Trip Reports: Cow Creek Bushwhack, San Juans, Colorado - July 2008

During the last three days, I bushwhacked through the Cow Creek valley, a rugged and remote mountain valley in the Uncompahgre Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains east of Ridgway. My original plan was to hike through the valley and continue up to the high alpine zone, where I would hike a high loop route around to Wetterhorn Basin and then take a trail back to my truck. However this plan was thwarted by geography – the Cow Creek valley is absolutely impassible six miles up, forcing me to turn around and bushwhack all the way back out the way I came.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, photo

Cow Creek

This photo shows a sample of the kind of terrain and bushwhacking I was dealing with the entire time. There are many obstacles along the river which forced me to constantly hike up and down through thick bush and forest and along steep, loose, rocky slopes. Over the three days, I spent 23 hours of tough hiking to cover a mere 12 miles round trip, for an average of about 0.5 miles/hour! I can think of a few words to describe this bushwhack; it was brutal, tedious, frustrating, demoralizing, maddening, hellish, unrewarding, exhausting, etc.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, Stinging Nettle, photo

Stinging Nettle

This is an evil plant. The leaves are covered with toxic needles, which I realized when I walked straight through a huge patch of them. My skin welted up, and though I tried my best to rinse my legs off in the river, they stung and itched all night long.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, sunset, July, Uncompahgre Wilderness, photo

Deep in Cow Creek

Sunset along Cow Creek, deep in the Uncompahgre Wilderness

Here’s a somewhat generic sunset photo from the first night, along Cow Creek in the junction where Wetterhorn Creek and Wildhorse Creek meet Cow Creek. It’s an impressive place with vertical cliffs reminiscent of being in Ouray except much tighter and more confined. Unfortunately, this is not a great place to camp because, as with the entire Cow Creek valley, the ground is completely rocky. I was lucky to find one single spot flat enough to sleep on.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, photo

Hoodoos in Cow Creek

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, photo

Cow Creek dead end ahead

At this point is when my spirits really began to sink. This is six miles up Cow Creek when it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a dead end.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, waterfall, photo

Waterfall at the head of Cow Creek

Since probably nobody in their right mind ever goes up here or sees this waterfall, I’ll claim the right to name it – I’ll call it Dead End Waterfall. Seriously, I wonder how many people have laid eyes on this large and impressive waterfall… probably just a handful.

This photo would be so awesome if a person was standing on that slope right in front of the falls, to show the huge scale. However, shots like that are difficult when you’re hiking solo, for obvious reasons.

Colorado, Cow Creek, San Juan Mountains, July, photo

Interesting volcanic hoodoos along Cow Creek

Not yet completely defeated, I had a shred of hope that I could hike up and around the Dead End Waterfall. And I so very much did not want to repeat the bushwhack down out of Cow Creek that I was willing to try anything else. I hiked about 1,500 feet or so up a steep gully filled with precariously loose scree. I searched every possible exit route until finally realizing that there was truly no possible way through. I even considered the potential of climbing up and over the summit of 13,000-foot Blackwall Mountain, but that too was impossible due to sheer cliffs. I had no choice but to repeat the dreaded bushwhack all the way back out Cow Creek.

Demoralized, but at least satisfied by the knowledge that I had no other option, I headed back down to start the arduous return. The photo above is looking back down Cow Creek from my high vantage point on the slopes of Blackwall Mountain. Across the valley are the incredibly intricate spires of eroded volcanic sediment that form the impenetrable western slopes of the Wetterhorn massif.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed the challenge, that I savored the difficulty and am a better man for exploring this wild and untamed valley. But the truth is that this trip was simply awful and I hated just about every moment of it. In retrospect I feel like I spent three days thrashing around in the bushes like a deranged beast. I think I’ll stick to the trails and the tundra for my next few trips, like a civilized human being.