Bridge of Heaven

Round Trip Distance: 8.8 - 11.2 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Dexter Creek TH: 8614 - 12,230 feet
Horsethief TH: 9326 - 12,230 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Time: 6 hrs. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Dexter Creek or Horsethief
Fee: none
Attractions: Amazing scenic views

The Bridge of Heaven is located along the Horsethief trail in the Mountain Division of the Uncompahgre National Forest near Ouray, Colorado. The Bridge gets its name from a narrow section of trail on a high ridge that drops off steeply on both sides where hikers are treated to world class views of the Cimarron Mountains to the east and the peaks surrounding the town of Ouray to the west. Many of the peaks in this area rise above 13,000 feet with several like Mt. Sneffels, to the west, and Uncompahgre Peak and Mt. Wetterhorn, to the east, that rise to elevations over the 14,000 feet mark.

A 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended to get to the Horsethief trailhead which is at an elevation of about 9,300 feet. The Dexter Creek trailhead, which is at about 8,650 feet, is normally accessible by 2-wheel drive vehicles. Beginning at Dexter Creek adds about 2.5 miles to the round trip distance and 650 feet of elevation gain. This post begins at the Dexter Creek trailhead. To get there drive north on Highway 550 from the Ouray Hot Springs Pool for 1.6 miles and turn right on County Road 14, the Dexter Creek Road. Bear to the right near the 1 mile point, where County Road 14A splits off on the left. Continue following County Road 14 for a little less than a mile and a half as it climbs up the canyon along Dexter Creek. The Dexter Creek trailhead and parking area appears just before a bridgeless creek crossing. Four wheel drive vehicles can continue for another 1.2 miles to where the road ends at the Horsethief trailhead.

The trail begins climbing immediately as it leaves the trailhead. If you began at the Dexter Creek trailhead the overall elevation gain will be 4,653 feet and around 4,000 feet if you started at the Horsethief trailhead. The total elevation gain takes into account all of the places where the trail drops a bit after having reached a certain elevation which requires you to have to regain the same amount of elevation afterwards. It also includes the short spur to the first overlook which is also a little uphill.

Numerous switchbacks make all the elevation gain much easier than it otherwise would be. In many places there are indications of older sections of trail that took more of a straight line approach. Straight lines are not only harder to hike up but they tend to funnel water which washes out the dirt around rocks making them much rougher to hike.

At the 3.0 mile (Dexter Creek)/1.7 mile (Horsethief) point from the respective trailheads the trail reaches a grassy saddle in the ridge. The trail to the right leads over to a viewpoint from which you can look right down at the town of Ouray. Another faint trail that drops off over the south side of the ridge is marked by a sign that shows it to be the Old Horsethief trail.

Most of the town, including the Ouray Hot Springs pool can be seen from the overlook.

From the overlook the trail continues climbing in the general direction of Cascade Mountain. At times the trail travels out in the open but most of the route continues to be through thick stands of pine and spruce. If thunderstorms are in the forecast try to judge your time so that you aren't out in the open during any lightening. Usually, if you leave near sun up, you can be back before the frequent afternoon storms occur.

As the trail nears the 12,000 foot level it pops out of the trees and crosses the collier which in this photo is still filled with snow (mid July). This spot marks the very beginning of Bridalveil Creek. Down near the first overlook Bridalveil Falls can be seen making a plunge of what looks like at least 100 feet over a cliff.

The last leg of the hike is up a very steep grassy mountain side that is made easier by a half dozen long sweeping switchbacks.

At 12,230 feet above sea level a trail sign on the Bridge of Heaven reassures hikers that this is indeed the spot. The Horsethief trail continues on for almost another 6 miles where it ties in with the Bear Creek trail and a few others. We met a half dozen backpackers that had hiked up the Bear Creek trail and were now heading down the Horsethief trail. Several of them had shuttled a vehicle to the Dexter Creek trailhead and a couple of others had called someone while they were up here where there is a cellphone signal to come and pick them up.

One of the best views from the Bridge of Heaven is looking to the south at Ironton Park where the Red Mountains provide a stunning backdrop. Some of the prominent aspects of the view to the east include Courthouse Mountain, the Coxcombs and the summit of Wetterhorn Peak. The view to the west includes Mount Sneffels and all the peaks around Ouray and the Yankee Boy Basin area. To the north on a clear day you can make out the towns of Ridgway, Montrose, Delta and Cedaredge with the Grand Mesa taking up most of the horizon beyond that.

It is always fun when you get high in Colorado, pun intended, to look out over the landscape around all the other places that you have hiked and to see if you can spot somewhere that you may have always been meaning to go but haven't made it to yet.

This is only a sampling of some of the wildflowers that were in various stages of bloom along the trail. If you would like to learn their names you can browse through the wildflower section on this website.

It can be hard to pass up a tasty treat like a wild onion when you stumble upon a patch where there are hundreds of them. Wild onions need to be dug out of the ground. If you pull on the stem it will just snap off. The animation displays the general steps to follow when digging onions. 1. Identify a specimen. 2. Use knife to loosen soil. 3. Clean off the dirt and snip the roots. 4. Eat. *NOTE: Never eat more than a sampling of something that you harvest for the first time in the wild until you know how you will react to it. Also, learn to identify similar looking plants that are poisonous like Death Camas and wild irises.

The Bridge of Heaven on the Horsethief trail has many of the things hikers are looking for when they come to the Rocky Mountains. The smell of the aspen and conifer trees mixed with fragrant wildflowers enlivens the senses. Deer can be seen as you pass them by peering back through the forest. Alpine vistas of the rugged mountains that can only be had by those willing to make the trek are reward enough for the effort expended and who knows, maybe it also has something to do with Colorado being the slimmest state in the USA. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.