Getting on the unbeaten path
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." - John Muir
With the popularity of western Colorado’s diverse, scenic landscape, a casual observer might assume that the myriad ways to stay and play here have been thoroughly vetted. That, however, would be incorrect. There are beautiful and unusual backcountry territories in west-central Colorado that fly under the radar for travelers seeking a unique experience on the lesser-traveled, unbeaten path.
One such territory is the Uncompahgre Plateau, a geologic uplift west of Montrose that rises from surrounding river valleys. While not sporting any dramatic, craggy peaks, “the plateau” is a tapestry of remote landscapes and scenic vistas that entice travelers with a menu of recreational interests as varied as the place itself.
A convenient pathway to the plateau’s treasures begins right in the heart of Montrose. Heading west on Main Street, which shifts into Colorado Highway 90, this route zigzags across rural farmland on Spring Creek Mesa for several miles before transitioning to gravel and becoming County Road 90. This is where the steady ascent into the Uncompahgre’s natural wonders begins.
The gradual change in elevation leading to the plateau’s crest allows countless varieties of topographical exposures to intermingle, playing host to a rich mosaic of niches that support shrubs, plants, and trees not usually found in close proximity. There are few places on the planet where you can stand on a sage-covered canyon floor, within view of a stand of Douglas-fir, along the base of a northfacing cliff, while the wind blows through Ponderosa pines along a high ridge, with aspens on the nearby slopes quaking in the breeze.
Let’s explore the plateau as we traverse four of its primary plant belts and sample a few options on the “recreational menu” along the way.
Numerous primitive routes, suitable for off-road vehicles, bicycles, and hiking boots weave through a pygmy forest known as the Pinyon-Juniper Belt, the first plant community we encounter along the lower reaches of the plateau. This is classic desert canyon country where a forest of pinyon pine and Utah juniper trees usually grows no taller than 30 feet. Sage flats, sprinkled with wildflowers in the spring, provide breaks in the forest and add a pleasant, invigorating fragrance to the air, especially following a rain shower.
This belt soon gives way to thickets of mountain shrubs known as serviceberry, mountain mahogany, and chokecherry just before the road drops to cross Dry Creek and enters the next major plant community.
A scaled down version of the stately oaks common to other parts of the country, Gambel oaks line the road for the next several miles, growing in profusion in thickets alongside Ponderosa pine over much of the plateau and prompting this section’s name: the Pine-Oak Belt.
As the road approaches the rim of Dry Creek, the aptly named Rim Road intersects from the north. The parking area next to this intersection is a popular staging area for off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders and also gets its share of hikers and mountain bikers primed to experience trails and a plethora of old two-track roads.
The road takes a short break from its relentless climb as it drops into Dry Creek, a small waterway that supports an enormous assortment of water-loving trees and shrubs. During spring and summer it’s a birder’s paradise worth a brief stop to “glass” the surrounding terrain for a spotted towhee, warbling vireo, or chickadee.
Gambel oak-covered hills and verdant green meadows frequented by mule deer provide the scenic backdrop for the next few miles. In the early summer the terrain is decorated with wildflowers with flashy yellow mule’s ear taking center stage. In the fall the oaks mellow to a patchwork of earthy rich shades of yellow, orange, and red framing distant views of the West Elk Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains to the south.
The third major plant community, the Aspen-Fir Belt, comes into view just before crossing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) boundary. Here, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, aspens intermix with spruce and fir to create a beautiful medley of colors and textures that grace the plateau’s highlands. The display is enhanced in the fall when the aspen’s yellow and orange leaves appear in brilliant contrast to the dark greens of the spruce and fir. There are many good fall color viewing areas on the plateau — the best being found along Divide Road.
Mountain bikers and motorcyclists will want to take special note of the jumping-off point for Buck Trail, located on the north side of the road immediately after crossing the cattle guard at the USFS boundary. Popular with mountain bikers and motorcyclists, this 10-mile intermediate trail follows a mix of narrow singletrack and old roads winding through a mix of aspen, fir, Ponderosa pine, and open meadows. A high point at the end of the trail, known underwhelmingly as “The Knob,” is a favorite viewing spot where distant vistas encompass a breathtaking swath of western Colorado.
County Road 90 intersects with the Divide Road about three miles ahead, signaling our arrival at the turnoff to States Draw and the staging area for several trails on the south. Equestrians, motorcyclists, hikers, and mountain bikers flock here to unwind on trails like Aspen, Red Canyon, and Hornet. Aspen Trail, as one might guess, lends itself to stunning fall color displays, the late afternoon sun illuminating the trail with a golden hue while a steady stream of leaves rains down — a truly life-affirming experience.
The plateau, with its labyrinth of designated roads and trails and abundant elbow room, is a prime venue for camping. Iron Springs, one of the plateau’s designated Forest Service camping areas, appears on the south less than a mile farther down the road. It’s small and primitive with only eight camp sites and a vault toilet, but a suitable option for extending your stay on the plateau and enjoying a night under a sparkling blanket of stars. Dispersed camping options abound on the plateau; just be sure to follow the rules that apply to the area and respect our treasured public lands by leaving UNCOMPAHGRE your campsite as it was when you arrived.
We reach the apex of our route, right at 10,000 feet, just a few miles up the road. At the plateau’s highest elevations on the north-facing slopes, the fourth plant community prevails. In the Fir-Spruce Belt, Engelmann Spruce, and subalpine fir are the principal tree species, known as the “dark timber.”
The plateau’s higher elevations double both as a summertime retreat and a winter wonderland. Its mild slopes and plentiful snowfall are an ideal combination for snowmobiling along groomed and ungroomed trails. Cross-country skiing is an option too, particularly from the Dave Wood Winter Recreation Area on the southeast side of the plateau.
Choosing a route back to civilization
From here, your return to civilization can take numerous paths, each with their own particular flavor and appeal. One option is to continue along Divide Road to 25 Mesa Road and trek along the Rimrocker Trail for an even greater diversity of terrain that includes redrock canyons and desert landscapes. Sure to become an iconic off-road route, the Rimrocker Trail spans an incredible 160 miles from Montrose to Moab, Utah. For shorter, less distant options, loop back to Montrose on the Delta-Nucla, Transfer, or Rim Roads, or take Divide, Dave Wood, and Sanborn Park Roads south to State Highway 142. Equipped with good navigational aids and an adventurous spirit, the options become endless.
Whether you’re a local or a visitor and have a few hours or a few days, the best way to experience the Uncompahgre Plateau’s unique beauty is to choose a trail to take a closer look at the scenic beauty, natural diversity, and recreational treasures along a less-traveled path. .