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Elk Park/Needleton Loop – Weminuche Wilderness, CO Aug 2013 (Backpacking Trip Report)

cdt trail runs along the top of the mountains in the weminuche wilderness, colorado - san juan mountain range

Weminuche Wilderness, CO – Elk Park/Needleton Loop Hike

Complete Weminuche Wilderness Photo Gallery | Weminuche HD Video

  • Trail Name – Elk Park/Needleton Loop
  • Location – Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest, CO
  • Park Type – National Forest, Wilderness Area
  • Fees & Permits – None
  • Length Of Time Hiked – 6 days, 5 nights
  • Trail Type – Semi loop – Train drops you off and picks you up
  • Miles Hiked – 48
  • Trail Difficulty – 8
  • Fires Allowed – Yes (No fires in Chicago Basin or Needleton drainage)

 

Total distance: 49.99 mi
Max elevation: 14088 ft
Min elevation: 8238 ft
Total climbing: 17139 ft
Total descent: -16804 ft
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elk park needleton loop hike statistics

 

Elk Park to Needleton Loop Hike Map – Weminuche Wilderness Maps

Here’s an overview map of the Weminuche Wilderness, which includes trailhead locations.

a map of the weminuche wilderenss that shows trailhead locations

Weminuche Wilderness Map With Trailheads

Here’s my caltopo map of the Elk Park/Needleton hike: 

 

Fees & Permits

There are no fees or permits needed to hike or camp in the Weminuche Wilderness. However, to hike this trail as I did, you will need to secure a train reservation through the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This was $90 each person for a round trip ticket, plus $10 to each to haul your backpack. Not cheap by any means, but it was a cool way to enter and leave the wilderness.

 

Day 1 – Monday August 5th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 5.4
Route – Elk Park train stop to camp along Elk Creek at ~10,300ft

Finally, it was time to start this hike. We’d been in Colorado a week now, doing other cool stuff like the Colorado National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Denver & Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Telluride, etc. This time, we were sure to be acclimated to the elevation. Lisa had a bit of trouble last year in the Maroon Bells when we hiked the Four Pass Loop, and I may have had a slight headache that first day as well. Not this time though!

in durnago colorado at the durango silverton narrow gauge railraod train station

Early morning at the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station

We got to the train station around 7:15am, as we were told to be there 45 minutes early. This seemed pretty pointless though, because we just stood around until about 7:50. We departed about 15 minutes late, and slowly made our way out of Durango. The train moves very slow, around 18 MPH max speed. It was almost comical how many people waved at us as the train chugged through town. Every campground, hotel, and intersection we passed, there were people waving at the train. People really are friendly in Colorado!

The train follows the overall route of the Animas River northward from Durango and stops at Silverton, however, we weren’t going that far. Our stop is Elk Park, a 3 hour ride from Durango. We saw several deer and prairie dogs before getting into the mountains. As we gained elevation, the Animas River became more and more impressive. We passed several waterfalls and areas of whitewater.

durango silverton train ride through the weminuche wilderness colorado

Train ride through the beautiful San Juan mountains on the way to our drop off point at Elk Park

animas river weminuche wilderness blue sky whitewater

Animas River

One of the train employees told us a little about the history of the train and how things work. The oldest cart on the train was built in 1879, and the oldest engine was from 1925 I believe. Although it was monsoon season during our trip, we were told that the coal cinders often start forest fires. For that reason, a small cart follows the train to check for any fires started by the train alongside the tracks. You could see burnt trees the entire train ride, so I guess it’s a pretty real threat. The cinders get in your eyes too, and they recommend that you wear sunglasses as a form of protection. We had cinders in your hair most of the trip, they didn’t seem to go away!

elk park train stop railroad

At the Elk Park train stop

train leaving the elk park stop in the weminuche wilderness

It was very quiet once the train left Elk Park. Hello, solitude…

After the train dropped us off at Elk Park, it was pretty quiet. In addition to us, there was also a group of 2, 3, and 4 other hikers who also got off the train. After checking our gear and getting set up, we were on our way. Almost immediately, it began to rain a little. It ended up raining everyday, several times a day while we were here. I think we also got hailed on every day as well, with the exception of our last day. Needless to say, our rain gear would be used heavily on this trip. We only had to wait 30 minutes before suiting up.

Within the first mile, we encountered a snake on the trail. It moved away pretty quickly, but I could tell it was not a rattlesnake. Shortly after, we saw the skull with spine still connected of some type of antlered animal alongside the trail. We played leap frog with the other groups of hikers most of the day as we passed them on their breaks and vice versa.

elk park colorado trail weminuche san juans

Shortly after Elk Park along the Colorado Trail, also called the Elk Park trail for this section.

The trail follows Elk Creek, and I believe it was called the Elk Creek Trail. This section of trail is also part of the Colorado Trail, a 400 mile trail that goes from Durango to Denver. On this section of the trail, the views were mostly obstructed by trees until we reached the beaver pond at mile 3. Here, there’s a good view of Vestal Peak. It was cloudy and grey though, so pictures weren’t coming out good. There didn’t appear to be any evidence of beavers here either. Other trip reports I’ve read have indicated that it’s been this way for years. Things open up a bit after this pond and there are some meadows to camp in if you were so inclined.

view of vestal peak in the san juan mountain range of southwest colorado

Vestal Peak view amidst the rain

elk park trail beaver pond

This is the beaver pond that people often reference when hiking this section of trail. There were no beavers.

