Monday, September 24, 2018

Backpacking the Weminuche Wilderness

At nearly 500,000 acres, the Weminuche Wilderness is by far Colorado's largest Wilderness.  The Weminuche is located in the southwestern part of the state within the San Juan Mountains with the Continental Divide passing through the Wilderness.  The Wilderness contains about 500 miles of trails that pass endless alpine summits with numerous alpine lakes.  Among these trails include stretches of the Continental Divide (CDT) and Colorado (CT) Trails.

The Weminuche has been on my list of backpacking destinations for a while.  I was determined to make the trip happen this year.  Because the Weminuche covers such a large area, I wanted a longer trip.  I was looking for a route, preferably a loop, in the 100 mile range.  After looking over my map, I came up with a route just under 100 miles that incorporated both the CDT and CT with several other trails.  My route would cover a good mix of alpine terrain with stretches following creeks and rivers and a nice sampling of mountain lakes.

Fires in the region closed the San Juan National Forest earlier in the summer for a short period.  Monsoon season soon followed.  With long stretches above treeline, I wanted to avoid the area in the peak thunderstorm season.  September seemed like the best time to visit the Weminuche.  The risk of thunderstorms has decreased and the risk of snow storms isn't too threatening.  The fires have been controlled for a long time.  I was also hoping to catch some of the fall color and possibly bugling elk.

Day 1- September 10th
Molas Pass Trailhead to West Ute Lake
20.2 Miles

I left my house before dark on Monday morning on September 10th.  The drive to the trailhead took a little longer than I expected.  The Ouray, CO area was busy with tourists.  The drive over Red Mountain Pass went slowly.  The area's foliage was near peak and the road was clogged with traffic.  Even on a good day, the pass is slower and windier than a lot of the other high mountain passes in the state.  The area is quite scenic however and worth a drive.  It may not be for the feint of heart since there aren't guardrails or shoulders with precipitous drops just inches from the roadway over Red Mountain Pass.

I started hiking from the Molas Pass Trailhead a few minutes after 10AM.  A short connector trail from the parking lot quickly leads to the Colorado Trail.  The CT actually follows numerous trails in the Weminuche.  The signs will have multiple names, but it is always marked as the CT as well.

Sign at the Colorado Trail

The first four miles or so of the CT actually descend from the trailhead.  The trail starts above 10,600 feet in elevation and drops to below 9000' at the Animas River.  The views of the mountains start immediately from the trailhead.  The Grenadier Range is the first subrange that comes into view from the parking lot and is a constant companion along the CT portion of my hike.

Views start early

Changing aspens

Grenadier Range 

Mt Garfield

The Animas River flowing into the Grenadiers

After crossing the Animas River, I reached another oddity for a backpacking trip.  The Durango and Silverton Railroad follows the river.  The trail is now primarily a sight seeing tourist attraction.  In most years, there is actually a stop at this point and further downriver allowing easier Wilderness access.  From what I understand, they eliminated or restricted these Wilderness stops this season.  After crossing the river, the trail follows the tracks for a couple hundred feet before veering back into the woods on a proper trail.  Shortly after leaving the tracks, the route officially enters the Weminuche Wilderness.  Even though the train isn't a part of nature, the views from the area are pretty impressive and the idea of a train in the middle of the forest is something of a novelty, especially since the train didn't pass through.

Bridge over the Animas

Crossing the Animas

The trail briefly follows the tracks

Climbing away from the river

Officially entering the Wilderness

Traveling along Elk Creek

The first four miles traveled downhill and were something of a warm up.  The real hiking begins after leaving the tracks.  The next 8 miles along the CT climb 3700' to the high point of my hike.  Despite the gain, the elevation comes in spurts with much of it a gradual uphill climb.  The CT is also the Elk Creek Trail along this stretch.  The route follows its namesake creek.  While below treeline, I often caught glimpses of the Grenadier Range peaks.  Most impressive are the views of Vestal and Arrow Peaks.

