Summit County hiking: Ute Peak, Williams Fork Range
SILVERTHORNE — Ute Peak, we meet again.
That was my thought Monday afternoon when I left my cabin in Heeney at about 4:30 p.m. to hike the trail toward Ute Peak. With a summit at 12,303 feet, Ute is not one of the bigger, badder mountains here in Summit County. It doesn’t possess the kind of impressive ridgeline of Mount Powell across the Blue River Valley, poking up prominently in the Gore Range.
I attempted to hike Ute Peak in November 2017 when I first moved to Heeney. As a recent transplant to Colorado, I thought it might be possible to hike a remote mountain trail at the start of winter.
I lost the trail just about a mile into the hike when the snow-covered trail dissolved into untracked snow at the bottom of a heavily wooded drainage leading up to the Williams Fork Mountains ridgeline.
On Monday, I began the hike knowing that if I was able to make it to tree line in reasonable time, I’d likely be on the summit between storms.
The first storm hit quick and heavy during the first mile of the hike. About 10 minutes after I saw a wall of dark precipitation hanging over the valley, the hail came. But I felt safe enough below tree line to continue on and gauge conditions farther up.
The first 2.5 miles of the trail from Ute Pass to Ute Peak begins with some moderate elevation gain before dipping down to the northeast of the peak, on the Grand County side.
Round-trip distance: 11.4 miles
Net elevation gain: 2,723 feet
Summit elevation: 12,303 feet
Trailhead elevation: 9,580 feet
Time out: Plan 6 to 7 hours
With no snow on the ground, I had no trouble staying on the muddy trail, though there were dozens of spots of heavy blowdown, with fallen trees I had to hike up and over. It’s through this portion of the trail where you see carvings in trees in the shape of a lowercase “i.” The trail markers lead the way to the Ute Peak ridgeline and are intermittently scattered throughout the forest beside the weathered path.
At the junction with the trail that leads south up to Ute Peak, you’re at 9,800 feet. To put that in perspective, that’s just a few hundred feet higher than the trailhead location on Ute Pass Road. This, of course, means most of the climb to the summit is in front of you.
At about 10,800 feet, as I neared tree line, pockets of snow began to cover the ever-steeper trail in shady spots. Checking my watch, the time reading 6:30 p.m., I knew I had about 2 1/2 more hours of solid sunlight before I’d have to pivot to headlamp.
Tree line came about a half hour later, at 11,500 feet. Despite being out of the shade of the forest, I soon found there was much more terrain covered in snow than I expected. I did my best to hike around the snow patches, some as big as football fields, though I had to trudge through a few of them. It took an exhausting 25 minutes, but once I hiked above the snow fields, it was quite the sight.
At about 7:30 p.m., with the sun setting over the Gore Range, I hiked through the immaculate Alpine meadows along Ute Peak’s long, flat summit ridge. The 360-degree views were remarkable, a true Rocky Mountain moment. Continuing along the ridge, snow clung to the cliffs leading down into Grand County off Ute Peak’s eastern slope while, mere feet away, it was full-on summer meadow hiking on the western slope and ridge.
At about 7:40 p.m., with another storm coming in over the Gore Range to the west, I turned around with fewer than 100 feet left to the summit.
Retracing my steps around the snow fields was a bit tricky, but despite the darkness, rain and blowdown, the headlamp-lit hike back to Ute Pass Road wasn’t tough to follow.
I didn’t fully conquer the mountain I see out my kitchen window each day. With that, Ute Peak, we’ll meet again.
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