Today’s hike was all uphill, but it wasn’t too strenuous. I didn’t want to go crazy on day 1 anyways, so it worked out that it was a shorter day. The weather started clearing up after about mile 4. At mile 4.25 or so, there were some nice camping spots in the meadow. I wanted to make it farther though, and we pushed on to about 5.5 miles where we made camp along Elk Creek, elevation ~10,300ft. It looked like a nice spot, close to the water, but the views weren’t excellent. We settled for this spot and set up camp by 4pm or so.

elk creek campsite

Elk Creek viewed form our campsite

The water in Elk Creek was super clear, so I didn’t have to pre-filter any of it before using my Steri-Pen Opti UV water purifier. The water tasted great and was very cold. There was an insane amount of biting flies and mosquitoes by the river here though, and I was regretting my decision to leave the bug spray and mosquito head net behind. The only way to combat them is it cover up your skin with long sleeves, jacket hood, etc. It was pretty hot when the sun was shining, but it didn’t shine too long. Soon enough it was back to the rain.

snowshow hare in the san juans

This snowshoe hare looks as if it could shoot lasers from its eyes

weminuche wilderness elk creek campsite

Campsite along the Elk Park trail, around 10,300ft

We spend a good while collecting firewood, but as wet as it was, it was a bit of a challenge. There was a snowshoe hare, or multiple hares, that I kept seeing as I gathered wood. He sure did look delicious, haha. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as we got all the wood together, it started raining. After about an hour of rain, thunder and lightning, I gave up on the idea of a fire. No hot dogs tonight, maybe night 3. I found a semi dry spot under a pine tree to hang out during the rain while Lisa took cover in the tent. I don’t like to sit in the tent if I don’t have to. I watched the bolts of lightning in the distance for a while before going to bed.

Day 2 – Tuesday August 6th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 5.4
Route – Elk CReek campsite to Eldorado Lake

We woke up today at 5:30 and began to slowly pack up camp. The first morning of a hike always takes the longest to get going. Everything was still pretty wet from the rains overnight, and it was cold. I purified some more water for today’s hike and ate breakfast, a Metrx bar and some granola & almonds. I am really loving the granola & almonds, it’s chocked full of complex carbs and good fats, perfect for hiking. Anyways, with breakfast in our stomachs and all our wet gear packed away, we hit the trail around 7:30.

Today’s hike will take us the rest of the way up the Elk Creek drainage along the Colorado trail, where we’ll hit the Continental Divide Trail, or CDT. The plan was to camp at either Kite Lake or Eldorado Lake, whichever looked more appealing. Given the popularity of Kite Lake, being right next to a 4×4 road just outside of the wilderness boundary, I pretty much had my mind set on Eldorado. Either way, it was going to be another short day with only about 6 miles to cover. I didn’t want to push Lisa too much in the first few days so I think the plan for days 1 and 2 were pretty good.

purple flowers and jagged peaks in the san juan mountains

Passing through a colorful meadow on the morning of day 2

san juan mountains appraoching treeline

Nearing the treeline, the views start improving

We passed many more campsites along the trail shortly after leaving our camp this morning. There was another meadow a mile or so past our camp that would have been a nice place to spend the night. Past that meadow, the trail begins to climb past the treeline. Finally, some views! I love being above the treeline, and I was excited to hike today. The skies were grey to start the day, but gave way to some blue patches by mid morning. There were tons of waterfalls everywhere, many more than our hike in the Maroon Bells last year. We stopped to eat lunch on a talus slope and observed many pikas, no marmots yet though.

colorado trail below miner's cabin

Morning of day 2, climbing up the Colorado Trail

climbing a rocky section of the colorado trail

Going up a funky section of the Colorado Trail, below the Miner’s Cabin

miner's cabin below the CDT in the san juans along the colorado trail

What a place for a cabin! Excellent views all around.

After lunch, we continued to climb in elevation until we reached the Miner’s Cabin just below the CDT. This cabin would be a good place to wait out a storm, but it’s not suitable as an overnight shelter due to it’s condition. What a place for a cabin though! There were tons of mines dotting the mountainside, some of which looked pretty difficult to get to. One mine was fairly close to the trail, so we took a quick detour and had a look inside. This particular mine only ran about 30ft or so, and was not that interesting. They must not have found much in this one and abandoned it.

hikers high up on the cdt

Hikers can be seen on the Continental Divide Trail, above on the ridgeline

cdt switchbacks in colorado san juan mountains

The path up to the CDT is a long, winding series of switchbacks

Now back on the trail, we were approaching the CDT. From a distance, I could see faint lines on the hillside that were definitely the switchbacks. From the bottom though, I couldn’t tell where the switchbacks started. I only saw a steep “trail” consisting of loose rock. It was the kind of terrain, like sand, that feels like you take one step back for every two steps forward. After climbing about a third of the way up to the CDT, I hit a switchback, which I gladly used the rest of the way up. Just as I hit that switchback, a few hikers came into view on the way down from the CDT. One guy stopped and said “Whoa, what are you doing going up that? That’s for water drainage, and maybe goats.” I laughed and told him how I lost the trail before it headed up. Lisa was still far below me, and the other hikers told her to hike directly to her right a ways until she hit the switchbacks, as they had a clear view from above us.

continental divide trail panorma

Panoramic view of the CDT

cdt storms approaching as we near eldorado lake

Lisa just made it up over the last rocky ridge on the CDT, giving way to views of Eldorado Lake

