American Basin & Handies Peak

Added on by taylor reilly.

As, I drove up the American Basin Road from the Alpine Scenic Loop Road, I knew I was exactly where I was suppose to be.  The Basin is a beautiful and breathtaking place that is properly hidden away deep in the American, San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Even though this was a highly visited place, front-range tourists were nowhere to be seen. Only the devoted traveler made it here, while the masses were left with postcard photos of the basin, and to contemplate on its exact location.

I stepped out of the truck at the most up-hill Handies Peak and American Basin Trailhead around 2pm. I could tell this was not the full-on wildflower season in the basin, based on photos I had seen. There were some flowers out, but most were beginning to bloom and I imagined that within a month or so the whole basin would be a sea of wildflowers.  Hopefully this was the case, because it had been a very dry spring for a lot of Colorado. I was really eager to hit the trail and I wanted to summit Handies Peak via the Basin.  I knew it was a short and sweet summit hike, but it was late in the day and I did not want to come down too late and I didn’t want to sleep in or around the truck. This was too beautiful of a place not to camp out.  Also, I figured I would get some extra elevation training in, by hiking a pack with some camping gear up to Sloan Lake, about halfway up the summit trail, in the upper basin.  I knew that the lake above tree line would provide a picture perfect scene to take photos.  So, I packed my tent and some food and ended up with a fairly lightweight pack for just an overnight trip.  I could tell the trail was free of thick snow and the weather forecast was perfect, so I opted to not take crampons or super warm clothes.  I still took my ice axe. There is no reason to leave that behind on a solo peak-bag with potential snow. An ice axe can be used for so much more than just self-arrests. My plan was to stay the night at Sloan Lake, then summit Handies with all of my gear early the next morning. 

As I made my way up the trail, and approached the small waterfalls that descend from Sloan Lake I became aware that I had the entire American Basin to myself.  Except for the occasional chirp from a marmot, the basin was completely silent and even free of wind.  I made it to Sloan Lake, and set up camp and immediately began taking photos.  I had a couple hours left before sunset.  This was the best time for evening light and I didn’t have anything to do but take photos.  The sunlight morphed and went through a full array of colors as it bent over the Continental Divide, the South Ridge of the basin.  I hadn’t seen alpenglow in a couple years, so I  was thrilled and ran around the lake laughing and cheering as the basin and lake changed colors by the second.  Eventually the light was gone and the stars came out.  I made dinner then passed out early.  I wanted to summit Handies during sunrise, so I needed to be up extra early.

When I awoke, I was ready to summit.  I broke down camp, packed up, and hit the summit trail.  Light from the East was already emerging and it made me hike faster to get to the summit before the sun was too high.  I flew through the upper switchbacks and hit the summit saddle pretty quickly. From here I could see the sun rising over the Eastern horizon, and I could see down into every valley around me.  This was the view I was waiting for and I was alone on a 14er summit again! There was still a lot of snow hanging from the summit ridge over the Eastern slope.  The snow slope created a huge overhang that ran the length of the summit ridge making it look very unstable, so I was careful to stay off of it.  The slopes on either side of the summit ridge extended all the way to the lower valleys making it a very long potential slide to the bottom.  I summited Handies, dropped my pack, and took a long 30-minute break.  I relaxed and breathed the thin air.  The wind was strong and cold on the summit unlike the hike up the Western slope.  I spotted out the other nearby 14er summits, and was pretty sure I could see the summit of nearby Uncompahgre Peak to the North and East that I had summited almost 10 years earlier. I took a necessary amount of photos then decided it was time to start my descent.

As I descended the Western Slope, I watched the shadow of Handies Peak crawl up the Eastern Slope of the Continental Divide opposite the American Basin.  I had summited two 14ers in a few days time and I couldn’t have been happier with the progress of my trip so far.  I made it to the truck and slowly packed up and prepared to drive to Lake City working my way back towards Denver.  As I started to pull away from the American Basin I was saddened to leave.  I came to this place on a whim and now I did not want to go.  I wanted to stay in the beautiful San Juan Range and summit Red Cloud and Sunshine Peaks, also.  Though, I knew I needed to get back to Denver for work, so I could make some money to continue my journey.  So, off I went.