Backpack to Dragon's Back via Horsethief Trail

Rate this Adventure Horsethief Trailhead, Ouray, Colorado, United States

  • Activities:

    Camping, Photography, Backpacking, Hiking

  • Skill Level:

    Advanced

  • Season:

    Spring, Summer, Autumn

  • Trail Type:

    Point-to-Point

  • RT Distance:

    16 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    3520 Feet

Forest
Lake
River
Scenic
Wildlife

Climb to the awe-inspiring vista at Bridge of Heaven, explore the alpine tundra of American Flats, wake up for sunrise at the rugged and isolated lake beneath Dragon's Back. Let the mountains have you.

The Uncompahgre Wilderness stretches out through the mountains and forests of southwestern Colorado, with worn trails lingering beside abandoned 19th-century mines and crossing old alpine sheep pastures. Dragon's Back is the unofficial name for Point 12,968', a small but beautiful summit at the base of Wildhorse Peak. 

Horsethief Trailhead is located 20 minutes north of Ouray on a gravel road labelled Highway 14. To reach Horsethief, you'll need a vehicle that is high-clearance enough to cross a wide, rock-filled creek and narrow enough to drive tight switchbacks. If you've got a more conventional vehicle, you'll need to park at Dexter Creek Trailhead just before the road crosses the creek, and hike up to Horsethief Trailhead from there.

The trail winds along switchbacks beneath spruce trees and aspens until it reaches a ridge above Bridalveil Creek overlooking Ouray. From there it climbs to Bridge of Heaven at 13,000' and then crosses several creek beds before descending to the valley of Difficulty Creek. Crossing the creek and re-ascending to American Flats is a long, steady uphill trek, but you will be rewarded with the beautiful rolling tundra of Wildhorse Peak. 

To get to Dragon's Back you’ll need to turn north off the trail at the crossroads of Bear Creek Trail and Horsethief Trail. East of Wildhorse Peak is a deep valley; walk along its edge to the rocky ridge on the other side. The terrain is unchallenging; although it is steep on the side of the ridge, it's lined with sheep trails. On your topographic map you'll see a small unnamed lake north of American Lake. That's your destination.

From there it's a simple hike back to the trail crossroads and back down to Ouray via the spectacular cliff-hugging Bear Creek Trail. As far as I know you'll have to arrange a shuttle or hitchhike to get back to your car.

When I hiked the trail, I camped at Horsethief Trailhead, near the top of the valley of Difficulty Creek and at the base of Dragon's Back. The day between Horsethief and Difficulty Creek was challenging but doable. I would recommend the Horsethief to Bear Creek route rather than vice versa because the trail from Bear Creek Trailhead is steep and all uphill, whereas from Horsethief Trailhead the trail varies more in elevation. 

An important thing to keep in mind in the late summer and fall is where you'll get water. Despite creeks being marked on the topographic map, there was no water available between Dexter Creek and Difficulty Creek when I hiked it in early September. After that, there was more plentiful water at Wildhorse Creek, American Lake, Dragon's Back and Bear Creek. Nevertheless, plan and drink accordingly so that you don't run into trouble.

Be prepared for quick changes in weather and cold nights. I had fierce wind and below-freezing temperatures at night in early September.

Pack List

  • Hiking backpack
  • Tent
  • Topographic map
  • Compass/GPS 
  • First aid kit
  • Knife
  • Lighter
  • Bear-proof food container
  • Water purification
  • Water bottles
  • Stove/fuel
  • Dishes
  • Camera
  • Sleeping bag/pad
  • Trekking poles
  • Hiking boots
  • Headlamp 
  • Sunscreen/sunglasses
  • Clothing
Read More

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Community Photos

+ Add Photos

Reviews

Overall rating:  Rate this Adventure

Leave a Review

Have you done this adventure? Leave a review!

Jonathon Reed Explorer

Adventure-based photographer and videographer. Sunriser.

Are we missing something? Suggest an edit

Nearby Adventures

Hike the Sugar Bowl Loop in Kings Canyon NP

Tulare County, California

First and foremost, to get to this trailhead you need to drive down a 2-mile, one lane dirt road that is quite steep.

3 Saves

Hike to Ehukai Pillbox

59178 Ke Nui Road, Hawaii

This hike starts directly across from Banzai Pipeline, the famous barreling wave at Ehukai Beach.

7 Saves

Winter Hike to Calypso Cascades

1046 County Highway 115, Colorado

While most people go snowshoeing near the Bear Lake or Glacier Gorge area in RMNP, Wild Basin is a much less trafficked option.

5 Saves