Cow Benchmark is another Class 2 summit located west of and above the Ouray Amphitheater and accessed from Engineer Pass. Engineer Pass can be accessed from either Silverton or Lake City. From Silverton, 4WD with good clearance is requited. From Lake City, 4WD is highly advised. The route crosses the American Flats area and then follows two ridge systems. It's a fairly long hike on mostly tundra terrain. We have sequenced this summit with Darley Mtn. and UN 13,132.
There are two main access routes for the summits located around Engineer Pass and American Flats; one from Lake City, the other from Silverton.
These directions begin from Lake City. From Gunnison, go west on SH50 to the intersection near the beginning of Blue Mesa Reservoir with SH149 and turn south. From Montrose, drive east on SH50 to the east end of Blue Mesa Reservoir for the same turnoff on SH149. Drive west and south on 149 to Lake City, just over 45 miles from the previous intersection. Once in Lake City, watch for either 3rd or 2nd street. Turning west on either will take you to Bluff St. in two blocks and a left turn (south). 2nd St. is considered the "official" access to CR20 which heads west following Henson Creek, but if you take 3rd St., it passes by a nice city park with restroom and picnic tables for those who need a break before proceeding further.
Once on CR20, drive 9.1 miles west to Capitol City on a graded, gravel road passable to passenger vehicles. On the Gunnison National Forest map, this road is labelled as BLM3303. At 5.2 miles into this drive, you'll pass the Nellie Creek Road (FR877) which accesses Uncompahgre Peak and several 13ers located in that area. At Capitol City take the left fork which is the "Alpine Loop Road" that will lead over Engineer Pass, but you won't be driving quite that far. This is the continuation of BLM3303. On Google Earth, this is still CR20. Continue driving west past the "Rose Cabin" on the old USGS map. (Note: About 1500 feet east of the Rose Cabin is a solar powered vault toilet on the south side of the road, frequently used by visitors to this area.) From that vault toilet pullout, it's about another 3.6 miles west (appx.) to our suggested parking spot and trailhead for American Flats, which is nothing more than a pullout at the coordinates provided. The main goal is to locate the start of the trial that heads north across American Flats and park off the road enough to avoid blocking the frequent 4WD, ATV and ORV traffic. If you come to a beautiful log cabin perched on an overlook of the valley with a foot bridge leading over the creek to the cabin, then you still have another 1.75 miles. The parking is above treeline.
From Silverton: From the Town of Silverton, drive east on the main road through town to where the paved road splits one block past the courthouse and veer right onto the blue-signed County Road 2 (set odometer here) for 4.2 miles of nicely graded dirt road to Howardsville. (On Trails Illustrated map #141, this road is labeled #110. Pavement ends after 2 miles. This road is also known as "The Alpine Loop Road and BLM 4500.) From the Howardsville intersection, continue north another 4.3 miles to the old site of Eureka. The road will cross to the west side of the Animas River and continue up a steeper shelf section. The road begins to get a little more difficult and enters a more narrow section of the Animas River canyon. At about 10,740 ft., the valley begins to widen out again. In that location, another road heads off to the left for Picayne Gulch. It is possible to reach UN 13,075 and Hanson Peak by going up this way, but the lower section of this road is intensely steep, so only for lower gear ratio 4WD vehicles. For the American Flats TH, stay on CR2 and follow directions & road signs to Engineer Pass. This will REQUIRE 4WD. The 4WD track circles the west side of Engineer Mountain, crosses the pass and then begins its descent toward the upper reaches of Henson Creek. When you reach the summit of Engineer Pass, the proposed trailhead is only about 1,600 feet east of the pass.
There are several primitive sites to choose from all along CR20 when coming from Lake City, all the way up to our proposed trailhead, however, there are no National Forest campgrounds. At Capitol City, there is some limited camping there, but there's also private cabins & property so exercise some discretion and this area can be very popular on weekends. At the vault toilet near Rose Cabin, if you drive a short distance on a road there past the toilet, there's room for a couple vehicles. Just after Rose Cabin, where the main road veers right, there's a CR20X that stays down closer to the creek. There are several good primitive sites in there, but again, be aware of private claims. The only "facility" in all this area is the vault toilet at the coordinates provided below.
If coming from Silverton: There are no official Forest Service campgrounds in the upper Animas River valley and summer weekends can see a swarm of campers in this overall area. Something of an "RV" village tends to build up at a large flat area along the river opposite the Maggie Gulch turnoff and then at the ghost town of Eureka, there's a number of campsites east of the river. The best campsites we have found are along the spur road that leads to the trailhead for the South Fork of the Animas, aka: The"Boulder Gulch" trailhead. The road that heads into there has several primitive sites. One could also just camp at the switchback for the trailhead to Bonita. This location is open with no trees for shelter. None of these locations have facilities of any kind. Lastly, we spotted some reasonable sites in Picayne Gulch. If you turn off the main Alpine Loop Road where the Picayne Gulch Road first comes in a couple miles south of Animas Forks and drive up the CR9, there will be a branch road that heads off and climbs a ridge with trees on the south side of the gulch. Eventually that road rejoins the main Picayne Gulch Road at a switchback at 11,800 ft. We noticed some campsites along this spur road in the trees before it rejoins the main road.
