American Peak – 13,814, Jones Mountain – 13,867, Niagara Peak – 13,816′

(part 2 of 2)


Part 2 of 2

RT Length: 7.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 3800’

My drive to the trailhead took me through Silverton. I’d heard the fall colors weren’t supposed to peak here for another 2 weeks, but right now it looks beautiful.


I had conflicting directions on how to get to the Burns-Gulch trailhead, so I brought both with me. From Silverton I took County Road 2 past Eureka on a 2WD dirt road, and ate the dust from off road vehicles driving ahead of me the entire way.  For a Monday afternoon it sure was crowded: Leaf peeping season is definitely in full swing!


I made it to the base of the trailhead on the Animas River and my directions ended but I knew this wasn’t where the 4WD trail began. So I pulled up a GPX file of the route to see where I needed to be:  about 2 miles up a narrow shelf road.


The road was much narrower and steeper than it looks and filled with bowling ball sized rocks. I took it slow:  this road was more difficult than I’d anticipated (but nothing my truck couldn’t handle). I just hoped no one would drive towards me from the top:  There was no way I could turn this truck around on such a narrow road, and passing another vehicle wouldn’t be easy.

There was a campsite at the 4WD trailhead at 11,720’ and no other vehicle in sight. Sweet!  It looked like I was going to have the site all to myself for the night.

I got to work making dinner: Mountain House Beef Stroganoff.  When it was ready I poured myself a glass of wine in the measuring cup I brought for making dinner, sat back, and enjoyed the view.


Life is good! Sitting in the bed of my truck looking at the mountains was so relaxing.  As I was sitting there I heard a creek to my right and got up to investigate.  This was wonderful!  It was about 10 yards from where I’d parked my truck.  I enthusiastically washed my hands in the running water. They were gross from today’s adventure and it felt good to have clean hands and fingernails again.  I got up to turn around and head back when my left sandal broke.  I mean really broke, like duct tape can’t fix it broke.  Drat!  I was going to have to tiptoe the 10 yards back to my truck without wearing shoes.  The first step I took landed my left foot on a thistle.  Wonderful.  I made it back to my truck,  poured myself another glass of wine and spent the next half hour picking splinters out of my foot (mostly on the heel and arch).  I looked around at the mountains: Life was still good!


I got out my maps and route info for the next day and tried to identify the peaks around me and the best route to take (I had several options). I studied my chosen route until I felt it was time to get some sleep: it was starting to get cold.

I decided to sleep in the cab of my truck because I fit perfectly across the back seat and because I could. Two shots of whiskey later I was ready to go to sleep.  I laid my head on my pillow and a fly landed on my arm.  I thought about how much fun having a fly buzzing around me while I was trying to sleep would be and debated whether or not to open the door to let it out.  In the end I decided I’d rather not let all the warm air out in doing so, so I made a deal with the fly:  “Fred “(I named him Fred)”If you promise not to buzz around me all night I promise not to kill you right now”.  Fred flew away to relax on my steering wheel and I fell asleep thinking this wasn’t a bad way to spend my last day of being 37.

I woke up at 11:11pm. This isn’t unusual, as I normally only get 4-6 hours of sleep a night.  Obviously my body was ready to get up and start my day.  I however was not.  I took 3mg of melatonin, washed it down with another shot of whiskey, and spent 5 minutes star gazing before falling back to sleep.

My alarm woke me up at 5am. Why, oh why, oh why did I choose to sleep at a trailhead on my birthday?  I hate sleeping at trailheads!  I’m always cold and have a hard time getting going and all I really want to do is stay in my nice warm sleeping bag where it’s nice and warm.  Sleeping.

Why hadn’t I done the sensible thing and reserved a hotel in Ouray?

Ugh. I could smell myself.  Or was that my socks and shoes on the floor recovering from yesterday?  Both. Definitely both.  Well, the day wasn’t getting any younger.  I needed to be off, so I slowly started through my morning machinations, taking much longer to get ready than it would have taken me at home.  My coffee was cold.  My hands were cold.  It took me almost an hour but by 6am I was finally ready to go.

I decided to start by hiking to the Jones-American saddle, which I discovered isn’t a very popular route (most people start with the Jones/American saddle). The trail starts at the campsite and heads directly north up a hill, then east.  (Sorry, no pictures:  I did this in the dark and planned to get pictures on the way back, but there was an adventure that happened….)

I followed the road to a drainage and just headed up what was trying desperately and failing to be a waterfall.


From here I followed the drainage up a basin and to the right. Just continue sticking towards the bottom of the drainage and heading right.


I passed a very small pond (it’s been a dry year)


and navigated up the rest of the basin. There’s no established trail or cairns.  This looks like a great route to ski in the winter.  This is the route I took to the saddle


The base of the saddle is where I ran into trouble. I knew I had to gain the saddle, but neither of the options I saw looked better than the other.