On the CDT looking South

On the CDT looking South

First view of Eldorado Lake

First view of Eldorado Lake

The weather was once again threatening to rain as I made it to the top, finally sitting up on the CDT. The views were awe inspiring, but of course, it began to rain. Lisa made it up 15 minutes later, but we didn’t stick around too long. Before reaching the trails down to Kite/Eldorado Lakes, we had to hike over a 100ft rocky ridge, just as the clouds looked their worst. Once on the other side, the path down to Eldorado lake was pretty clear. It was well worn and looked much less difficult than I had imagined. I couldn’t really see Kite Lake well from the the CDT, but as I said earlier, my mind was pretty much set. Down to Eldorado. Within 10 or 15 minutes, I found a decent campsite near the Lake. As another hiker had told me earlier today, there were a lot of rodent holes in this area, and I could see mice running around everywhere. Great… hope they don’t cause us any trouble tonight. It was around 1:45pm when we rolled into camp today.

camping at eldorado lake in the weminuche wilderness colorado

Camp alongside Eldorado Lake

There is no cover up here by Eldorado Lake, which sits well above the treeline at 12,300ft. We set our packs up on a rock ledge with rain covers on, hoping that’s be enough to keep them dry. We kept the food bags in our packs too, which is kept in OPsaks. These odor proof bags have never let me down, and with all the rodents around, it was going to be a real test tonight. The food issue didn’t bother me much, I was mainly worried about the rodents chewing on our sweaty gear. I had no way of keeping my gear out of the reach of the rodents.

eldorado lake drainage creek

This is where Eldorado Lake drains off the mountainside and down to the Miner’s Cabin area we passed earlier today

white dome 13er san juans weminuche wilderness eldorado lake

Looking up at 13,627ft White Dome from the Eldorado Lake drainage

After setting up the tent in light rain, I decided to take shelter in the tent as the rain continued. Lisa and I ended up taking a nap for about an hour and a half until the weather improved. I forced myself to get out of the tent and go explore the area. The hiker who told me about the mice up here had camped here last night. He mentioned a possible “shortcut” to get up here from the Colorado Trail, by going up the drainage. Obviously I skipped this route on our way up here, opting to go the traditional way up the switchbacks to the CDT, but I was curious if it was doable. I followed the lake to it’s drainage, which for reference was directly south of the Miner’s Cabin. Where the lake began to drain out down the mountainside, there were remnants of an old dam here. I only followed the drainage a short ways, but another 100ft away it appeared to drop off. Without going closer, there’s no way of knowing what the rest of it looked like. Looking back, I wish I had checked it out.

backpacking eldorado lake views of the weminuche wilderness

I climbed up to the top of this ridge for some truly amazing views of the Weminuche Wilderness

eldorado lake view from above

Beautiful views of Eldorado Lake during the best weather of the afternoon

mountain views near eldorado alke

Awesome views from an unnamed high point above Eldorado Lake

From the drainage area, it was easy to cross to the other side of the lake. I climbed up the highest hill along the edge which was roughly 12,700ft, which provided awesome views of Eldorado and everything else around. Fog billowed from distant peaks, and it was pretty dark around me as well now. As crappy as the weather has been all day, I haven’t seen any lightning yet. I meandered around the lake a while and snapped some pictures before heading back to camp. Lisa was out roaming too, watching the many Ptarmigan birds in the area.

The weather was cloudy and more scattered rain throughout the rest of the day. With no campfire, stars to gaze at, or any other reason to remain awake, we went to bed as the sun went down. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

Day 3 – Wednesday August 7th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 14.5
Route – Eldorado Lake to Vallecito Creek Bridge

It was a little windy last night, which can make it hard to sleep. I didn’t rain much though. Our food and gear were safe from the mice last night, so that was a relief. The skies were cloudy all around us though. Everywhere along the horizon, fog could be seen rising from the mountains.

cdt weather cloudy morning panorama

Back up on the CDT, it was evident that the weather was not going to cooperate today

Today’s hike will take us down by Kite Lake, over Hunchback Pass, and all the way down to the Vallecito Creek bridge, near Johnson Creek. I figured the total mileage for today would be about 14 miles, but everything after mile 4 or so would be downhill. So far my knees have been doing great this hike, but an entire day going downhill worried me. I modified my workout regimen before this hike to try and strengthen certain parts of the leg muscles that support the knee function, some intense stair climb sessions (45lb pack), as well as doing a lot more stretching.

san juan mountains fog billowing up from the mountains

This looks more like some of the pictures I’d seen of the San Juans before our trip. Breathtaking!

trail to kite lake from the cdt in the san juans

The trail leading down to Kite Lake from the CDT

foggy kite lake views weminuche wilderness

View of Kite Lake, before it disappeared in the growing fog

On the trail by 7am today, we headed up to the CDT once again. From above, I spotted a deer down below on the trail to Kite Lake. We headed down towards Kite, watching as the fog grew more and more around us. By the time we reached the lake, the peaks around us were completely engulfed by the clouds. It was quite a sight to see, unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed before. Early morning often leaves thick fog in valleys, only to be burnt away later by the sun. Not today, it gre more and more intense as time went on. There was only one truck by Kite Lake, and we saw no people. So much for being packed. Still, I was glad to have spent the night at Eldorado Lake.

kite lake low clouds

The trial follows the 4×4 road by Kite Lake. This is when the fog really started growing

The trail follows the 4×4 road past the lake, and then winds towards the trail leading up to Hunchback Pass. I was following a GPX track on my GPS of another person who had hiked this “loop”, and his track led me off trail a little bit. He had camped in this area, not by Eldorado, and thus had left the trail to set up his camp. After realizing that, I looked around and could see where the trail picked up again, and started hiking directly towards the trail in the distance.

backpacking through the fog in the san juan mountains

It was incredible to see the clouds taking over the area!

hiking up hunchback pass in colorado

The clouds seemed to be chasing us up Hunchback Pass. Soon enough, we’d be overtaken by the unavoidable fog

backpack trip through the san juan mountains

Below Hunchback Pass

Now back on the trail, we started gaining elevation en route to Hunchback Pass. I couldn’t see the mountains behind me at all now, they were lost in the clouds. I’m sure the views would have been great here in the absence of the clouds, but this was still pretty cool. It was eerie and mesmerizing at the same time. The on and off rain was definitely a bummer though. I would have taken more pictures, but I didn’t want my camera to get wet. This was true for much of the trip.

hike over hunchback pass

Getting close to the top of Hunchback Pass

hunchback pass views obscured by thick fog

The amazing view from Hunchback Pass… clouds.

