Backpack to Dragon's Back via Horsethief Trail

Details

Distance

16 miles

Elevation Gain

3520 ft

Route Type

Point-to-Point

Added by Jonathon Reed

Climb to the awe-inspiring vista at Bridge of Heaven, explore the alpine tundra of American Flats, wake up for sunrise at the rugged and isolated lake beneath Dragon's Back. Let the mountains have you.

The Uncompahgre Wilderness stretches out through the mountains and forests of southwestern Colorado, with worn trails lingering beside abandoned 19th-century mines and crossing old alpine sheep pastures. Dragon's Back is the unofficial name for Point 12,968', a small but beautiful summit at the base of Wildhorse Peak. 

Horsethief Trailhead is located 20 minutes north of Ouray on a gravel road labelled Highway 14. To reach Horsethief, you'll need a vehicle that is high-clearance enough to cross a wide, rock-filled creek and narrow enough to drive tight switchbacks. If you've got a more conventional vehicle, you'll need to park at Dexter Creek Trailhead just before the road crosses the creek, and hike up to Horsethief Trailhead from there.

The trail winds along switchbacks beneath spruce trees and aspens until it reaches a ridge above Bridalveil Creek overlooking Ouray. From there it climbs to Bridge of Heaven at 13,000' and then crosses several creek beds before descending to the valley of Difficulty Creek. Crossing the creek and re-ascending to American Flats is a long, steady uphill trek, but you will be rewarded with the beautiful rolling tundra of Wildhorse Peak. 

To get to Dragon's Back you’ll need to turn north off the trail at the crossroads of Bear Creek Trail and Horsethief Trail. East of Wildhorse Peak is a deep valley; walk along its edge to the rocky ridge on the other side. The terrain is unchallenging; although it is steep on the side of the ridge, it's lined with sheep trails. On your topographic map you'll see a small unnamed lake north of American Lake. That's your destination.

From there it's a simple hike back to the trail crossroads and back down to Ouray via the spectacular cliff-hugging Bear Creek Trail. As far as I know you'll have to arrange a shuttle or hitchhike to get back to your car.

When I hiked the trail, I camped at Horsethief Trailhead, near the top of the valley of Difficulty Creek and at the base of Dragon's Back. The day between Horsethief and Difficulty Creek was challenging but doable. I would recommend the Horsethief to Bear Creek route rather than vice versa because the trail from Bear Creek Trailhead is steep and all uphill, whereas from Horsethief Trailhead the trail varies more in elevation. 

An important thing to keep in mind in the late summer and fall is where you'll get water. Despite creeks being marked on the topographic map, there was no water available between Dexter Creek and Difficulty Creek when I hiked it in early September. After that, there was more plentiful water at Wildhorse Creek, American Lake, Dragon's Back and Bear Creek. Nevertheless, plan and drink accordingly so that you don't run into trouble.

Be prepared for quick changes in weather and cold nights. I had fierce wind and below-freezing temperatures at night in early September.

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difficulty creek camping

Thanks for the info about this route! You said you camped near the top of the valley of Difficulty Creek---did you drop down below treeline, or did you camp above treeline? If there are decent campsite options below treeline there, I'll likely do this trip soon!

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