I could have gone either left or right. I chose left.  I chose wrong.  As I got closer and closer to the saddle the ground became less and less stable and the path to the right looked more and more appealing and less steep.  The ground wasn’t like loose scree, but more like compact sand my shoes couldn’t grip.  It was slippery and I was dangerously close to sliding all the way back down the slope.  At this time I realized this must be a snow route:  perfect for skiing down or snowshoeing up.

I decided to aim for the rock wall area to the left, as it looked like it had more stable dirt around it. It didn’t. In fact, it was just as loose and slippery as the rest of the scree.  I made it to the rocks and my first thought was “Why don’t I have my helmet?  I need a helmet for this!!!” I had a helmet, it was just back at the trailhead in my truck because this was supposed to be a class 2 hike.  The rock I’d wanted to climb was more of a rock wall than a rock couch.  I’m talking straight up with hand and foot holds that crumble out from under you when you grab them.  But it felt safer than the dirt/scree area.  I was shaking, but I made it.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and I’m glad I did this route first instead of last (I’d of had to re-summit Jones again because there was no way I was going down that unless I was on skis).

Here’s a look at the route I took to the top of the saddle. I know it doesn’t look like it but this was the safest option since I hadn’t taken the route to the right.


OK, now that I’d gained the saddle I looked at my route to American Peak.


Oh yeah… it looked like I’d be hiking into the sun again today. I put on my sunglasses and had at it.  Here’s a clearer picture of the route from later in the day. Why does the peak I’m climbing always have to be the LAST peak on the ridge?


Most of this hike across the ridge was easy. It was a well traveled path with even a few cairns in places.  It became difficult at the base of the last bump before the summit.  For about 200 feet the rock became extremely loose and there was evidence of rockslides everywhere.  It was difficult to find good footing, and once again I longed for my helmet.  I’d read this was the easier ridge of the three I’d do today, but I disagree:  this West Ridge to American Peak was the most difficult ridge I did today, but only the last part of the ridge.  Here’s the final pitch to the summit


I summited at 8am

16 American Peak 13806

American Peak:

Here’s a look back on my route, and my next peak:  Jones Mountain A.


I reversed my steps (the ridge was easier on the way back down) and made my way to the Jones/American saddle. I turned and faced the ridge.  Here’s the route I took:


Believe it or not the initial climb up the ridge was more stable than the ridge on American Peak, it had some steps but still had scree.


About halfway up the terrain changed and I walked a class 2 ridge to the summit of Jones Mountain A


I summited at 9:15am

21 Jones Mountain A 13860

Jones Mountain A:

Here’s a look back at American Peak and what I consider the crux of that route


Now it was time to focus on Niagara Peak. The trail from here to the peak is well established.  I just followed the trail down Jones Mountain A and up the ridge of Niagara Peak.


And a look back at Jones from the saddle


On my way down from Jones I saw a man hiking with his two dogs. I was surprised to see him, as I hadn’t expected to see anyone out here today. He was nicely and appropriately dressed for hiking with both a GPS and Walkie Talkie on either strap of his backpack.  His dogs were leashed, well groomed and very well behaved.  We stopped and discussed the Niagara/Jones saddle and descent, to which he didn’t think his dogs could make the loop.  He would most likely head back the way he came.  We parted ways, him to continue up Jones, and me towards Niagara Peak.  He was the only hiker I saw all day.

Just after passing the hiker I was surrounded by a flock of birds. They kept following and avoiding me on the trail.  I considered it good luck and figured there were 38 of them…


I made it to the saddle of Jones/Niagara and looked at the ridge. There is a path but this is another class 2 ridge that has some steep sections and lots of scree.  If I haven’t already mentioned it, microspikes would be helpful on this route, even without snow.


Here’s a picture looking back on the ridge


I summited Niagara Peak at 10am. Oh, and guess what?  Niagara was my 38th 13er!  I summited my 38th 13er on my 38th birthday!  Very cool! BTW, 38 feels great!

27 Niagara Peak 13807

Niagara Peak:

What a beautiful day! I’d considered hitting unranked 13ers Crown Mountain and North Crown Mountain, but I wanted to make it back to celebrate my birthday with my kids (and my son’s birthday: he’s headed for Basic training on Monday and he’ll turn 18 during boot camp, so I’d like to celebrate early).  If I left now I could be home by 6pm, just as the kids were making it home as well.

So I turned and headed back to the Jones/Niagara saddle. This trail was much easier to navigate than the route I’d taken up.  This route had a trail for 90% of the way, and where there wasn’t a trail you could see where it connected further down.


This is the route I took down. It hugged the right (east) ridge.  This path took me back to my truck and the 4WD road that was obvious from the Jones/Niagara saddle.