The top of Hunchback Pass offered no views, as the visibility was around 200 feet. It was raining up here and quite cold. We did not have gloves (other than one pair of fingerless gloves I use when gathering/breaking firewood and climbing), so our hands were getting a little numb. All we could do is move downhill as quickly as possible, and after descending another 1500 feet or so, all was well again. The rain subsided and we dipped below the clouds into a new valley. The names of surrounding landmarks included Stormy Gulch and Storm King Peak, and now I understood why.

navigating down hunchback pass

Finally below the clouds after descending Hunchback Pass

deer wandering around near us during our lunch break

These deer practically walked right up to us while we ate lunch

Down from the pass, we still had a good 10 miles to cover today. Fortunately it was all downhill, so we could cover some serious ground, which I assumed would be at the expense of my knees. So far, so good. There were many stream crossings and several large waterfalls that we passed, but due to the weather and number of miles we had to cover, we didn’t spend any time checking most of them out. When we stopped for lunch, two deer wandered into our resting area. They didn’t seem to concerned with our presence though. While we ate our sandwiches, they grazed about 40 feet away as if we weren’t even there.

backpacking the vallecito trail, crossing red rock creek

Crossing Red Rock Creek

There was a very brief moment of sunlight right as we crossed Red Rock Creek, which was nice to have at this moment. Y0ou could really see just ow red it was with a little sunlight. We were able to cross the creek by hopping rocks and logs, just as we were able to with every other stream crossing on this trip. Not once did we get wet crossing a stream.

san juan mountains vallecito trail hike

View from the Vallecito Trail

colorado wilderness vallecito creek on a foggy day

Looking upstream on the Vallecito Creek

We saw 3 hikers coming down Hunchback Pass earlier as we were going up, and didn’t see anyone else today until we got about a mile from the Vallecito Creek Bridge. We passed 2 guys who had asked us how far Roell Creek was, but I wasn’t familiar with that one. About a half hour later we arrived at the bridge, and it was a welcome sight. My GPS said we did 16 miles today, including going up Hunchback Pass, but later when I reviewed the data for this trip it calculated the day at 14.5 miles. For some reason, the mileage the GPS reports to me in the field is always more than the mileage it gives me at home when I am reviewing the final data. I don’t know which to trust, but it was a long day regardless.

There were many campsites to choose from in the area near the Vallecito Creek Bridge. There was only one other campsite occupied the we could see in the area, so it wasn’t too crowded. There was a lot of toilet paper and poop laying around near some of the campsites though, evidence of heavy usage. This was already painting a picture of what Chicago Basin might be like tomorrow, as it is supposed to be the most heavily used area in the Weminuche Wilderness.

at the vallecito bridge crossing in the weminuche wilderness colorado

Creek? More like a river.

I took the driest looking campsite I could find, which wasn’t saying much. Everything was wet, including my feet. After setting up camp, I decided to go down to the creek to purify some water. Really, it shouldn’t be called a creek, but a river instead. The water was deep and fast flowing here. Getting down to the water and going through the process of purifying the water was a bit of a pain here, but I wanted to get it out of the way in case it started raining again.

campsite near the vallecito bridge crossing

Camp near Vallecito Bridge, night 3

Lisa really wanted a fire, and although I knew we could get one going, but I didn’t want to go through the effort of gathering wood only to have it rain again . However, after she mentioned it a few times I could tell she really wanted one, so we gathered the driest firewood we could find and used our garbage to start the fire. Success! The fire burned quite well once established, despite the soggy wood. Even though I initially didn’t want to build a fire, I was really glad to have it going now. What a morale booster it was. Most of our clothing was wet, including our backpacks and other gear, so we finally had a chance to dry them out some. I was mainly happy to dry out my boots. My backpack did get burned by an ember though, so I was a little bummed about that, but it should be something I can patch up.

It’s too bad that we had already eaten dinner before starting this fire, because we still had hot dogs that we could have cooked tonight. Oh well. We snacked on sour patch kids by the fire for a while before letting it burn out. Clothes and gear is now dry (mostly), and we wreaked of smoke. There haven’t been any bugs out the last 2 nights though, and I was really wishing we had a fire like this on night one. We stayed up a little later tonight due to the fire, and ended up going to bed around 11pm.

 

Day 4- Thursday August 8th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 10.4
Route – Vallecito Creek Bridge to Chicago Basin

The skies were fairly clear when I woke up at 5:30 this morning, but I’ve grown weary of the weather in the Weminuche Wilderness at this point. I don’t trust the skies and just assume it will rain later today. At least we can enjoy a few hours of sunshine before the weather turns.

johnson creek flas flood debris

Logjam on Johnson Creek

Our morning routine is a little more polished now, and we were on the trail by 7am. Today was going to be almost all uphill, heading over Columbine Pass and down into Chicago Basin. The trail wasn’t too steep most of the way up this morning. As with the other days, we passed many streams and waterfalls on the way up. Some streams had a lot of flash flood debris jammed up in certain points, more so than we’d seen in other areas. There were a lot of berries along the trail, although not all edible. The ones that did look edible weren’t ripe yet.

amherst mountain and organ mountain in the san juans

Amherst and Organ mountains in the background

Our lunch spot today was next to a waterfall. The skies were pretty blue now and there was abundant sunshine. It felt good to be hiking today… it’s amazing what a little sunshine can do. After a nice relaxing break, we hit the trail again. After lunch, the trail had gained enough elevation to start giving us some better views as it passed alongside some cliffs.

vallecito basin backpacking august 2013

Hiking through Vallecito Basin on our way up Columbine Pass

Vallecito Basin, which lies below Columbine pass, was pretty nice. There were only one or two campsites occupied here, and it would have been a nice place to stay the night if we didn’t already have our trip planned out.

