Thursday, July 23, 2015

Backpacking Colorado's Weminche Wilderness Squaw Pass Loop

in the

Photos of my point-to-point backpack via Vallecito Creek Trail, Johnson Creek, Chicago Basin, Needle Creek Trail, Animas River, and out via Purgatory Trail are here

Named for the Weminuche (pronounced WHEM-a-nooch) Indians of the Ute tribe, the wilderness is part of the Rio Grande National Forest (established in 1908) and the San Juan National Forest (established in 1907.) The first white men to pass through the region were Spaniards in 1765.

The Weminuche Wilderness is one of the largest in the contiguous 48 states at 487,400 acres.  Elevation ranges from 7910 feet to 14,083 feet, with an average elevation exceeding 10,400 feet, making the San Juan Mountains of the Weminuche Wilderness the highest mountain range in North America. Over 500 inches of snow falls annually, and two major rivers, the San Juan and the Rio Grande, originate in the wilderness.

470 miles of trails, including 80 miles of the Continental Divide Trail (which only dips below timberline three times) are in the wilderness, which also includes the section of the Rockies called "The Bend" which is found in this area of the wilderness. South of the Continental Divide, the rivers and creeks feed the San Juan River and then the Colorado River.

Squaw Creek Trail starts at Thirty-Mile Campground of the National Forest Service, which is located just downriver from The Rio Grande Reservoir. Drive 21 miles southwest from Creede on Highway 149, then turn left (South) on Forest Service Road 520 (Rio Grande Reservoir Road) about 12 miles.  The trail begins at the end of the road with a somewhat strenuous but brief uphill as you climb up into Squaw Creek Canyon on a ridge to get up to Squaw Valley. You gaze at  the creek below you for the first mile or so.

Beavers are prolific in this stretch of the creek, and from your height a couple hundred feet above the narrow creek, their many beaver dams have seemingly turned the area around the creek into a wetlands.

Then you reach the magnificent Squaw Valley which widens out in front of you as seen below.  The trail gently ascends along the eastern edge of the valley, with the creek in the middle and meadows on each side. A few small creek crossings allow for water replenishment and you'll see fewer and fewer fishermen and day hikers as you proceed.  Camping spots are obvious but we waited and camped just beyond and above the intersection of Squaw Creek Trail and Squaw Lake Trail about 6 miles from the trailhead. A bridge takes you over Squaw Creek and then up a slight uphill.

We camped on a knoll about 80 feet above the valley floor and had this magnificent view from out of our tent window looking back down the valley we just hiked. The entire valley was breathtaking. The only other valley I've backpacked of comparable beauty is the Big Blue Valley in Colorado's Big Blue/Uncompahgre Wilderness area.

Squaw Creek Trail continues another 4 miles or so up to Squaw Pass where it intersects with the Continental Divide Trail.  In the photo below, you are looking back down at Squaw Pass (11,200 feet elevation) and you realize how much more elevation you have gained since you got on the CDT.

The only constant, it seems, on the CDT, is that your elevation will soon change. Here you go down quite precipitously, and after passing 3 or 4 lakes in cirques, you again go up. The photo was taken just as we entered a large boulder field which was home to countless marmots and pikas which shrieked their warnings out as we approached. You can make out the trail as it cuts across the slope.

After the final uphill on our hike, we reached 12,760 feet, the highest point on the CDT in this area of the Weminuche Wilderness known as "In The Bend" where the mountain chain turns to the west and then back to the east, encircling the headwaters of the Rio Grande River.

The photo below shows Squaw Lake as seen from high above on the Continental Divide Trail. Squaw Lake Trail begins at the Squaw Creek Trail where we camped last night. If you want to skip Squaw Pass, you can ascent to the CDT from there.  The trail has been reconstructed in a series of seven switchbacks which continue for 2 miles where it levels off in another half mile reaches Squaw Lake. Campsites are abundant within the trees in the center of the photo. The water is fairly clear and fish can be seen in the lake. A warning: Since the lake is only about 8 miles from the trailhead, horse parties use the lake for both day trips and overnight stops.

A trail descends 800 feet to Squaw Lake (elevation 11,632) and camping opportunities abound. There is little wood for fires and storms can blow across here suddenly and ferociously from the Divide. This is a man-raised lake (1938) and some of the original horse-drawn earth-moving equipment remains behind as artifacts of an earlier day.

Seven switchbacks then take you the 2.5 miles down to the intersection with the Squaw Creek Trail and then back to the trailhead. Or from the lake, you can take the CDT north to the Weminuche Creek Trail and back down to the reservoir.

Photos of my point-to-point backpack via Vallecito Creek Trail, Johnson Creek, Chicago Basin, Needle Creek Trail, Animas River, and out via Purgatory Trail are here

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