Vestal and Arrow

Beaver pond along the trail

Although the forecast was decent for my first day, there was a chance of showers.  Clouds seemed to build while I was hiking.  About 7 miles in to my day it started to shower.  It wasn't very heavy, but enough of a rain that I put on my pack cover.  It wasn't enough for a rain jacket however.

Peak reflecting in the beaver pond

Arrow and Vestal

The trail passing through a meadow

I was quickly distracted from the rain momentarily.  I caught a glimpse of something large and dark moving through the trees in a small clearing.  It was a cow moose.  A few feet further I noticed another dark figure.  This was a bull moose.  He seemed smitten by the cow and irritated by my presence.  He stood only a few feet from the trail.

First peak at the cow moose

First look at the bull moose

Having had my fair share of moose encounters while living in Maine, I was a bit apprehensive to pass.  I stood in the relative safety behind a large rock and numerous trees.  Moose are massive animals.  If they don't move at you're presence, it's best not to approach them.  On a couple occasions, I have had moose turn towards me and approach with their hackles raised.  It's best to let them do their thing and not risk irritating the animal.  They can attack.

The bull not paying attention to me

The bull keeping an eye on me

The bull stared me down and wasn't moving.  To make matters worse, I heard more thrashing in the trees on the opposite side of the trail.  Another bull was approaching in Flehmen Response, the curled up lip showing his intentions toward the cow.  Last thing I wanted to do was get caught between two rutting bull moose.  The first bull lazily strolled away from the trail enough that I could quickly pass.

Bull moving away

At this point, the rain was light but steady.  When I felt I was not a threat to the moose, I stopped and finally put on my pack cover. I didn't get a chance to with the moose encounter.  The light sprinkles didn't last more than 20 minutes.

The cow was browsing on the trees

The bull at a safer distance

The trail began ascending more steadily after the moose sighting.  The trail climb in the steep, narrow Elk Creek drainage.  Now approaching treeline, the views are quite impressive, particularly looking back down the drainage at the blocky peaks of the Grenadier Range.

The views continued along the CT

The trail stayed close to Elk Creek

Looking back down the trail

Passing through talus

More talus and scree

Continuing along the CT

Passing along the base of a cliff

By the time I reached the upper Elk Creek Basin, the skies cleared quite a bit.  The Colorado Trail climbs to the Continental Divide above the basin.  Despite the quick elevation gain, the trail features seemingly infinite switchbacks to ease the pain of the climb.  The switchbacks are well graded and made for an easy climb despite reaching the high point of my trip at nearly 12,700'.  Looking at the CT guide, this stretch of the trail features the most elevation change over the entire nearly 500 mile Colorado Trail.

Another look down the Elk Creek drainage

Heading above treeline

Nice trail through the tundra

Looking back at the switchbacks

Nice view into the Elk Creek drainage

View near the Continental Divide

The Continental Divide is pretty mellow in this section.  Unlike some jagged sections along the Divide, here it is a mellow flat ridge.  I was well above treeline and would remain above it for more than 20 miles with the exception of the occasional scrubby tree.  I would also cross the Divide a handful of times during this stretch.

Atop the Continental Divide
Heading north along the Divide

Nice clouds

The trail follows the Divide proper a short distance before dropping to the east and reaching junction.  Up until this point for nearly 13 miles, I was following the CT.  At this junction, the CT and CDT meet and coincide as they head north.  To the south, the CDT continues is southbound journey at this split as it stays close to the Continental Divide.  I headed south on the CDT.

The CDT/CT split

Heading south on CDT

Now on the CDT, I headed south.  The trail drops and leaves the Wilderness momentarily as it crosses a jeep road.  From the road, the trail climbs back to the Divide at Hunchback Pass.  The skies darkened as clouds started to move back toward the area.  I heard a few rumbles of thunder, but it didn't seem to be too much of a threat and passed north of me.

