The mountains around us were reverberating with noise. Echoing off the nearby peaks, the rumble growing as it rose from the valley beneath us, it sounded like thunder or the report of boulders avalanching over a cliff.
Yet, this early autumn day was bright blue, the sky above Colorado’s Cimarron Range punctuated with fat, puffy clouds. The sky was turning dark at the horizon as afternoon moisture began to build, but high atop Courthouse Mountain, it was a perfect day on top of the world. We were exposed, but 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 autumn. 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 OHV’s parked alongside the meadow. We’d also heard them shooting at targets. But, as I told my sons, when climbing a peak I’d rather hear gunfire than thunder.
Courthouse Mountain is an exposed escarpment of rock smack dab in some of the most gorgeous scenery in Colorado. A 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 forest. For the first .8 mile, it rises steadily. 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 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.”
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.
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