Yet another day we found ourselves traversing a pass in bad weather

Yet another day we found ourselves traversing a pass in bad weather

backpacking san juans near columbine lake waterfalls

Near Columbine Lake

By the time we were leaving the treeline behind, foul weather had returned. Dark skies now approached from all sides, and there was even some lightning in the distance. Still a good ways from the pass, we pushed on as the rains started in their usual off and on fashion. More views ruined by the weather, and as a result I took few pictures in this area.

columbine pass view of columbine lake below, and vallecito basin

Looking down on Columbine Lake near the top of Columbine Pass

hike up columbine pass and view chicago basin

First views of Chicago Basin

The final approach of Columbine Pass was pretty steep, but manageable. The weather looked like it was holding out as we neared the top, but it looked like it could turn bad at any moment. I made it to the top before Lisa and snapped a few pictures before the rain returned moments later. By the time Lisa made it to the top, we had to continue down the other side immediately. Hail/freezing rain/snow was falling, and it was Hunchback Pass all over again, with a little better visibility. Literally just yards below the top of the pass, on the Chicago Basin side, the trail gets extremely steep and pretty sketchy. The rock is slippery and there is nothing to help you balance yourself on this very narrow section of trail, which happens to have a BIG drop on your left. Lisa was quite scared here, and it took a lot of coaxing to get her to move.

chicago basin red rock gorge

Interesting views in the upper Chicago Basin area

Once past the tricky part near the top of the pass, it was your general steep descent via switchbacks. Awesome views all around, but it was still cold and precipitating out and thus my camera stayed under my rain jacket. Once we reached a flat area around 11,650, there were a good amount of campsites scattered about. None of them seemed very dry though. I did see a lot of goat hair stuck in the trees and bushes now, which we had not seen anywhere else yet along our hike. Also, A creek ran through the area and created an interesting looking gorge that I wish I had more time to check out, but we really wanted to get to camp right now.

old mine in colorado's chicago basin

A mine along the trail leading down into Chicago Basin

Now through this little plateau area, the trail starts heaving down pretty quick. There were a few more mines along the trail here, and one appeared to be deeper than the others we had explored. It even had some rails leading in and out of it. If we weren’t wet and hungry, I might have stopped to check it out further, but again, we were on a mission to find camp.

chicago basin campsite august 2013

Campsite in Chicago Basin for nights 4 and 5

After heading down more switchbacks, I spied a suitable place to call home of the next 2 nights. Maybe not a traditional campsite, but it was by far the driest campsite I’d seen on this trip yet. There were 2 large pines growing 3 feet apart, creating a dry spot large enough for our tent, all out gear, places to sit, and more. This was perfect! There were no other campsites nearby and extremely close to the trail leading up to the three 14ers in Chicago Basin: Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, and Mt. Eolus.

The weather started to improve a little as we set up the tent and took care of the usual camp chores. There was goat hair all around the campsite, but we had yet to see one. It was nice to know that we had a day off of hiking coming up tomorrow, at least for Lisa anyways. I still panned on climbing Windom and maybe Sunlight.

cloudy chicago basin

Cloudy, but beautiful views

As the evening progressed, we saw several deer both near our camp and off in the distance. Then, we saw 2 mountain goats on the other side of Needle Creek that had just walked into someone’s camp. They didn’t seem afraid of humans at all. The people were yelling at them and throwing rocks to try and scare them away, but the goats were pretty stubborn. They really wanted to be right there, and weren’t taking “no” for an answer. They were finally able to scare the goats away for good by barking at them like a dog. This was comical, yet useful information at the same time. We knew that the odds were pretty good that goats would wander near us too, eventually.

Not long after, we watched the same goats cross the creek and head towards our general area. Sure enough, they appeared at the top of the trail heading down to our camp from the main trail. After staring me down for a minute, they decided to move in my direction. I chucked some rocks and shouted at them, but they’d just walk 5 feet away and stare back at us. I don’t know why these animals are so persistent about going to a specific location when there are humans there. You would think that they would just find another place to hang out with no people nearby, but they kept trying to make their way down to our area. We had to stand guard for a while to make sure they didn’t walk right into our camp. Eventually, I was able to scare them off pretty good by simply throwing my arms up in the air. It sounds funny, but for some reason hey turned and ran when I did that and never came back. This was after 10 minutes of having rocks thrown at them. Apparently, they felt more threatened by that than the rocks whizzing by their heads.

chicago basin campsite views

View from our camp in Chicago Basin

As the sun went down, the goats headed back up the mountainside for the evening. The low clouds were back, engulfing Mount Kennedy southwest of us. Since there are no fires allowed in Chicago Basin or the rest of the Needle Creek drainage, and the fact that I was planning on climbing in morning, we called it an early night and went to bed shortly after sundown. The skies did not look good and I was not sure whether or not I would be climbing tomorrow.

 

Day 5 – Friday August 9th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 5.7 (summit Windom Peak starting from camp in Chicago Basin)
Route – Standard route up to Twin Lakes, ascended Windom’s West face

To my amazement, the sky was 100% clear when I woke up at 5:30 this morning. The stars were barely visible now that the morning light was fast approaching, but this was the most I’d seen of stars the entire trip. My breakfast today was a very hearty helping of granola and almonds (about 800 calories worth), and some dried strawberries. I packed a peanut butter sandwich, some jerky, and a Metrx bar to eat later, as well as 2 liters of water.