Despite the threatening clouds, I stayed dry

Heading toward Hunchback Pass

More threatening clouds

Despite my later start, I was making pretty good time.  I had already covered 15 miles, and still had a couple hours of daylight left. Below Hunchback Pass, I took a break to hydrate, refuel and assess my map.  There were numerous lakes and creeks in the next 5 miles that would make for decent camping opportunities.

Descending from Hunchback Pass

Walking the tundra along the CDT

I continued south along the CDT, never dropping below 11,500'.  I didn't want to hike any later than 7PM.  By 8PM, the skies are pretty much dark.  I wanted to wrap up my day with enough time to find a good spot to pitch my tent, eat, retrieve water, and finish other parts of my daily routine on the trail.

 Silex, Storm King, and Trinity Peaks

My next pass was about 3 miles beyond Hunchback Pass where the trail climbed over the Divide.  I passed a couple of high lakes that would have made satisfactory camp for the night.  With enough daylight remaining, I decided to make a push for West Ute Lake.

High unnamed lake below Mt Nebo
Another look at the lake

Mt Silex and Storm King beyond the lake

Although the sky wasn't too threatening as I passed the lakes, I noticed a few sprinkles.  It was very light.  I continued to climb toward the pass, which sits at over 12,400 feet.  As I climbed the sprinkles changed to graupel.  The graupel was short lived and within 10 minutes, all precipitation stopped.

Rio Grande Pyaramid and The Window 

From the top of the pass, I hiked mostly downhill for nearly two miles, before finally reaching West Ute Lake.  I reached the lake about 650PM.  Before I reached the lake I could here elk bugling in the distance.  I was surprised to have covered just over 20 miles with my late start and early nightfall.

Sun shining on Rio Grande Pyramid

West Elk lake sits at 11,800' immediately below the Continental Divide in a scenic basin.  Although camping is not allowed within 200' of the lake, there are plenty of nice sites to the east of the lake that are far enough away.  It was a scenic place to call home for the night.  By the time I reached the lake, most of the threatening clouds were out of the area.

My campsite near West Ute Lake

I cooked dinner as soon as I arrived.  While waiting for my meal to be ready, I set up my tent for the night and finished the rest of my nightly routine.  At the higher elevation, it was fairly chilly with the sun quickly sinking.

West Ute Lake from my campsite

After eating, I quickly retired to my tent for then night.  The elk continued bugling through the night.  When the elk fell silent, the coyotes took up the chorus.  It sounded like numerous coyotes in several directions took turns calling each other through the night.  They were close and loud enough to wake me a couple times.

Nice sunset colors

Day 2- September 11
West Ute Lake- Pine River/Flint Creek Junction
23.3 Miles

By September, morning comes fairly late.  There isn't much light until 630AM.  Around 630AM, I was awake, but still in my tent.  I heard thrashing in the brush not too far from my tent.  I peaked outside and saw a bull moose heading downhill through the willows, away from the lake, as if on a mission.  He quickly traveled out of sight.  At this point, I went through my morning routine and was on the move around 735AM.

Traveling along West Ute Lake

Looking back at the lake

The morning was cool at 11,800'.  I started out with a jacket, winter hat, and gloves.  I quickly shed the extra clothes as I headed back uphill soon after leaving the lake.  The trail climbs back over 12,000 feet.  As I climbed the first half hour, I could still here some coyotes yipping across the tundra.  I never did see them.

The Guardian and Mt Silex peaking out above the Divide

Heading south on the CDT

A last look at West Ute Lake

Small unnamed lake along the CDT

Middle Ute Lake and Twin Lakes soon come into view.  There was some confusion in this stretch.  The map shows the CDT passing closely to Middle Ute Lake's western shore.  The trail dropped away from the lake however.  I consulted the map and saw another route that didn't change any distance but still led to Twin Lakes.  I assumed that I missed a junction.  Apparently the CDT was rerouted at some point.  The next junction, what I thought was off route, had CDT signage.

