colorado. Just north of Ridgway I took a right on Owl Creek Pass
Road. It was a long drive to up to Owl Creek Pass with great views of Chimney Rock. Once at the pass I proceeded down to the signed right turn to head up into the Wetterhorn Basin. Two large bulk elk running in front of my jeep kept things interesting. I proceeded to the end of the road past the 2-wheel drive trailhead to the 4-wheel drive trailhead. I got my pack organized and started up the trail at about 6:30am.
I started from the trailhead with great views of the head of the basin with Precipice Peak, Redcliff and Coxcomb Peak all on the left. In about a half mile I passed the Uncompahgre Wilderness boundary and was the first of the day to sign the register. The first mile and a half or so from the trailhead was a relative easy grade as I headed up into the head of Wetterhorn Basin. After about a mile and a half I said goodbye to the Wetterhorn Basin trail and picked what looked like the best route up to the saddle on the left between Redcliff and Coxcomb Peak.
From here on out the entire route was off-trail and much steeper. After scrambling up the slopes for quite some time some waterfalls came into view cascading off of a cliff band above. I skirted these falls on fairly steep slopes off to the left. This area was full of barking pikas, chirping birds, a few squeeking marmots and even a ptarmigan. There are also great views of Courthouse Mountain from this area. Once above the falls I took a straight line route to the saddle. The closer I got to the saddle the steeper the slope was with less grass and more rock. Near the saddle the slope eventually became rather loose talus rock. The last 200 vertical feet to the saddle was the most difficult of the entire route. Once to the top of the saddle I looked back down the slopes and was surprised at how steep it appeared.
Once on the saddle the route became relatively easy for a bit on the grassy slopes between Redcliff and Coxcomb Peak. This was where Wetterhorn Peak, the Matterhorn and Uncompahgre Peak first came into view. From this vantage point, Coxcomb Peak is also quite an impressive sight. I headed towards the Redcliff south slopes and started to pick my way up the boulders for the last 500 feet to the summit. Once on the summit the views were amazing. The San Juans seem to go on forever to the south from Redcliff. Wetterhorn Peak, Coxcomb Peak, Wetterhorn Pass, Precipice Peak and Courthouse Mountain are all impressive from here as well. Unfortunately the views of Uncompahgre Peak to the east, Grand Mesa to the north and the La Sal Mountains in Utah to the west had to much haze and/or glare to make a good picture but they will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life.
After about a half hour of solitude on the summit I signed the summit register. I was only the fifth person to summit in 2005. After signing I headed down to get back to an afternoon meeting. I had a minor fall on the descent and scraped myself up pretty good but it was all cosmetic – no permanent damage. Once back on the trail I saw the beautiful view of Precipice Peak from the Wetterhorn Basin trail.
I made it back to my jeep around 11:30am for a round trip time of about 5 hours which included about 30 minutes on the summit. I estimated it was about 6.5 or 7 miles roundtrip with over 2,800 feet of elevation gain/loss. This made for a great day hike and a fine introduction to the great San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.