I hit the trail around 6:15 with full rain gear on. I knew the vegetation was still wet from last evening’s rain, and didn’t feel like being soaked to the bone if the trail happens to go through dense foliage. I learned this the hard way when hiking around Snowmass Lake last year. Unlike Snowmass though, the trail here was more open and very well worn, and not much here to get me wet. Once I gained a few hundred feet in elevation, I could see that there wasn’t any threat of getting soaked and I took off the extra layers.

twin lakes mountain goats chicago basin

Mountain Goats hanging out by Twin lakes

early morning twin lakes chicago basin

Twin Lakes, still waiting for early morning light to hit ti’s waters

After about 20 minutes of hiking, I ran into my first mountain goats of the day. They were just ahead of me on the trail, but again, I was able to scare them off by simply throwing my arms in the air. They ran downhill and out of sight, and I kept moving. The trail was much easier to hike than I was anticipating, and I was covering pretty good ground. After going up a series of switchbacks, I had reached the Twin Lakes by around 7:15. Here, there were several more mountain goats hanging out on the rocks by a small pool of water. These guys didn’t seem as threatening though. They watched as I hiked right past them, which I did after taking a few pictures.

climbing windom peak, above twin lakes

Hiking above Twin Lakes

snow below windom and sunlight peak

Small patches of snow here and there

hiking above twin lakes below windom peak

The climb above Twin Lakes

The Twin Lakes were still in the shadows, as the sun had not yet risen high enough to illuminate it. I decided to take pictures of the lake later and just head up Windom now. I chose my path through the first boulder field above the lake and started moving. There were a few pockets of snow tucked away here and there, but nothing too large. I put my poles away now as I found it necessary to use my hands a little here and there going up some of the boulders.

windom peak saddle looking towards chicago basin

On the saddle below Windom

Next I found myself on the saddle below the approach to Windom Peak. Looking up, it looked very easy and straight forward. There was even a distinct trail that led much of the way up, until it could no longer be seen amongst the boulders. There were cairns here and there marking the way as well, which could be seen since the Twin Lakes. I headed up and made good time moving through here as it was pretty easy. Eventually, it became steeper, to the point where there were some moments of exposure. Not too bad, but this was definitely not a class 2+ as described on 14ers.com. This was a class 3 in my opinion. Some of the rocks were covered in ice making them extremely slippery too, so I had to be very careful once I neared the top.

windom peak panorama view blue skies august

Amazing view from the top of Windom Peak

windom peak summit view alpine lakes sunny blue skies

View from Windom Peak

I reached the summit of Windom Peak (14,087ft) by around 8:30. I was rewarded with an amazing view of the Weminuche Wilderness, unobstructed by clouds for the first time all week. In fact, there wasn’t a single cloud in sight now, just a beautiful deep blue sky in all directions. Finally, the weather is cooperating!

weminuche wilderness 14er windom peak summit view

sunlight peak viewed from windom peak

View of Sunlight Peak

san juan mountain range views

I took advantage of the weather and took a ton of pictures up here. I had also been considering a climb up Sunlight Peak as well, but it was so nice up here on Windom Peak that I decided to relax, and just enjoy the beautiful view. After working so hard to get to the top, I couldn’t justify turning around immediately. I ended up spending an hour and a half up here just hanging out.

colorado fourteener windom peak summit block

Me on the summit block of Windom

Two other climbers reached the top during my stay up here. We chatted for a while and took turns taking pictures of each other before they headed down. I hung out up here a while longer before deciding to head down around 10am. By now, there were clouds brewing in all directions, but nothing serious yet.

climbing route down top of windom peak colorado 14er

This is the route down. Class 2+ my ass!

windom peak below summit

Looking back up the way I just came down from Windom Peak

Going down always looks much harder! The rocks were still icy and required some careful footwork in some spots to negotiate. Before I knew it though, I was was past the steeper summit section and back down to a more obvious trail.

twin lakes waterfall

Waterfall above Twin Lakes

beautiful twin lakes upper chicago basin

Twin Lakes

Instead of heading over to Sunlight, I decided to follow the drainage leading to Twin Lakes and explore that area. Once I got a little closer to the drainage, I could see the water flowing through a narrow gorge carved into the rock. I proceeded downhill now alongside the edge of this. Farther downstream revealed a tall but tiny waterfall before the land leveled out near the lake.

sand and rock shoreline of twin lake

Twin Lakes Shoreline

sunlight on the twin lakes

Amazing color

clouds over twin lakes colorado backpacking

The clouds are getting darker…

mountain goats near twin lakes chicago basin

More mountain goats as I leave the Twins Lake area

The sun was shining on the Twin Lakes now, and it was beautiful. However, the clouds were building now and threatened to block the sun for the first time today. After taking some great photos near the lake, I started heading down. The mountain goats I saw on the rocks earlier were in the same general spot on my way back.

heading down from twin lakes into chicago basin

Back to the basin

cicago basin twin lakes trail view

Heading down from Twin Lakes

I felt a few drops of rain just as the trail leaves the Twin Lakes area and dips back into Chicago Basin. My boots were the driest they’d been since day 1, and I really didn’t want to get stuck in rain today. I like having dry gear! I decided to head downhill in a hurry. My knees were holding up very well so far this trip and I figured, why not? I did put a knee brace on, both knees, for the first time ever. I knew I was going to punish them here and figured it’d be best to give them any help they can get. From Twin Lakes, I made it back to my campsite in 35 minutes.

chicago basin campsite drying out backpacking gear

Back at camp, drying out my gear

Lisa spent the morning chasing away mountain goats. She said that several of them approached the campsite and some got extremely close. Besides that, she was very happy to have a day off to rest. It rained a little very briefly when I got back, then was party sunny the rest of the day with only a few intermittent showers.