The trail passing through willows

The CDT passes by Twin Lakes, which sit against the base of the Divide.  From the lakes, the CDT takes another apparent reroute from what the map shows, staying east of the Divide.  This reroute travels closely to the Ute Lake.  Ute Lake is the largest and most scenic of the lakes along the CDT in this stretch.  The trail travels just above it.

Twin Lakes

Climbing away from Twin Lakes

Heading toward Ute Lake

First look at Ute Lake

Beyond Ute Lake the CDT climbs back to the Divide.  The trail is a little trickier to follow in this section and the tread disappears briefly a couple times.  A post marks the trail at its trickiest spot where it completely vanishes.

UN 13,169 is the prominent peak

Ute Lake

Last look at Ute Lake

Hiking under the Divide

The junctions in the Weminuche seemed to be well marked with a signs.  In this stretch, I passed the only unmarked junction I saw on my entire route.  Of course it caused confusion.  The CDT traveled in tread that was washed out.  The trail seemed to disappear in willows if continuing in the washout.  However to the right was a more obvious tread.  I followed the more obvious tread, and it quickly disappeared in a clearing.  I backtracked and noticed a much more obvious tread that turned abruptly to the left.  I followed this tread, passing a couple cairns.  I soon realized I was wrapping around Ute Lake.  I consulted the map and it appeared I was on the wrong trail.  I backtracked again to the confusing junction.  It turned out I was on the Ute Creek Trail, not the CDT.  I probably went a mile before I realized my mistake.

Back at the junction, I headed straight in the washed out CDT into the willows where the trail seemed to stop.  Sure enough the CDT tread was visible in the thick tangle of willows.  Back on track, the trail climb back over the Divide.

Climbing to the Divide

Passing right under the Divide

The willows turning yellow

Rio Grande Pyramid

The trail travels over 12,000' for more than 6 miles in this stretch while crossing the Divide three times.  The trail wraps around Rincon La Oso before crossing the Divide its last time at over 12,600'.  The trail passes under a prominent geographic feature called The Window and Centennial 13er Rio Grande Pyramid.

Below The Window sits a small lake.  I was running low on water and looking forward to the lake.  The pond proved a difficult water source.  The shores were surrounded by dense willows, making it difficult to reach the water.  When I finally reached the water, the water was shallow and extremely muddy.  I could only fill about half of my bottle.  I thought my Sawyer filter would have become clogged by the sediment filled water, but it seemed alright.  I enjoyed a short break to refuel while drinking my water.  No more than a couple minutes after leaving the lake, I crossed a much better flowing water source.

Lake below The Window 

From the last crossing of the Divide, I faced about 20 miles of downhill hiking with more than 4000' of descent.  The first big drop was on the CDT as it dropped to the Los Pinos River.  While hiking in this stretch, which the CDT shares with the Rincon La Vaca Trail, I startled something.  I heard a loud noise in the trees.  It was a cow moose with its calf born this spring.  The pair took off quickly out of sight.

Los Pinos River valley in distance

Waterfall along the trail

Dropping into the Los Pinos valley

After nearly 4 miles on the Rincon la Vaca Trail, I reached the Pine River Trail.  I would follow the Pine River Trail for nearly 15 miles.  The Pine River Trail follows the Los Pinos River (Pine in Spanish) for its duration.  The upper reaches of the trail traverse open meadows most of the way.  The walking was fairly easy compared to the 20+ miles I spent at or above treeline.

Looking back at The Window and Rio Grande Pyramid

A rare CDT marker

Because of the pleasant, and always downhill hiking, I made good time.  There were plenty of opportunities to camp near the Los Pinos.  With plenty of time and daylight, my goal was to reach the junction of the Flint Creek Trail.  I reached the junction about 640PM.

Heading down the Pine River Trail

Rock outcroppings above the river

Looking down at the river

The end of Flint Creek made for a nice campsite.  The area was flat and open.  There were signs of previous horse camps in the area.  Further up the trail, I could see a large outfitter tent.  I was able to set up camp in a grove of aspens.  I could hear the rippling of the creek from my tent.  Shortly after I went in my tent for the night, I had a few deer grazing on the grass no more than 10 yards from my tent.

