Encompassing 637 summits above 13,000 feet, 53 of them fourteeners, Colorado is the highest state in America.
The summit of Handies Peak, ranked 40th at 14,048 feet, is the high-point of the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. While only elite athletes compete in the Hardrock, most hikers are capable of summiting this gentle behemoth.
There are three standard trailheads that approach Handies from disparate locations. Typically, the peak is climbed from American Basin east of Cinnamon Pass. From here, the hike is only 5½ miles roundtrip with 2,500 feet of vertical. Handies was an ideal first fourteener for my 8-year-old boy who set a blistering pace from this trailhead.
Our hike features a 5-mile segment of the Hardrock 100 course from trailhead to summit. It begins in Grouse Gulch outside of Silverton just shy of the ghost town of Animas Forks. This approach is 10 miles roundtrip with 4,650 feet of climbing. While more strenuous than the standard route, overall effort seems reasonable on an excellent trail. Plus, it takes about the same amount of time to begin the trek at Grouse Gulch as it does to drive over Cinnamon Pass, which requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Solitude is likely on the extended tundra walk in Grouse Gulch but, upon merging onto the popular peak trail emanating from American Basin, company is plentiful. From the parking pullout at 10,700 feet, walk north up the road and cross the bridge over the Animas River. At 0.1 mile, leave the road and go right/southeast onto the trail, initially following an abandoned mining road. The fierce and noble prominence dominating the view south is Niagara Peak, elevation 13,807 feet, ranked No. 101 in Colorado.
The track makes long switchbacks up the south flank of Cinnamon Mountain, crosses its drainage at 0.9 mile, and then relaxes as it moves toward the center of Grouse Gulch. The trail modulates with the land, rising in an alternating series of moderately steep and gentle gradations. The treadway passes by the toe of a rock glacier always remaining north of the watercourse. Cairns accompany the trail through the tundra. Countless multitudes of plants hold the very ground down while harmonizing in polychromatic splendor.
Pass a small, bright green lake at 1.9 miles, 12,500 feet. Walk briskly and, in just more than an hour, you will surmount the 13,000 foot divide between Grouse Gulch and American Basin at 2.4 miles. Moderate hikers will gain it in 1½ hours after polishing off 2,320 feet, half the total vertical. Bulky, uncomplicated Handies Peak dominates from here.
The unofficial trail east of the pass was anybody’s guess a few years ago, but now it is clearly established. It makes a trajectory southeast. Cross a seemingly dry streambed with water burbling under stone.
Bottom out at 12,400 feet, a 620-foot drop from the pass that must be re-climbed on the return. Join the standard trail in American Basin at 3.3 miles. Mid-summer, American Basin is famous for sensational wildflowers. A short spur trail to Sloan Lake branches right at 3.9 miles. This is a worthy detour. Perhaps the most interesting section of trail is the next quarter mile as the rocky path winds through small cliffs. The treadway soon returns to a comfortable surface, gradually undulating through tundra to gain Handies’ south ridge at 13,500 feet. The view east is heart gripping, and it only gets better.
The final approach to the summit is inexplicably smooth for a big bruiser. Just meander up the slalom squiggles.
Crest the broadly rounded summit crown in just over 5 miles.
Many of Colorado’s fourteeners are so difficult and even dangerous to achieve. Descent anxiety wreaks havoc on top time. Handies is an exception, which is one reason I have abiding affection for this mountaintop. The bastion is roomy enough for all comers, so settle in on jutting sitting rocks and process the wild heights. Handies is the epicenter of big-boned mountains rippling off in concentric circles.
Rotating counterclockwise, very close by in the northeast are the lock-step, softly rounded fourteeners, Redcloud Peak and Sunshine Peak. Massive flat-topped Uncompahgre Peak and dramatic Wetterhorn Peak are due north. Mount Sneffels Wilderness is northwest. Southwest is the scoop-faced geometric Grenadier Range. Rio Grande Pyramid with its window to the west is located in the south. Perhaps most riveting of all is the closest neighbor, American Peak, rising above Sloan Lake with its scalloped summit ridge and multiple glistening north-facing couloirs.
The Hardrock 100 course descends on the north summit ridge and drops into the glorious upper basin of Grizzly Gulch. The beautiful trail, perfect for Hardrock’s fleet-footed wonders, drops four miles to the trailhead located on the Alpine Loop between Cinnamon Pass and Lake City. To avoid a monster shuttle, our hike is a simple out-and-back.
Returning, at 6½ miles, a large cairn indicates where our slim pathway diverges from the American Basin trail which continues down-valley. Don’t miss this crucial left turn onto the in-coming track which then makes a rising traverse to the pass.
Upon cresting the pass, the trail divides. The right track dead-ends at a mine. Veer left, following cairns. When the soil is dry, the trail down the upper west side is like stepping inside a cat litter box. The pitch eases and the way descends gradually through the alpine basin punctuated with boulders strewn about.
This route is above timberline and exposed to lightning from start to finish. If there are storms in the area, postpone your hike. During the monsoons, it is wise to get an early start so you are well off the peak and over the pass by noon.
http://debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com. Debra Van Winegarden is an explorer and freelance writer who lives in Durango.