Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Totally Above Treeline: Horsethief Pack Trail in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

Sheep—not horses—graze at the Horsethief Pack Trail trailhead.
In the distance, 14,309' Uncompahgre Peak dominates the skyline.
Read about our previous summit of Uncompahgre here.
         Sometimes the perfect day aligns with the perfect trail.  On the final Thursday of August in Lake City, Colorado the sky was sparkling blue, the temperature was a comfortable 72 degrees, and I was in the mood for a hike with big rewards and not too much effort. Tim had a place in mind.  
           "How about that trail near the top of Engineer Pass?" he said.  And I agreed.      

            Horsethief Pack Trail starts at an elevation of 12,400' and over the course of a few miles the trail gains and loses little more than a couple hundred feet of elevation.  A bit of exertion is required due to decreased oxygen levels at that altitude, but the real effort is getting to the trailhead.  The 16 mile dirt road leading from Lake City to Engineer Pass is rough; 4-wheel drive is needed for the final 6 miles and the going is slow—it takes over an hour to drive those 16 miles.

           But after arriving at the top of the world the arduous drive is forgotten.   The trail starts with 360° views of the surrounding mountains and keeps getting better.
           As Tim, Annie and I walked along, pikas and marmots serenaded us with their chattering and chirping calls.   Most likely they were scolding Annie but she didn't seem to notice.  Annie did notice, though, a group of camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigan nestled in a rocky chute.  She flushed the birds but thankfully didn't chase them.
        The Ptarmigan scurried away to bed down in a nearby rock-strewn meadow, and Tim and I were treated to as fine a view as we've ever had of these alpine and tundra game birds.
         We hiked for a few miles, then stopped for lunch near a hillside rock cairn.   This would be our turn-around point, but the trail continues above treeline for several more miles.

         The perfect totally-above-treeline trail on the perfect day?  You decide.

The trail's beginning immediately affords views of several of the San Juan
Mountain's 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks.

Annie loves nothing more than a cool high-alpine hike.

Tiny American Lake (center of photo) is a side destination on this hike.

Tim and Annie find the right spot for a  refreshing alfresco lunch.

Marmots surveyed and scolded us from the fields and rocky ledges.

A cute little pika watches us pass by.

One of the group of White-tailed Ptarmigan, showing off its summer plumage.
During winter the ptarmigan turn white, and are camouflaged by snow.

This photo shows the White-tailed Ptarmigan expertly camouflaged by the rocks.
Can you find the Ptarmigan?
Click on the photo to enlarge.  The black arrow (top left) points to the head of the bird.


  1. Rita, I’ll begin by commenting on the statement in this posting where you ask your readers to decide about the perfect nature of this hike. It didn’t take me long to decide that this was indeed a perfect totally-above-treeline hike on a perfect-weather day. Actually, you had me convinced with the first photo. What an incredibly stunning view!! Your adventure was undoubtedly well worth the journey on the rough roads to get to the trailhead.

    Further regarding travel on rough roads to get to trailheads, I can relate to this experience having just returned from exploring some mountaintops in far northern Maine which involved several miles of travel on rough roads requiring 4-wheel drive/high ground-clearance.

    Thanks for sharing your awesome adventure via this thoroughly enjoyable posting!


    1. You're right, John, that this adventure was worth the journey!
      I know about Maine's rough roads; I recall a long ago trip to Baxter State Park and the travel was slow-going over unimproved dirt roads.
      I look forward to reading about your Maine hiking adventures on 1happyhiker.blogspot.com !
      Thanks for your comments!