Night two campsite

Day 3- September 12
Pine River/ Flint Creek Junction- Rock Creek/Vallecito Creek Junction
21.3 Miles

The morning started off cool.  There was a little frost on my pack overnight.  It seemed like the temperature dropped around 4AM.  I saw the temperature on my watch as low as 37F in my tent with the fly open.  In the morning, while hiking in the sheltered valley along the Pine River Trail, it was quite chilly before the sun finally hit me.

Morning sun on cliffs along the trail

View downriver

Los Pinos River

Another look downriver

Aspens didn't change yet at lower elevations

I hiked my last 6 downhill miles on the Pine River Trail before reaching my next trail.  The Forest Service sign called it the Lake Creek Trail, my map called it the Emerald Lake Trail.  The Emerald Lake Trail climbs for its duration.  At its beginning, the trail sits at an elevation of 8350'.  It climbs more than 4000' over the next 10.5 miles.

Ground vegetation changing color

Peaks rising above the river in the distance

Mountains reflecting in river
Cliffs along the river

The trail follows Lake Creek.  The creek features numerous waterfalls in its lower reaches.  Unfortunately, the creek sits in a narrow gulch and its difficult to get a good look at the falls.  After 4 miles on the trail, it reached its most popular feature, Emerald Lake.  Initially I reached Little Emerald Lake, which is separated by its bigger brother by a narrow strip of land.  Emerald Lake is the third largest natural lake in Colorado.  It sits at just over 10,000' and is surround by summits.  The trail follows the two lakes for more than 1.5 miles.

Nice forest walk enroute to Emerald Lake

Little Emerald Lake

The lake itself is quite beautiful.  I sat by its shore and had lunch and soaked my feet.  It was a wonderful place for a break.  Unfortunately, the trail itself doesn't follow its banks too closely.  There are a few places to easily access the lake.  The trail itself undulates as it stays away from the lake's shore and the views are only mediocre until you veer off trail to the lake.  There are camping restrictions around the lake because of high visitation.

My lunch spot along Emerald Lake

Beyond Emerald Lake, the trail climbs quite steeply at times as it travels toward Moon Lake.  The trail climbs about 1600' in 3.5 miles between the lakes.  The trail stays above the creek, which often flows in a narrow canyon.  The route climbs directly toward rugged 13,000 foot peaks that provide a dramatic backdrop.  There are a few waterfalls along the way as well.

Meadow above Emerald Lake

Nice scenery climbing toward Moon Lake

I enjoyed this section

Unnamed peak

Waterfall below Moon Lake's outlet

Although quite a bit smaller, Moon Lake is more scenic than Emerald Lake.  It sits at 11,600' and is surrounded by dramatic mountainous terrain.  Its location is somewhat off the beaten path and there is a feeling of remoteness.

Moon Lake

I stopped to enjoy the scenery over a snack and drink before continuing.  Beyond Moon Lake stands some of the most interesting terrain of my route.  The trail ultimately continues to Rock Lake.  The route isn't very distinct.  The route isn't present on all maps, including the map I was using- Trails Illustrated Weminuche Wilderness.

I enjoyed a break at this spot along Moon Lake

From Moon Lake, an unmarked trail follows its eastern shore.  I was told that cairns mark the route eventually.  Once past the lake, I lost the trail.  The terrain doesn't allow much variation from the route.  I continued climbing, following the path of least resistance. Eventually I spotted a cairn and I wasn't too far off the path.

Looking down on Moon Lake

I followed the cairns.  The cairns are small and not always easy to see.  It's not easy to spot a pile of rocks while traveling through a pile of rocks.  Occasionally a faint tread was visible, but it often disappeared in rocky terrain.  After 3/4 of a mile, I reached Half Moon Lake, which sits at over 12,000' in a tiny bowl.  From Half Moon Lake the trail becomes more defined as it climbs steeply on its west side.

The route above Moon Lake.  There are cairns
marking the route in here.

