This out-and-back climbs the slopes of Engineer Mountain and rewards with high-altitude wildflowers, views of a rare rock glacier, and a technical summit ridge.


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Engineer Mountain (12,968 feet) is easily the most visually-impressive mountain along the section of the Million Dollar Highway just north of Durango, Colorado.

Dominating the skyline from vantages all around, especially from Purgatory, this monolith is just begging to be climbed! This climb consists of two distinct sections: the approach on the Pass Creek Trail from Coal Bank Pass and the steep climb to the summit.

The approach on the Pass Creek Trail consists of easy walking on a well-maintained trail that gains a bit over 1,000 vertical feet in 2.5 miles.

After you cross the Engineer Mountain Trail, the true climb begins. The final pitch to the summit couldn't be more different from the approach.

While short, the next 0.7 miles to the summit gains a staggering 1,257 vertical feet, meaning that this climb is almost straight up.

While the trail starts off smooth through the meadow, the grade kicks up substantially until you're soon climbing a heavily-braided trail up steep, loose dirt slopes.

As you ascend, the dirt slowly gives way to scree and rock. Soon you'll reach a stacked rock wall wind block on the shoulder of the mountain (a somewhat common feature of human impact on otherwise pristine mountainsides in Colorado).

Most hikers, if they make it this far, choose to turn around here.

Beyond this point, the grade gets even steeper, and the climb gets dramatically more technical and airy.

From here on out, most of the climbing is either on big, blocky scree or stable rocks and cliff faces. After a short, steep pitch from the wind block, you'll reach the most difficult move of the entire climb.

You'll scramble up a steep pitch in the bottom of a tall rocky slot to reach a landing.

From here, the best route is non-obvious.

The dirt marks seem to go right, but that leads to an extremely exposed stretch above a ~200-foot cliff with thousands of feet of steep scree below that.

And from there, an extremely exposed vertical 5th-class climb looms. Instead of going right, bear left by scrambling up and out of the slot and onto the southeastern face of the mountain.

When you poke your head out of the slot, you'll see a slightly loose mountainside with more fall-you-die exposure—but at least it's not a vertical cliff.

Within a few feet of where you stand, a small crevice worked into the mountain heads uphill, providing some protection if needed and hand and foot holds if in doubt.

So head out onto the face, scramble up the exposed section, and follow the crack system up the mountain.

(Make a mental note of the unique rock spire that marks the entrance to the big slot for your down climb.) After a few hundred feet of steep, exposed scrambling, the grade begins to mellow out into a more typical scree field hike/scramble, but without nearly the same puckering exposure.

As you continue upward, you'll find a few sections of easy scree walking along aesthetic ridgelines, eventually leading to the impressive summit of 12,968-foot Engineer Mountain. Take some time to soak in the 360-degree views of the San Juans from the top of this towering monolith.

The reward is well worth the effort to get here! And thanks to Engineer's modest sub-13,000-foot summit and quite technical climb, you may very well enjoy this summit all by yourself. Retrace your route back down the mountain and back to your car.

Take particular care to follow the crack system back down the exposed section of the southeastern face and then drop back into the big slot at the rocky spire.

From there, the route down is fairly straightforward, although it may be loose and slippery in places.