Handies Peak
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
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    Distance: 6.0 miles
         (plus 4.5 miles by car)

    Walking time:  4 3/4 hours

    : 2,450 ft gain, 3,630 ft loss
       American Basin Trailhead (start): 11,600 ft.
       Handies Peak: 14,048 ft.
       Grizzly Gulch Trailhead: 10,420 ft.

    Trail: Well maintained and easy to follow

    Season: Midsummer through mid-Fall. The upper parts of the trail are generally covered with snow from early November through mid-July.

    Vicinity: Near Lake City

    Handies PeakHandies Peak


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    There are two commonly used trails to the summit of Handies Peak: one goes up through American Basin on the west side of the mountain, and the other approaches the peak from the east through Grizzly Gulch. Of these two alternatives the trail through American Basin is the most popular, simply because it is shorter. It is only 2.1 miles from the American Basin Trailhead to the summit, and the elevation gain is only 2,450 feet. The round trip hike from American Basin to the summit of Handies Peak can easily be done in 4 or 5 hours.

    But in my opinion Grizzly Gulch is one of the most striking glacial valleys in the San Juans, and it would be a shame to miss it. I suggest you climb Handies from the American Basin Trailhead but make your descent down the Grizzly Gulch Trail to experience the joy of a downhill stroll through an incredibly beautiful alpine valley.

    To do this one-way hike you should ideally have an extra car to leave at the exit trailhead, but there are several alternatives: One: since the distance between trailheads is only 4.5 miles it is quite feasible to do the shuttle with a mountain bike. Two: Since the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead is located on the popular Alpine Loop Road there is a lot of jeep traffic, and it isnít too difficult to hitch a ride as far as the turnoff to American Basin. From there it is only a 0.9 mile walk up the American Basin Road to the beginning trailhead. Three: If you are unable to get a ride it is a 4.5-mile road walk from the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead back to the American Basin Trailhead.

    A well trodden path follows the bottom of the drainage from the trailhead up into the beautiful American Basin. The trail bears south for 0.8 mile and then turns east toward a ridge on the south side of the peak. After climbing 500 feet up the side of the ridge you will pass the north side of Sloan Lake, an alpine tarn with dramatic volcanic cliffs rising above its south side. Sloan Lake is especially pretty if you are fortunate enough to be there on a windless morning when the nearby cliffs are reflected off the smooth, shaded surface of the water.

    From the lake the trail continues climbing for another 500 feet to the crest of the ridge and then turns north for the final 650 feet of elevation gain to the summit. When you reach the ridge you will see the real beauty of Handies unfold below. Handies Peak is surrounded by three gorgeous alpine basins: American Basin, Grizzly Gulch, and Boulder Gulch. When you reach the crest of the ridge you will be able to look southeast into Boulder Gulch, and as you near the summit you will see Grizzly Gulch below the northeast side of the peak. Unlike American Basin, there has been no obvious mining activity in either of the two eastern basins, and both still retain their primal, untouched attraction. Boulder Gulch doesnít even have a trail going into it.

    Upon reaching the summit of Handies Peak the trail continues north along the ridge between American Basin and Grizzly Gulch loosing altitude at an alarming rate. It reaches the 13,000-foot-level about 0.9 mile later and then turns southeast for the descent down into Grizzly Gulch. At this point, if you are like me, you will probably feel some excitement as the pristine valley below beckons you to enter and explore.

    The glaciers that formed Grizzly Gulch carved the bottom of the valley into two distinct tiers. From the ridge the trail drops steeply to the first plateau and then levels out for the next quarter-mile. It then heads down again and, after loosing another 200 feet of elevation, levels out onto the second plateau. The trail stays on this tier for the next 1.3 miles, descending gradually down the tundra towards the trees below.

    Look up to the right as you walk and you will see a hanging lake on the east side of the valley. This lake, located on a shelf 300 feet above the floor of Grizzly Gulch, is the headwaters of Grizzly Gulch Creek. A spur trail to the lake leaves the main trail near the point where the trail meets the creek.

    At the edge of timberline, about 11,700 feet, the trail becomes much steeper as it passes from the alpine tundra into a forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. From there it is a pleasant walk down the north side of Grizzly Gulch Creek to the trailhead.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of Handies Peak
    we recommend:
    Silverton, Ouray, Telluride, Lake City (Trails Illustrated, map #141)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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