We walked down to Needle Creek and took a side path over to a waterfall, but besides that, we spent the rest of the day relaxing in camp mostly. All of our gear was dry and life was good. We saw a few more deer throughout the day, more snowshoe hare, and even a weasel. There were more mountain goats in the evening as well. All in all, quite a bit of wildlife.

watching the sun set in chicago basin from our campsite

Sunset in Chicago Basin

As we laid down to sleep tonight, all we could think about was laying down in that nice hotel bed tomorrow night. That is, of course, after hot meal and long hot shower!

 

Day 6 – Saturday August 10th, 2013

Miles Hiked – 7.4
Route – Chicago Basin to Needleton train stop

Today we “slept in” to 6am. We had about 7 miles of downhill hiking to the train, which arrives at 3:30, and thus were not in a hurry. We were on the trail at 7:30, and saw a few more goats as we made our way out of Chicago Basin. We also saw more people this morning than the rest of the trip combined! We saw very little traffic through our area where we camped, despite being right next to the trail. It seems that most people in Chicago Basin came from the Needleton stop, hiked here, and turned around and went back the way they came. I figured more people would be out here doing the full “loop” like we were doing, but that clearly wasn’t the case. I guess that’s good, because that was less people we saw on the other days. I’d say we averaged 5 people seen per day on days 1-4. I saw maybe 10 people on day 5, and probably about 60 on day 6.

view from needle creek trail hiking towards needleton train stop

Hiking along Needle Creek

After leaving Chicago Basin, the trail was actually kind of boring compared to the rest of our hike. Trees blocked most of the views. There were a bunch of waterfalls along Needle Creek though. There were also a lot of flowers alongside the trail, and there were tons of butterflies on them. Sometimes 2 to a flower.

needle creek trail new york creek waterfall from trail bridge

Waterfall on New York Creek

The weather was holding out all morning, shine shining and blue skies. Go figure, good weather on the last day. At the bridge over New York Creek, there was a waterfall right there along the trail..

trail sign for the weminuche wilderness boundary near needleton trailhead

animas river bridge crossing needleton weminuche wilderness

Animas River, from the bridge at the Needleton train stop

weminuche wilderness railroad tracks animas river

Killing time before the train arrives

Before we knew it, we saw the Weminuche Wilderness boundary sign. Back, finally! However, from the trailhead sign it was another 1/2 mile or so before we actually reached the train stop. Between the trailhead marker and train stop was actually private property with a few shacks, cabins, and homes built. I wonder how they get to their homes, since there are no roads anywhere near here. After crossing the bridge over the Animas River to the train tracks on the other side, we spotted an abandoned shack. There were no signs of private property here, so we hung out here while we waited for the train. It was only 11:45, so we had 3:45 to wait.

abandoned shack house by the needleton train stop

A very convenient spot for an abandoned shack to be located

Other hikers trickled in to the area as time went on. Most were quick to check out the shack as we did, so the cinder block and wood plank benches filled up fast. Hikers exchanged stories about their experiences in the Weminuche Wilderness and beyond to kill the time. Many jokes were cracked regarding the stench of one’s self or others in their group. Still, there were several more people that were waiting by the train tracks and elsewhere. I’d say there were about 20 people total here waiting for the train.

At 2:45, we heard a train approaching that sounded it’s whistle. Everyone in the shack jumped up immediately, rushing to put on boots and grab their gear as we rushed towards the tracks. The train kept on going though, as this one wasn’t scheduled to stop here. False alarm. We returned back to the shack for a while, but decided to wait at the track 15 minutes prior to it’s scheduled arrival. Of course, now it starts to rain for the first time today.

As we waited by the tracks, one of the hikers we were talking to in the shack was showing another guy his sleeping pad. The other guy was impressed with it’s small size. I couldn’t resist the chance to whip out my Klymit Inertia X-Frame sleeping pad that I bought a few months back. It was about 1/3 the size of his sleeping pad, and as far as I know, is the lightest one on the market at 9.1 ounces. I took it out of it’s stuff sack and unrolled it and the looks on their faces were just priceless. They could not believe how small the pad was, but I got the impression it was too “ultralight” for them. More jokes were cracked to the effect of “mine’s smaller than yours” and “isn’t it usually the other way around?”.

The train showed up about 5-10 minutes late, but was a welcome sight nonetheless. I do regret getting the open-cart seats though, because it was raining and it was not dry inside. I asked one of the train workers if we could sit in the covered carts even though we had tickets for the open cart, and he said “sure, if there’s a seat available”. I was very surprised that there were no seats available, the train was pretty packed. After being in the rain all week, we were still getting rained on during the train ride back. At least we had somewhere to sit now, that was nice.

After 3 hours, we were finally back in Durango. We changed clothes in the car and tried to mask our stench with deodorant and cologne/perfume before setting off into the city in search of food. After driving around town, we realized that there was zero parking available anywhere. After all, it was Saturday evening. Since we paid for parking at the railroad, we drove back there and parked while we set out on foot once gain. We ended up eating at Diorio’s Pizza which was pretty good. This was a pizza by the slice kind of place, and the slices were enormous! One slice was probably between the size of a small and medium pizza at most places, but it was extremely thin.