Half Moon Lake

The climb from Half Moon Lake is probably the steepest sustained climbing on my entire trip.  Once at the top of the grade, the trail disappears again and its necessary to follow hard to find cairns.  At the top of the pass at over 12,500' are two massive cairns.  From the pass you can see Rock Lake to the north, and both Moon and Emerald Lakes to the south.

Climbing to the pass above Half Moon Lake

Looking back down on Half Moon Lake

Cairns marking the top of the pass

Moon Lake from Rock Lake Pass

Cairns at the pass with Moon Lake in the distance

Peters Peak is the prominent summit

The descent to Rock Lake is quite rough.  Cairns mark the route through a rough talus field.  Footing isn't the best.  The trail can be difficult to follow at times.  As I approached the lake, I passed a final cairn and lost the trail for good.  I followed the lake picking up intermittent herd paths along the way before reaching the Rock Creek Trail.  I had to consult my map at the lake.  The location of the Rock Creek Trail wasn't immediately obvious.

The trail descends through this scree

Rock Lake

Peters Peak above the lake

Working my way through the scree and talus

Looking down at the lake

Below Rock Lake

I followed the Rock Creek Trail for nearly 4 miles.  It was probably my least favorite trail on my hike.  The trail never seemed to follow within sight of its namesake creek.  The willows were quite thick along the trail as well.  As a consolation prize, the views were quite impressive, especially when looking back the trail.  The lower reaches of Rock Creek featured some impressive waterfalls.  Unfortunately, it was difficult getting a good look at them since the creek traveled through somewhat of a canyon.

Waterfall on Rock Creek

Looking back Rock Creek

Buffalo Peak is the prominent peak on right

Traveling downhill, I made pretty good time and reached the junction of the Rock Creek and Vallecito Creek Trails.  The junction featured a nice meadow and would be my home for the night.  The meadow offers impressive views, particularly of the 13,600' Guardian, which loomed just a mile away.

The Guardian 

Day 4- September 13
Rock Creek/Vallecito Creek Junction- Animas River Trail
25.3 Miles

My campsite sat in a sheltered valley.  The temperature sank again around 4AM and my pack was a little frosty when I woke.  I started hiking with my hat, gloves, and a heavier shirt.  This time I kept them on for at least an hour.  It took a while or the sun to hit the trail in the valley.  The Vallecito Creek Trail stays pretty gentle and I wasn't producing much heat to start.

The Guardian in morning light

The sun hitting Thunder Peak

I think this is 14er Sunlight 

The creek valley stayed in the shade for a while

Vallecito Creek

For this hike, I wore different shoes than my last several backpacking trips.  The shoes fit fine and served me well on day hikes.  I never backpacked with them.  The insoles were somewhat sloppy feeling.  This caused irritation on the soles of my feet.  It appeared like I was getting blisters deeper in my skin, not on the surface.  When I stopped to remove layers, I took an Aleve.  This seemed to remedy my feet soreness quickly.  I adjusted my socks and insoles as well, which seemed to help.

Good patches of fall color

Hiking through some yellow aspens

A tunnel of fall color

Summits were usually visible poking above the tree cover

After 6 miles or so, I left the Vallecito Creek Trail and joined the Johnson Creek Trail.  The Johnson Creek Trail marked the start of a long climb.  The trail would gain nearly 3500' over the next 7 miles.  Generally the trail stayed close to its namesake creek.  The climbing was fairly steady throughout the trail with switchbacks taking the sting out of the climb.  The lower third of the trail was covered with more blowdowns than I have encountered anywhere else on the trip.

Bridge over Vallecito Creek

View upcreek from the bridge

The creek drops steeply as it descends along the trail.  At times, the trail is hidden in sections of canyon.  Not unlike several other creeks that I followed on this trip, Johnson Creek features numerous waterfalls.  Most of the waterfalls are near impossible to get a closeup view.  I enjoyed a break along the creek for a snack where the creek plunged through a steep, rocky ravine.

