Cow Creek Bushwhack

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.

Cow Creek, Colorado
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, etc.

Below are some more photos from this fruitless exploration.

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.

Cow Creek, Colorado
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.

Cow Creek, Colorado
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.

Cow Creek waterfall
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.

Cow Creek Geology
[+] 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.

17 thoughts on “Cow Creek Bushwhack

  1. Wow, what a great report, thanks Jack, and I like the photos (ever find out what that plant was?). Just imagine how hard it must have been to cross this wilderness for the first people.. wow..

  2. Thanks Paul – Yes I agree those early miners and settlers must have been a hearty breed. Quite different than nowadays when we go out backpacking for sport and leisure.

  3. Jack,
    For what its worth, true exploration is itself, part of the best adventure of our lives. Seeing what is over that next unexplored ridge always has appeal, even if the result is brutally tough.

    I enjoyed your story much! Thanks for sharing a part of Colorado that I might not have ever seen before. Cheers!

  4. Dude, glad it was you and not me. 😉 I’ve thought about doing that exact route. Your report had me laughing aloud, only because I’ve been in similar situations – but never 3 days worth! That IS one impressive waterfall, though.

  5. The plant pictured appears to from mint family ( square stem)it appears the natural defense mechanism worked on you. Stinging nettles are a long term reminder to stay away from the plant and the community it established. You explored the biological world also on this trip and should be the wiser because of it. Exploring got us to the moon after all. The process of exploring is the fun.

  6. Hi David – My gear wasn’t too bad on this trip – I just brought a little dSLR and small Gitzo tripod, and the usual camping gear, including a 2 lb. TarpTent.

  7. Welcome back, feral photographer. Imagine how boring the world would be if you weren’t out there pushing the envelope and showing us stuff that we would otherwise never know about?! Your geology and dead end falls shots are fascinating. Future adventures will be a piece of cake after “the mother of all bushwacks!” Congrats on making it to the dead end!

  8. Oh man, I wish I had known you were headed up there. I’ve heard from others that have tried that hike. That was after I contemplated hiking down the canon during one of my trips in the area. Now I feel even better about bailing on the thought. But yeah, congrats on making it as far as you did. Seriously impressive. No matter the end result, walking where few have tread is something to remember.

    I’ve driven up the road in that canyon. Very nice in the fall, by the way.

  9. it was 35 years ago – reading you notes it seems like yesterday….the most appalling miserable time of my life – while on a Colorado Outward Bound course with instructor Don Peterson, we treked the very same path in pouring rain that never let up. After several days we met the end of Cow Creek where things seemed doomed. Our intrepid instructor however knew no such thing as defeat. We actually DID make it out and into the alpine beyond = Peterson free climbed up a crack in the rock face on the left side. Our 50lbs (average) packs were tied and pulled up by rope. And then one by one we free climbed up the crack and out of that hellish canyon. I think of that trip often – and the people with me – wet, tired, discouraged. I often wonder where they are all today, and if it made them “different” as well…..I know I’ll never forget….

  10. What I suggest doing is going through wildhorse creek and go around to wildhorse peak where you can easily get to the source of cow creek. It is a pretty cool walk and time consuming but well worth it.

    1. I love the water fall.. I do believe the plant is a Stinging Nettle.. it is part of the mint family and has some herbal use.. Though it stings like a bugger.. lol

  11. Fer and Jack,

    wanting to do what you accomplished. Was woundering about the crack you climbed. Did Perterson solo the crack or did he use some protection on the way up? How long of rope did you use? How would you rate the climb, 5.??. Also, thinking of going in late August when the creek is running low and wading up the creek in some of the hard sections. That worked for us during the first two miles up Cow Creek but we did not go any further. Jack awesome photos you have a real talent and determination!

  12. Hey Jack:

    I am heading to Durango in August ’12 to pick up my son Casey and climb Uncomphagre. I am fascinated by the lives of the various bands of Utes that lived in this area. Casey and i were planning to do some fly fishing and I was wondering if Cow Creek and it’s tributaries hold any cutthroats, etc. Great adventure you had.

    John Farrell aka: jjtwister

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