Want to roam among blooming columbines and alpine peaks of the Rocky Mountains? Rushing streams, waterfalls, bouldered alpine tundra, two glacial ponds and a 14,000-foot summit make this a tremendous experience for lifelong mountain travelers to first time alpine hikers.
Traveling though an open book history of geology and mining in the San Juan Mountains, through ghost towns Eureka and Howardsville, at first glance Grouse Gulch just seems like a steep trail up a grassy slope.
But it’s a passage into another world with dream like views from a shrouded talus basin. To the west Eureka and Treasure Mountains rise from a sea of others, while the trail continues east to an ice blue-teal body of water at the bottom of 13,000′ Grouse – American Pass. And as it climbs steeply above, you might cross snow fields, even at the height of summer.
Once on the pass, just shy of two and a half miles, you’ll get your first real look at Handies Peak, 14,048′, part of the Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area. At 16,000 acres, it’s the highest area of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management outside of Alaska – a setting for glacial rock formations, alpine lakes, conifer, aspen, alpine grasses, elk, deer, bear, small mammals, bighorn sheep, and the occasional mountain goat.
This could be a sufficient point of return, but should you continue the rewards only grow. Dropping 500 feet into American Basin, icy creeks ripple and hoary marmots wobble. Thirteen thousand foot walls stand around you as you pass Sloan Lake, rumored for trout, a sight you may not get until you gain ground and visibility on the daunting but accessible trail to Handies. Once at the intersection of American Basin Trail, accessed by The Alpine Loop from Lake City, you begin your 1,500′ ascent.
Depending on your interests, from feather weight trail running to heavy weight backpacking, overall, it’s rugged foot travel. Talus and loose rocks abound, and uneven trail surfaces, ice and snow are likely to be encountered, however, closing in on the summit, it’s a smooth, calf burning pump.
And the views are awe-inspiring.
From 14,048′, five miles in, you can see the roof of the San Juans. A 13,542-foot Whitecross Mountain stands to the north above Grizzly Gulch; Redcloud, 14,034 feet, and Sunshine, 14,001 feet, to the east, as countless other mountain peaks form the skyline of the Rocky Mountains, high above the world in Colorado.