Johnson Creek flowing through a canyon

Waterfalls on Johnson Creek

Climbing near treeline on the Johnson Creek Trail

Organ and Amherst are the pointier peaks

Nice views ahead

The trail leaves the forest and travels through a high basin with great views.  Numerous switchbacks take the trail above treeline before reaching Columbine Lake at over 12,000'.  From the lake, steep switchbacks climb the last 300' or so to Columbine Pass.

Pair of mule deer

Two more deer in the herd

The trail above treeline

Columbine Pass is the low point on the ridge

Columbine Lake

Columbine Pass stands around 12,680' and is pretty close to the high point of my loop.  The Continental Divide crossing on the Colorado Trail is slightly higher.  The pass was quite narrow compared to the others I crossed in the Weminuche.  The pass separates the Vallecito and Chicago Basins.

The trail above the lake

Just below the pass

Columbine Pass marked the end of the substantial climbing on my route.  I was 18 miles from the end of my route.  The next 13 miles were mostly downhill with nearly 4900' of descent ahead.

Looking back down over Columbine Lake

Organ, Amherst, and Emerson Mountains

The Endlich Mesa Trail heads this direction to
Trimble Pass on the left side of this ridge

The west side of Columbine Pass follows the Needle Creek Trail toward Chicago Basin.  The trail drops steeply over endless switchbacks.  At the steepest section, near the pass, the trail has the consistency of marbles.  After the first several switchbacks, the route mellow, and the footing improves.  From the trail, there are great views looking into the Needle Creek Drainage.  The best view is toward the 14,000 foot summits of the Chicago Basin.

View into Needle Creek Drainage from the pass

Chicago Basin peaks from West Eolus to Sunlight

A look back at the pass

Meadow just below treeline

View down Needle Creek

The trail drops past the turn off for the Chicago Basin.  Along the way it passes an old mining shack and a large mine entrance.  Below the Chicago Basin Trail, the grade levels out and the descent is much more gradual.

Descending above the creek

Chicago Basin peaks

The trail passes through meadows close to Needle Creek in its upper reaches.  There were quite a few parties camped in this section.  After the meadows, the trail stays in the forest much of the way as the creek stays out of sight much of the time.  As the trail dropped and reached its end, it followed closer to the creek.  The creek features numerous plunges as its course narrows.

Another look at Chicago Basin

Mt Kennedy

From the top of Columbine Pass,  the Needle Creek Trail travels about 8 miles before it ends at the Animas River Trail.  The trail drops well over 4000' in that distance.  I made very fast time over this section.  I covered 21 miles, and still had a couple hours of daylight left.   My route left the Wilderness at the end of the Needle Creek Trail.

Waterfall on a side creek

The Animas River Trail runs from the end of the Needle Creek Trail to a bridge over the river.  I can't seem to find any consistency on its length.  The Forest Service sign at its end shows 7 miles.  The FS website shows 6.7.  Mapping website Caltopo puts the distance at 5.2 miles.  Based on how quickly I hiked the trail, the 5.2 mile number seems closer to reality.

Along the Animas

The Animas River Trail runs generally downhill over its length.  A few short climbs are present, but they end quickly before dropping again.  As its name implies, it travels along the river throughout its length.  Because of its mellow, downhill nature, travel on the trail is pretty easy and goes by quickly.  There are numerous spots to camp along its length, often right along the river.

The Animas from my campsite in morning

After an hour and a half of travel on the Animas River Trail, the time was approaching 630PM.  I had covered a long distance and was ready to call it a day.  I traveled along a stretch with nearly endless camping opportunities.

The Animas from my campsite

At 630PM, I called it a day and set up camp just above the river in a nice ponderosa forest.  I don't have any landmarks to go by, but I estimate I was about a mile from the end of the trail.  I don't think I would have made it that far late in the day if the trail was actually 7 miles.  If my estimate is correct, I covered just over 25 miles.  If the sign is correct I hiked closer to 27 miles, which I doubt given my 630PM time for calling it quits for the day.