To reach this first summit, begin by hiking north on the old roadbed/trail that heads out across American Flats, on the east side of Darley Mtn. After about a third of a mile, turn off this trail to the left, mount a small rise to another bench area and then begin hiking uphill to the NW up a moderate slope of tundra and some rock to a saddle at 13,000 ft., south of the Darley summit. Then, walk north along the ridge. As you near the rocky, pointed summit, pass to the left under the rocky little summit area on a use-trail and then scramble up to the summit from just north of it. It required just under an hour to do this at a sauntering pace. From this summit, we had an outstanding view of Engineer Pass area and the surrounding peaks including the dramatic Wildhorse Peak to the north. Either return as you came or continue north for UN 13,132.
UN 13,132 is sequenced with Darley Mountain (UN 13,260 C) and Cow Benchmark. One-way mileage and elevation gain are measured from the summit of Darley Mtn. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
Drop back off the summit of Darley to the north and contour through some scree on the west side of the peak and intersect the north ridge a little farther on. After a bit of descending along the ridge, drop down some scree on the east side of the ridge about 400 feet to a more level area that you can use to contour north. Cross a broad slope at 12,640 ft and then turn west to gain the ridge leading to the summit of UN13,132. As we headed up from a saddle, we passed through some unusual rocks formations. First there was a pinkish colored type rock and then a greenish colored rock. We had no idea what they were other than they appeared to be igneous or pyroclastic.
The ascent to this second summit is a little rockier as you follow something of a path that leads upward. It took us a little under an hour to make the hike from Darley to UN 13,132. There is a good view looking down into the upper reaches of the Bear Creek drainage to the west. Cow BM is the third peak in this sequence and is difficult to identify from this location on the summit of UN 13,132. It is over three miles away and even though most of the traverse is on tundra, it will still take a considerable amount of time to hike to it. It is a more isolated peak that sits above the amphitheater above Ouray. Cow BM lies along a somewhat complicated series of ridges from your present location on UN 13,132. Only attempt to continue if the weather is holding well and you have made an early start.
Cow Benchmark is sequenced with Darley Mountain and UN 13,132. One-way mileage and elevation gain is measured from the summit of UN 13,132. Round-trip mileage and elevation gain assume completion of the sequence.
To get to Cow Benchmark from UN 13,132, walk back down the same ESE ridge of UN 13,132, turn north and cross to a very broad, grassy saddle just below 12,600 ft. From the saddle, walk north along another broad ridge that gradually narrows to a long, rocky stretch that gradually heads westward. Near the western end of this ridge, but before reaching Pt. 12,835, contour below a higher section of the ridge north to another saddle just below 12,600 ft. again. From this saddle, gain about 200 feet to another ridge that heads NW with easy walking. When you come to a rocky, cliff section in about 2/3rds mile, (Pt. 12,976) bypass on the east side by contouring below the cliffs. For a while, we contoured below the ridge crest to avoid some other rocky outcrops. (By the time we reached this point clouds were swirling all around us, obscuring our summit and views of the valleys far below. As we paused on one section of the ridge to see what we could of what may lie ahead, about 50 yards in front of us, the clouds broke for just a minute and we could see at another saddle, three bull elk with their magnificent racks trying to discern our position. Then the clouds moved just a little more and a fourth elk appeared just briefly. After about a minute of us staring at each other, the clouds closed in and they disappeared. We continued over to their saddle and searched the slopes below us to the west, but never saw them again. We also add that on our trip over to this summit, we saw a couple groups of ptarmigan. )
Continued on to the summit and negotiate the last few hundred feet on steep tundra with deeply imbedded rocks. The view into the Ouray Amphitheater below to the west and of the town of Ouray, a good vertical mile below, is a spectacular view and made us feel as though we were hovering right over the town. By the time you reach this summit, you'll probably want some lunch, so enjoy the view and relax if weather permits. For the return trip, basically go back as you came. If weather deteriorates, as it did for us with clouds obscuring our view, be very careful to keep track of where you are lest you end up going the wrong way amid all the vast tundra terrain. The main goal is to get back to the broad tundra saddle NE of UN 13,132. From there, drop down to the east to pick up the American Flats Trail and complete the tundra trudge back to your vehicle. When we did this hike, weather moved in and it rained on us all the way back across the flats. There is no place to escape the weather up here.