Here’s a copy of my GPS tracks. The red circle is where I parked my truck overnight and began/ended my hike.  The tracks are a little off: I forgot to hit stop on my tracker because of the adventure below… but it might help others who want to know how to get to the upper trailhead


As I was descending back to the Burns Upper 4WD trailhead where I’d parked my truck I noticed the man I’d seen earlier and his dogs walking around, looking at my truck. Hmmmm…. That was odd, but maybe they were just taking a break and checking out my truck.  It is an awesome truck.  I kept an eye on them as I kept hiking.  Within half an hour I was back at my truck, and the man and his dogs were still there.  He asked me a bit sheepishly if he and his dogs could hitch a ride down to the lower trailhead:  his dogs were tired and their feet were sore.

Of course they could ride down with me!

He was happy and let me know he’d hiked up with his wife but she’d turned back much earlier in the hike and he’d continued on with the dogs. She was waiting for them at the lower trailhead by the river crossing.

Immediately my estimation of him as a person grew: I love it when a man who’s married lets me know early on in conversation he has a wife.  It sets the tone in a positive way, and I respect a man who wants other women to know he’s married.

I cleaned up my truck (it had stuff from the past few days strewn all over since I’d also used it as a tent) and apologized for the smell (both from my dirty clothes and, well, me). He was happy to have a ride down and put the dogs in the back of the truck.  They indeed looked tired.

I navigated the 4WD road as slowly as I could, cognizant of the fact I had two dogs in the back. I usually take these roads at a quick speed, but right now I was gingerly maneuvering around the rocks and unfortunately not avoiding them all.  We hit a few big bumps, and my passenger kept looking back to make sure the dogs were ok.

The 2 miles took us about 20 minutes, and we talked about our jobs, my kids (I can talk about them all day), vehicles, and his life as a Doctor and his wife being a Veterinarian. They were staying in Ouray for vacation and are 14er/13er/hiking enthusiasts.

He also mentioned this was the first time his dogs had ever been in the back of a truck. I tried to take it a little slower, knowing the road was rough.  About halfway down the road we ran into a Jeep heading up.  It took some careful maneuvering, but we were able to pass each other on the narrow road.  I was pretty proud of my driving skills, and thankful the other driver was willing to work together so we could both pass each other.

When we made it back to the bottom of the road I decided to navigate around the river instead of driving across it because of the dogs in the back. We pulled up next to his vehicle, where his wife was waiting. I jumped out of the truck, opened the tailgate, and… no dogs!  What?  Where were they?!?!?

When I announced the dogs weren’t there the woman had a shocked look on her face, and I felt as shocked as she looked. After some quick discussion we came to the conclusion the last time we’d seen the dogs in the back of the truck was around the time we’d passed the Jeep (that was the last time we’d checked).  Well, there was no way we were going to have two lost pups on my watch.  I knew their car couldn’t make it up the road, and I was determined to find those dogs (once they were in my truck I felt responsible for them), so I offered to drive the couple back up the road to look.

I drove very quickly this time, driving across the river and up the side of the mountain at a swift speed, concerned time was against us. Also, without the dogs in the back I didn’t have to be gentle.  It wasn’t lost on me how I’d thought this road was difficult the first time I’d driven it, but now I wasn’t quite so worried about the road:  I was worried about finding those dogs.

One of the dogs was white and it’s currently fall so I figured it would be easy to spot in all the brown grass.

We ended up finding them about halfway up the road, just before where we’d passed the Jeep. They were sitting side by side in the shade under a tree, panting with happy smiles on their faces.  Luckily the hike had exhausted them and they hadn’t felt like running.  They were also well trained dogs.

This time we put the dogs in the cab of the truck for the ride down. I was able to make a 9 point turn on the shelf road and headed back down to the lower trailhead.  It was a good ending to the hike.

I was in a bit of a hurry now to get home. As soon as I hit cell service my cell phone blew up with tons of messages and important things I needed to address.  I had the whole 7 hour drive home to think about everything and make phone calls.  As I exited Silverton Fred landed on my hand and then quickly flew away.  Wow, he’d stuck with me that entire time!

After making it back home at 7pm and taking a quick shower I decided to take the kids out for Ice Cream to celebrate our birthdays. Emily jumped into the front passenger seat of the truck and closed the door behind her.  Two seconds later I heard her hit the window with the bottom of the measuring up I’d used last night for my wine.  Emily looked at me and said:  “There was a fly on the window, but he’s dead now”.

Author: Laura M Clark

Laura has summited over 500 peaks above 13,000' solo, including being the first woman to solo summit all of the Colorado 14ers, as well as the centennials. After each hike, she writes trip reports for each one and publishes them on her blog, which is read by fans all over the world. Author of Wild Wanderer: Summiting Colorado’s 200 Highest Peaks, which is available to purchase on Amazon.

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