The Dragon's Back


Jan 17, 2012
Saturday & Sunday, July 25-26, 2015

The Dragon's Back at sunset with Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak on the horizon.

This weekend Diane and I went on an overnight backpacking trip into the Uncompahgre Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains to explore and photograph the area around Unnamed Peak 12968, which is unofficially known as the Dragon's Back. I have wanted to visit this area for a few years and had planned to finally get there sometime this summer, so I've been waiting for the right weather forecast on a weekend when I was also free. With the wet and stormy weather we've been having around here lately, this proved to be a challenge. Finally, we had some drier air move into the area and this weekend looked like it would be mostly storm free and might still have good conditions for photography. It turned out to be a great weekend for this trip and I couldn't have asked for a better sunset on Saturday evening!

We left home bright and early on Saturday morning and drove down to the San Juan's through Ouray. Once out of town we followed the Uncompahgre River and Mineral Creek up to Engineer Pass (12,800) between Engineer Mountain (13,218) and Darley Mountain.

We descended a few switchbacks and a couple hundred feet on the other side of the pass and parked near the beginning of the Horsethief Trail. This trailhead is located at about 12,400 feet in elevation and during our entire trip we would never drop below 12,200 feet. This would be our first time camping above treeline which is why a good weather forecast was important to us.

After backpacking to the base of the Dragon's Back and setting up our camp near a tarn in the basin, we hiked back up to the ridge and followed it to Wildhorse Peak. Ever since I first saw the unique profile of Wildhorse Peak (13,266) many years ago, I knew I wanted to climb it eventually. Since we were so close to it on this trip, I figured that it would be a great time to reach the summit.

When we reached the bottom of Wildhorse Peak we scared up a few ptarmigan hiding in the rocks. Seriously, they always blend in so well with the rocks that we never see them until we almost step on them. The one thing that was unique about this ptarmigan encounter is that we saw two babies run away, too. I've never seen any that young before, but they were too quick for me to get a photo of. Luckily, this one stopped on the snow for a minute.

Unfortunately, Diane wasn't feeling well at this point and she decided not to climb to the top of Wildhorse Peak with me. She found a place to rest while I followed the steep ridge to the top. Here's a view of the summit from the ridge.

Looking back down the jagged ridge over American Flats and American Lake.

On the summit of Wildhorse Peak looking south.

Looking north from the summit over Wildhorse Creek with a view all the way to the Grand Mesa.

When I reached Diane at the bottom again I just had to take a photo of her legs covered with flies. Ever since we had setup camp, we noticed there were a ton of these little flies everywhere. They covered our tent and anything else we set down for more than a few seconds. They would even cover us as soon as we stopped moving. Thankfully, they didn't bite or anything, they were just annoying. We had to be extra quick when getting in or out of our tent to make sure they didn't get inside to annoy us in there, too.

Diane hikes across the alpine tundra in the upper reaches of Cow Creek back to camp.

Arriving back to the Dragon's Back as we hiked though the low pass into the basin.

Nice clouds moved into the area as the evening wore on- a great sign for the sunset to come. The peak in the background is Blackwall Mountain (13,073).

After an afternoon nap and dinner, I climbed up to the top of Unnamed Peak 12808 near camp to photograph the evening light on the surrounding Uncompahgre Wilderness. Here is a panoramic image of my view as the evening shadows crept into the basins and storm clouds moved into the sky in the distance. Click on this image for a bigger view.

Dark skies to the east looking over North Henson Creek all the way to San Luis Peak (14,014) which is barely visible in the dark sky.

Looking south over American Lake to Gravel Mountain (13,577) and Seigal Mountain (13,274) surrounding Hurricane Basin.

Warm evening light on the bright green alpine tundra below. Wildhorse Creek flows through the shadows at the top.

More clouds moved in from the south over nearby Unnamed Peak 12,913.

Just a few of the wildflowers that were on the summit.

Hazy layers looking north to the Grand Mesa.

Beautiful storm light over the alpine landscape with Redcloud and Sunshine Peaks just barely visible at the top.

A sunset panorama with the Dragon's Back front and center.

Beautiful warm light on the Dragon's Back with Uncompahgre Peak (14,309) in the background.

There was a great view of Wetterhorn Peak (14,015) from up here, too. I'm hoping to finally climb that one sometime next month...

The amazing sunset just wouldn't stop! One of the best I've seen this summer so far!

Just look at that sky!

Even after the sun was down, the alpenglow just wouldn't quit. On my way back down to camp I stopped in this field of flowers for anther shot in the soft twilight. There was no wind this evening and the temperature was very comfortable. I didn't need to wear my down jacket and gloves for a change.

One last long exposure at dusk with our tent in the lower left corner. A great place to spend the night!

After a night of sleep at 12,500 feet, we woke up on Sunday morning to overcast skies. I guess we used up all the great light the night before? The wind picked up a little and the temperature had cooled off a bit, too. Blackwall Mountain is in the background.

Since it looked like it could start raining or snowing soon, we quickly got our camp packed up and started hiking back to my Jeep at the trailhead. Snow falling over Darley Mountain (13,260) as we hiked back towards Engineer Pass.

A snow squall in front of Gravel Mountain. We would hike through a few of these short snowstorms on the way back to the trailhead.

Back to the intersection of the Ridge Stock Driveway and the Horsethief Trail. I should mention that the trails up here aren't very well-defined and are non-existent in some places. You need to keep an eye out for large cairns with wooden posts to try and keep on track.

Diane poses in front of Darley Mountain along the trail as the sun makes a brief appearance.

>> The Dragon's Back Photo Gallery
>> The Original Trip report on ADVENTR.CO

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Mar 16, 2015
You really get the best light conditions, don't you? Love that patchwork tundra and snow in the late sunlight shot.

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Jan 4, 2014
Oh for freaking awesome Randy!!! I'm so jealous of the quality of your pictures and of your exploring of that area. My brief passing through of CO back in June has got me so amped to see that country. Thanks for sharing.


Aug 18, 2014
Soooooo awesome! Your pics are seriously impressive.

I'm heading to Silverton towards the end of Aug for a weekend with friends to check out the town / area / etc. Any advice on decent day hikes around Silverton?


Jan 17, 2012
I'm heading to Silverton towards the end of Aug for a weekend with friends to check out the town / area / etc. Any advice on decent day hikes around Silverton?

Here's a few options

Ice Lakes Basin
Highland Mary Lakes
Continental Divide Trail from Stony Pass
Handies Peak if you want to get on top of a 14er

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