Handies Peak

Trip Report & Route Guide

Danielle Steffens | Dani's Drive
By Danielle Steffens

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    The Plan

    On Saturday, Harley (my rabbit) and I drove up to Montrose and got settled in our August home. Sunday I launched into my first adventure—Handies Peak! 

    Now, if you’ve ever been up Cinnamon Pass, you know it’s spicy (see what I did there). The road gets tougher the closer you get to the American Basin trailhead. I knew my car would not make it up the last few miles of that road but I desperately wanted to see what all the wildflower fuss is about. 

    So I came up with a plan! Handies has two routes that start reasonably close to one another. Why not hike Handies Peak as a loop?! Loop hikes are my favorite anyways. It’s new views the whole way! For me, it was well worth the extra mileage to get double the adventure.

    The Adventure

    East Slopes Accent via Grizzly Gulch

    I “wake up” (Does anyone actually sleep their first night in a new place? If so, I’d love to know your secret.) at 2:15 am and am out the door by 3 am. The streets of Montrose are eerily empty, a stark contrast from Denver.

    This is my 34th 14er but only the second one I’ve set off for solo. And I have to admit, I’m feeling nervous about the shelf road. I don’t like being on the edge of a cliff. Some friends could tell you a good story involving me, a shelf road, and a bottle of Peppermint Schnapps (I hope I don’t have to tell you this, but just to be crystal clear—I wasn’t the driver). Anyways, I know my car could make it to the Grizzly Gulch trailhead because I’d previously been up there in a Honda Civic and if a Civic can do it, so can my Impreza! I blast some worship music to calm the nerves and sure enough, made it just fine! Thank you Hillsong.

    Arriving at the trailhead a little before 6 am, the air quickly warms up as the sun rises over the mountains. I start the steep ascent through the woods up a trail of stairs only to realize I forgot my trekking poles in the car and I ran back to grab them.

    Take 2.

    With all my gear now in tow, I climb the steps again and the sound of the river flowing fades in and out as I enter a clearing and get the first glimpse of the summit looming in the distance. Remnants of an avalanche litter both sides of the trail.

    Stepping across a muddy creek, I listen as the river sounds pick back up along with the ascent.

    Returning to the woods, I take a deep breath of the fresh Christmas tree smell and admire the soft pitter-patter of my footsteps on the dried pine needles padding the trail.

    Handies Peak | A Morning Bluebell | Danielle Steffens Photography
    Sun peaking through the trees

    The trail continues in this fashion for the first two miles. Weaving it’s way closer to the river then further away again. A glance backwards puts Sunshine and Redcloud (two 14ers I climbed a couple years ago) on display, still silhouetted under the early morning sun. 

    After two miles, the trees give way to an expansive view of the valley below Handies Peak. In the valley, I’m treated to plentiful patches of yellow wildflowers standing tall in the morning sun. 

    Handies Peak | Dani's Drive
    Not a selfie among the wildflowers

    The creeks get wider and I cross with caution because the small, low rocks are wobbly and I’m wearing my trail running shoes which aren’t waterproof.

    At 2.5 miles, the elevation gain picks up again as the hike out of the valley starts. The wildflowers are really starting to show off now and I question whether I’ll ever make it to the summit as each new patch begs me to take their picture.

    Handies Peak | Dani's Drive
    Pink flowers (scientific name) making an appearance

    After a short climb, the valley flattens out again and I hear something I haven’t heard in a while: silence. I pause to soak it in. 

    No water rushing. 

    No wind blowing. 

    No city sounds. 

    Just quiet. 

    The peace is regretfully broken by a marmot upset by my loitering and I take the cue to continue hiking. 

    I enjoy this last flat section because I see the remainder of the hike and it looks to be the steepest yet (and it was). 

    After switchbacks full of loose rock (definitely worth the run back to the car for the trekking poles), there’s a nice, relatively flat stroll over to the summit.

    Looking back on the "flat stroll"

    I don’t want to spoil all the views, but here’s proof that I made it and my favorite shot from the top.

    Handies Peak | Dani's Drive

    If you don’t take a picture with a summit sign, did you even summit? Download the summit signs here.​

    Handies Peak | Dani's Drive
    Basic. But that view though!
    Handies Peak | The San Juans | Danielle Steffens Photography
    Do you know what those pyramid shaped peaks in the center are? If so, please drop a comment and tell me!

    The weather on the summit is beautiful so I take my time snapping some pictures and enjoyed a snack. There are also lots of friendly people up here today! Seems like everyone is excited to be in a “crowd”, even if socially distanced.

    Southwest Slopes Descent via American Basin

    The hike down the American Basin side starts off really steep and loose. Again I’m thankful I went pack for my trekking poles and can use those to put on the brakes. 

    There are way more people on this side of the mountain. Coming up Grizzly Gulch I saw a whole three people. On the American Basin side, I quickly passed over twenty.

    The trail levels out into some more mellow switchbacks which I find rather enjoyable. Next, I cross a mostly flat (with the exception of one short steep uphill section) rock field. The rock field ends at Sloan Lake which is a 0.2 mile RT detour. 

    Handies Peak | Sloan Lake | Danielle Steffens Photography
    Sloan Lake (not pictured: dog with non-stop high-pitched bark)

    I highly recommend the detour. So worth it! I relax for a bit, doing my best to ignore the barking dogs, and soak my feet for a couple minutes (free ice bath to rejuvenate those puppies!). Standing up, I’m aware the rock I was sitting on is wet and now so is my butt. Hot.

    I definitely couldn't feel my feet, but they felt so good after!

    After the lake, I join back up with the main trail and make my way down to the famed American Basin. Spoiler alert—the rumors are true. The wildflowers are everywhere! I meander my way down to the trailhead, admiring the waterfalls throughout the lush valley, and taking far too many flower pictures. Kidding, you can never take too many flower pictures. 

    I didn't edit this. Colorado is just a natural beauty. Look at all that green!
    Handies Peak | Wildflowers | Danielle Steffens Photography
    My favorite flowers of the day
    Handies Peak | The Perfect Columbine | Danielle Steffens Photography
    The perfect Columbine

    Connecting the Trailheads via the 4WD road

    From the trailhead, I take the 4WD road back down to the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead. This portion is about 4.5 miles. I start out on CO-12 (American Basin Road) and when I hit the juncture with CO-30, I go right (the downhill way, obvi). As an on-and-off trail runner, this road is very joggable and I shave off some time by running the flat and downhill portions. Soaking in the majestic view of Sunshine & Redcloud on the way, I’m back at the Grizzly Gulch trailhead before I know it!

    This hike was exactly what my soul needed. Quiet, beautiful, slow paced adventure. Does your soul need it to?

    The Stats

    Stats (per Strava, check out the full stats here):

    • Distance: 12.72 mi
    • Elevation Gain: 3,413 ft
    • Total time: 6 hr 37 min
    • Moving time: 5 hr 9 min
    • Average speed: 2.5 mi/h (only because of said jogging.)

    Gear Recommendations

    Trekking poles recommended? Yes.

    Shoe verdict: Trail runners were the way to go since I ran much of the 4WD road. If you’re not a runner, I recommend wearing hiking boots for the extra ankle support or at least something waterproof so you don’t have to be as tedious as I was on the creek crossings.

    Planning to hike a 14er soon? Check out my packing list and download the summit signs!

    Curious to see what other adventures I’m getting into during my 5 weeks living in Montrose, CO? Check it out here!

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      Did you hike Handies Peak loop style?
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