It was great to get some hot food in our stomachs before heading to our hotel in Pagosa Springs. After 6 days of hiking, we couldn’t wait to get to the hotel. But there would be no sleeping in tomorrow morning though, because we were off to the Great Sand Dunes National Park! But, that’s another story for another trip report.

 

Final Thoughts

The rain sucked, but it sure did make you appreciate what little sunshine we did get. It didn’t rain extremely heavily at any time, but it was just so damn frequent. I’d say we averaged about 4-5 bouts of rain per day.

Seeing the fog rise from the mountains and engulf the peaks around us was incredible. This was worth the trip alone and something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime! The pictures don’t even come close to being there first hand.

Physically, I did pretty well on this hike. Carrying a backpack downhill has wreaked havoc on my knees on my last few hikes, but I was spared this time. I feel like my extra efforts in training before this trip really made the difference in my knees. I wasn’t sore at all until day 4 or 5, with only moderate soreness in the hamstrings.

As always, questions and comments are welcome!

If you found my trip report useful, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment! Alternatively, if you feel you have any information you’d like to share with others regarding this hike, please feel free to leave that below in a comment as well.

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Like what you see?

18 Responses

  1. HikerKev

    Nice trip report and great pictures!

     

    September 13, 2013 at 1:17 am

  2. Mike

    Very good tip report. Thanks for sharing this one.

     

    November 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

  3. Rod Granberry

    Great report, how can I get your waypoints?

     

    April 10, 2015 at 8:21 pm

  4. Dave

    Any way to access this trail without riding the train?

     

    May 10, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      Yes there is. I updated this post to include a map of the Weminuche Wilderness, with trailhead locations marked. Purgetory was the popular trailhead of choice for non-train riders. It’s an extra 9 miles I believe from Purgatory to Needleton.

       

      May 13, 2015 at 7:28 pm

  5. Very nice trip report! I’m taking a group on essentially this same trip in a couple weeks, and your pictures and story are very inspiring.

    Thanks!

     

    June 14, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    • Steve Zenner

      Bill –

      How bad was the narrow passage near Chicago Basin?

       

      July 27, 2017 at 5:11 pm

      • MetalBackpacker
        MetalBackpacker

        Coming down Columbine Pass into Chicago Basin? It was slippery and a little scary in the rain. In good weather it should not be a problem.

         

        July 30, 2017 at 7:29 pm

  6. Ryan

    Thanks for the great report! I’m interesting in making this same trip this year, and was wondering if you knew when the optimal season is? My group is collectively only able to go last week of May/first week of June. Would that be too early in the season?

     

    January 25, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      Hi Ryan, That’s definitely too early in the season. The San Juan mountains are notorious for being snowy and the best time is probably mid July to Mid September. First week of June, the only people out there will probably be CDT thru hikers, and they’ll be up against a lot of snow still. Maybe, MAYBE in a low snow year but from what I can tell the west is getting quite a bit of powder this year so my guess would be July before the route is fully snow free. It might be tough to find a good alpine hike that early in the season.

      If you are open to suggestions, maybe have a look at the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico. Lower elevations and farther south, definitely no snow and the spring melt off is going to be done by then. I have a trip report on the Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness, but the popular side is the east side with all the rivers. A few years ago, I was looking at hiking an alpine route (Pecos Wilderness in northern NM, and Rocky Mountain National Park) during the same time frame as you. Actually, mid May. I found nothing that was going to be snow free and chose the Gila.

       

      January 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm

  7. Val

    Nice! Can’t wait to try this trip myself! Thanks for sharing

     

    March 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

  8. Spot

    Excellent trip report, thanks for doing this.
    I did this loop in Late August in the mid 90’s and must have gotten a lucky dry weather window. I was awestruck with the beauty of those mountains. Will b taking my 19 yr old son in early August this year for his first extended back country pack trip. I just forwarded the link so he get get psyched up!

     

    April 12, 2016 at 2:08 pm

  9. Steve

    Ryan,

    where can you get a map for the trail?

     

    October 29, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      This page has a map of the Weminuche Wilderness near the top, with trails and trail heads. Also, if you’re looking for a GPX file, you can download that here http://metalbackpacker.com/gpx-files/.

       

      October 31, 2016 at 10:16 am

  10. Dave

    I’ve started research for a September 2017 trip and came across your report. Very useful. Are there fishing opportunities along this route? Or are there other routes you could r commend for some stream and lake fishing? Looking for a 40-60 mile, week trip. My home area is the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and am looking for a backcountry trip in Colorado.

     

    November 26, 2016 at 5:18 pm

  11. Steve Zenner

    Where did you get the map? I am going in Aug 2017 and want to make sure to get a good map.

     

    March 2, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    • MetalBackpacker
      MetalBackpacker

      The map in my trip report is generated from a wordpress plugin, where I uploaded my GPX file of the hike. You can download the GPX file here:

      http://metalbackpacker.com/wp-content/uploads/gpx/WeminucheRouteHiked.gpx

      You can use this file with your GPS unit, or load it in caltopo.com (or your favorite mapping website or application). Caltopo is pretty awesome if you haven’t used it already. Just import my GPX file and then you can print it out. Go to the “print” button at the top and choose “print to pdf”. The free version of caltopo only allows 5 pages max in your pdf, so just break it up into blocks of 5 pages or less and print out the entire map that way. That’s how I do it these days. Otherwise, you can order a big map from mytopo.com. I used to do that, but it gets expensive to print out those big maps all the time, especially for places I likely won’t return to for years.

       

      March 3, 2017 at 12:54 pm

  12. Lee Ellis

    Thanks for the trip report, I had originally planned just on Chicago Basin but will now do the whole loop after seeing your report and talking to the forest service rangers. Very well done!

     

    July 28, 2017 at 6:41 pm

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