In late July 2016, my wife and I did a 6 day, 50+ mile loop through the Weminuche Wilderness. The Weminuche is a massive wilderness. It is shared by the San Juan National Forest on the west side of the continental divide, and the Rio Grande National Forest on the east side. This area covers a large portion of southern Colorado. Size, however, is not what this range boasts the most. The perpetuation of awe-inspiring vistas, rushing waters, and challenging terrain is was kept us enamored.
This trip was actually a very special one: our honeymoon! A family friend in CO pointed us towards Weminuche and mentioned the historic narrow gauge coal train that can drop you off right at the wilderness border. One look at the dramatic landscape (Weminuche is home to some popular 14ers) and we were sold. On July 26th we flew from LAX to Denver, rented a car-- an affectionately lime green Ford Fiesta-- and drove seven hours to Durango. That night we crashed in an Air-bnb, did one last gear shake-down, and had a brew in downtown.
DAY 1 • Needleton > Chicago Basin (7 mi)
Our in/out points were part of what is informally referred to as the Eld Park Loop. This loop typically begins at the Elk Park flag stop on the Silverton/Durango Narrow Gauge Train then makes a loop down Vallecito Creek to end at the Needleton stop. Our route went in/out the opposite: our tickets dropped us off at Needleton stop, and then picked us up six days later at Elk Park flag stop.
We stashed the lime-green Ford Fiesta at the train station's long-term parking, it was $8 a day. After tossing our backpacks in the cargo card we took our seats on the train.
We arrived at the Needleton stop after a couple hours on the train. The Needleton stop is nothing more than a small clearing next to the Animas River. When we arrived there were groups of hikers slumping in the shade of the trees, awaiting their return train. We hopped off the train and the brakeman started tossing bags out of the cargo car. We grabbed our gear and promptly headed across the Needleton bridge. We filtered water and then started our first day on the trail. No time to lose! We had about six miles to Chicago Basin. I highly recommend this train ride. I understand why some locals are cynical about a train that burns coal and perpetually blasts a cacophonous whistle while rolling through town, but there's no contesting the value of this unique experience.
Day 1 ended at Chicago Basin after over 3,100 ft of elevation gain. Final elevation was 11,199 ft. This area is a popular basecamp for peak-baggers as there are a plethora of 14ers in the vicinity. Unfortunately not all of these folks are good stewards of the backcountry; they clearly do not practice Leave No Trace. Gabs and I picked up A LOT of garbage in this area. Very sad. This was the only "crowded" part of the trip.
DAY 2 • Chicago Basin > Vallecito Creek (9 mi)
- 1,600 ft of elevation gain
- 12,692 ft ax elevation
Day 2 started with a phenomenal climb up Columbine Pass. On the way we passed an old mine. Many years ago mining was common throughout these lands. It's hard to imagine the work that went into getting ore out of these mountains!
After making our way over Columbine Pass, we took a dip in the lake. The rest of the day was a steady decent along Johnson Creek drainage to the bridge at Vallecito Creek.
I always prefer to be ascending in elevation, especially early in a trip. But the descent along Johnson Creek was picturesque and gradual. We camped at an area that is informally known as "the bridge."
Day 3 • Vallecito Creek > Rock Lake (9.5 mi)
- 2,792 ft of elevation gain
- 11,735 ft max elevation
What a wildly gorgeous and challenging day! The climb along Vallecito Creek was gradual and lower in elevation. But once we diverted east and started our climb along Rock Creek the real challenge began, and that was after six miles of hiking. Luckily Rock Creek offered non-stop jaw dropping vistas. The melodious purr of water rapids was always nearby, keeping our moral high even at the most exhausting moments.
The hike up to Rock Lake was some of the most majestic backcountry I have experienced. Even at 11,000 ft there were lush meadows with craggy peaks erupting in the distance. Arriving at Rock Lake felt like such an accomplishment. We made great time arriving around 15:00 that afternoon but it felt like an eternity.
Day 4 • Rock Lake > Bear Town (12 mi)
- 3,050 ft elevation gain
- 12,501 max elevation
Our most challenging day. Long milage and a lot of elevation change: we crossed the continental divide three times that day. We also diverted from the original route, taking low ground through Twin Lakes up to Middle Ute Lake. This added milage but apparently the trail that followed the ridge was so overgrown that navigation was very difficult.
The Ute Lakes area felt so different than any other part of this wilderness, rolling hills that dip into small lakes and pockets of meadows.
The first half of the day was sunny and clear. But later in the afternoon we ran into some inclement weather. Over the horizon loomed some daunting cloud formations. The debate became one of safety: do we make camp near Nebo Creek or do we head for Hunchback Pass and hope the weather does not decline? Nobody wants to be on a pass over 12,000 ft high with weather moving in. Ultimately we decided to move onward! Kite Lake and Bear Town or bust.
After a gorgeous (and arduous) day of hiking we arrived at Bear Town trailhead. Rain was coming down and so was the sun. It took a while to find a flat area to camp. Gabriela was feeling pretty rough from the cold rain, altitude and long day. When this happens to someone on the trail I've learned there is a simple remedy that always works: get the shelter pitched, put your partner in a sleeping bag, and feed them hot food and drink. Never fails.
Day 5 • Bear Town > Elk Creek (5 mi)
- 1,529 ft elevation gain
- 12,698 ft max elevation
Our last two days were nice and mellow. First we had to climb out from Bear Town and cross over the Continental Divide one last time. Then it was a decent into the Elk Creek Drainage. The view from atop the divide was breathtaking.
Day 6 • Elk Creek > Elk Park Train (5 mi)
Our last day on the trail was a leisurely decent to The Elk Park flag stop. We arrived in plenty of time to setup the shelter to let it dry out while we waited for our train. We met some nice folks who were also getting picked up that afternoon: a climber that had been in the trinity peaks and a father with his two sons that had done a short overnight trip. Finishing a trip like this is very bittersweet. By the time you get a hot shower and meal out on the town, your planning your next trip!