Where I had my dinner for the night

I enjoyed my campsite.  I sat on the river's edge for my dinner.  This also gave me a chance to clean my legs and feet.  The rippling of the river was an excellent soundtrack to sleep by. 

My last campsite with the river in the background

Day 5- September 14
Animas River Trail- Purgatory Trailhead
5.0 Miles

My long day yesterday, set me up for an easy last day.  I began hiking around 630AM.  Within 25 minutes, I reached the bridge over the Animas River, the Animas River Trail's end.  The river crossing was the low point of my trip at 7700' in elevation.  After crossing the bridge, I traveled on the Purgatory Trail.

The railway crossing the river

View of the Animas from the bridge

From the river, the trail climbs quickly.  The trail rises above Cascade Canyon.  After passing the walls of the canyon, the trail drops back to Cascade Creek and follows it for a couple miles.  Finally, the trail veered away from the creek and climbs the next mile over a series of switchbacks.  Shortly before 930AM, a house came into view, and I reached the road.  A quick jaunt around a small pond brought me to highway 550 at Purgatory Resort.  After 95 miles, my trip came to an end.

Cascade Canyon

Hiking along Cascade Creek

Sun hitting peaks of the West Needle Range

The last mountain view before hitting the road

Purgatory Resort is at least 15 miles from my starting trailhead.  There is a nice wide shoulder by Purgatory.  I stuck out my thumb and waited for a ride.  About 10 minutes later, a truck with a Jack Russell on the dash pulled over and offered me a ride to my vehicle.  The driver turned out to be a local guide that seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of the area's mountains.

Grenadier Range

Clouds over the summits

The Weminuche Wilderness is one of Colorado's busiest and receives a lot of attention.  The beauty of the area certainly lived up to its expectations.  Whether traveling high along the Continental Divide or along the creeks and rivers, the scenery does not disappoint.  As an added bonus, my hike coincided with fall foliage season.  The aspens and some of the ground vegetation showed color in many places.

Rock Lake

Columbine Lake from Columbine Pass

The Weminuche also offers a good chance at wildlife sightings.  I saw six moose on the first two days of my trip.  I haven't seen that many moose since I lived in Maine.  I saw at least a dozen deer including a few fawns.  Although I didn't see any elk, I was serenaded by bugling bulls, especially my first night.  The coyotes were also quite vocal that night. 

Mule deer

Although some solitude is possible, expect to see other people in the Weminuche.  Most of the trails I traveled, I saw at least a few people.  The Colorado Trail, Pine River Trail, CDT, and the trails leading to Chicago Basin were probably the busiest.  The Emerald Lake area and Vallicento Creek Trail seemed to be popular as well.  My trip coincided with archery and muzzle loader season for elk.  I saw a few hunters and horse outfitters, particularly in the Pine River Trail corridor.  The Weminuche is massive. With 500 miles of trail, there is some room to get off the beaten path.  With so many trails, it's possible to put together trips ranging from a day to possibly weeks if you're ambitious.  My last trip in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness seemed busier, but that was in August, which tends to see more backcountry users in general in Colorado.

Chicago Basin peaks

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  1. What a wonderful trip report. Thanks for all the detail and amazing photos.

  2. Hi Tom! Do you have a map of your route?

    1. I don't have my specific route on a custom map. I used the Trails Illustrated Map for the Weminuche Wilderness. If you give me a week or so, I'll see if I can send you a caltopo link with my route after I finish another piece of writing I'm working on. Send me an email at, and I'll try to send you a link after I wrap up my current project.

  3. Tom, I found your trip report, bought the trails illustrated map and will follow your route in reverse. I’ll be hiking it the first week of September 2022. Thanks for your inspiration!

    1. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and found inspiration. Have a great hike. It’s a beautiful area.

  4. Boy this brings back pain and character building moments that only happen with a 47 pound pack on your back and the climb to the continental divide from Elk Park. The views made the trip worthy of the effort.