Climb High and Touch the Sky: Hiking Courthouse Mountain in Colorado’s Cimarron Range

The mountains around us were reverberating with noise. Echoing off the neighboring peaks, the sound multiplying as it rose from the valley beneath us, it sounded like thunder or the report of stone avalanching over a cliff.

Yet, this early September day was bright blue, the sky above Colorado’s Cimarron Range punctuated with puffy clouds. The sky was turning gray at the horizon as afternoon moisture began to build, but high atop Courthouse Mountain, it was a perfect day on top of the world. While we were exposed, we weren’t in any danger from lightning. We weren’t hearing thunder, but rather the opening of elk season.

Ordinarily, I think twice about hiking in remote areas during the Fall. Hunting is a cultural fixture in Western Colorado and while most hunters are very conscientious and safe, I always have some fear of encountering the exception. But this was Labor Day weekend, bow season (no bullets allowed) and we were on an established, well-used trail.

When we arrived at the trail head, part way up Owl Creek Pass on the Cimarron side, we’d seen the hunters’ camp: Horses staked out, RV’s and four-wheelers parked alongside the meadow. We’d also heard them target shooting. But, as I told my sons and their friends, when climbing a peak I’d much rather hear gunfire than thunder.

Courthouse Mountain is an exposed escarpment of rock smack dab in some of the most beautiful scenery in Colorado. A relatively short trail, only 1.8 miles one way, it rises nearly 2,000 feet, along an often steep and sometimes nearly vertical trail. But the payoff is huge, with Mount Sneffles in the Western foreground, endless views of the San Juans to the South and the impossibly jagged Cimarrons to the East.

The Courthouse Mountain trail starts at 10,300 feet in dark fir and pine forest. For the first .8 mile, it rises steadily through the forest. At 11,000 feet the trail flattens briefly in a small clearing. At this point, hikers can either enter the Uncompahgre Wilderness and hike 9.3 miles back to Owl Creek Pass Road or they continue for one more mile to the top of Courthouse Mountain.

Choos­ing the shorter trail to the top, doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean you’ve picked the easy route, but as the trail rises through aspen and open mead­ows thick with the season’s last wild­flow­ers, the views become stun­ning. Around every switch­back lies a unique vista of rock and sky.

While the trail to this point is def­i­nitely uphill, tree line is where the adven­ture starts. After pass­ing through a band of steep con­glom­er­ate, the trail leads across a talus slope and then up through an alpine meadow (if a 50 degree slope can be called a meadow). While I could try to describe what the trail is like at this point, I think our pho­tos show it best.

After reach­ing the sum­mit at 12,152 feet, we rested for a bit and took in the view. Golden man­tle ground squir­rels skit­tered and chat­tered at our feet, hop­ing for a dropped nut or maybe a bite of apple. Head­ing down, we met a hunt­ing party of two bowhunters and their llamas.

When we asked them if they expected to find any elk in the Wilder­ness Area, they laughed. “We see them, but we rarely get them,” one explained. “Still, he said, “there’s noth­ing like get­ting up close, within just a few feet of an elk and won­der­ing if this is the time when it won’t star­tle, and I’ll actu­ally get a shot off.”

Each to his own, I say. For some, joy involves get­ting close to an elk, pit­ting human wiles against ani­mal wits. For me, I’d rather climb high and touch the sky.

When You Go…

The Cour­t­house Moun­tain Trail is found below the sum­mit of Owl Creek Pass on the West Fork road. From Sil­ver Jack Reser­voir go south and bear right at the inter­sec­tions for the East Fork and then the Mid­dle Fork (the sig­nage is good). The trail head will be on your right as you pass through a large clear­ing with many prim­i­tive camp­sites. An entrance point to the Uncom­pah­gre Wilder­ness, the trail­head is well marked, and has a sign-in box.

Camp­ing abounds in the Sil­ver Jack area. We were there on a hol­i­day week­end, with per­fect weather, and still had all the pri­vacy we could imag­ine in an estab­lished camp­ground. Camp­ing in the camp­grounds is $12.00 per night and is first-come/first-served. There are no hook-ups for RVs, just water spig­ots and vault toi­lets. If you are in search of a prim­i­tive camp­site sim­ply look for an estab­lished fire ring and other evi­dence of prior use.

Enjoy!

~The Brave Ski Mom

© 2011, The Brave Ski Mom. All rights reserved. Republication, in part or entirety, requires a link back to this original post and Summit Sojourner.

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