Monday, July 20, 2015

Backpacking Colorado's Weminuche Wilderness

Since 1964, the United States has set aside natural areas with the legal designation of "Wilderness," and my favorite line from the Wilderness Preservation Act is its definition of wilderness: 

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The initial wilderness acreage in the 1964 legislation comprised 9.1 million acres of national forest, but with additions over the decades, currently totals 757 holdings encompassing 109.5 million acres of federally owned land in 44 states and Puerto Rico, which represents 5% of the land in the United States.

The Weminuche Wilderness is one of the largest in the contiguous 48 states at 487,912 acres and covers parts 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.

It is named for the Weminuche Indians of the Ute tribe (pronounced WHEM-a-nooch). The immensity of the Weminuche and its incomparable beauty draw me back again and again. At over 11,000 feet in elevation, the Chicago Basin is still towered over by surrounding peaks. Each trip back brings joy, and each leaving brings regret and a promise to return to see more. I recommend this area most highly.

I've backpacked the Weminuche Wilderness six times -- three times via the Vallecito Creek trailhead and thrice in different sections of this vast wilderness.  The first time was in 1989 with my family, when we were hit with a 45 minute deluge a couple hours into the backpack.  We were so wet and disillusioned that we headed back to Vallecito Campground, set up camp, dried everything out, and took day hikes and canoed the Vallecito Reservoir the next few days. We had already backpacked the Pecos Wilderness and the rim-to-rim-to-rim Grand Canyon backpack on that trip, so we didn't feel too disappointed.  But I wanted to see more of the vast area.

So the next year, my sons and I backpacked in from Purgatory, Colorado, up to the much heralded Chicago Basin, which lived up to its billing.  Then in 1991, we did a short backpack in from Vallecito again which whet my appetite for more, so in 1994, Len and I did a point to point backpack from Vallecito campground, up Johnson Creek, over 12,680 foot high Columbine Pass to the Chicago Basin, down to the Animas River, and out via Purgatory. Then in 1996 we returned and did a loop in the Squaw Peak/Squaw Lake area, including a section on the Continental Divide Trail.  Finally, in 1999 I backpacked the lovely Pine River Trail. Below are photos and comments on these trips and trails.

Vallecito Trail

The Vallecito (Spanish for "little valley") Creek Trail begins at the Vallecito Creek Campground, alongside the reservoir of the same name, northeast of Durango. The Vallecito Creek valley provides a magnificent hike, extending nearly 20 miles to the Continental Divide Trail, but we  turned west after 9 miles at Johnson Creek and took the trail up to Columbine Pass and into the Chicago Basin.

The first mile or so goes up somewhat steeply to get you over a 400 foot high ridge, but after that the trail is a pleasant uphill all the way to Johnson Creek, an elevation gain of 1300 feet. In the photo below you see Steve and Scott atop the ridge.

In the photo below, I'm descending on the far side of the ridge.  You can see why the beauty of the area kept drawing me back to the Weminuche.

After the ridge, much of the trail follows close to the creek.  Vallecito Creek gets numerous day fishermen and day hikers for its first few miles due to the easy access provided by the campground. Still, the three times I have been on the trail, I did not encounter the crowds of which the guidebook had warned. 

Len and I were passed by this horse group escorting clients to the Continental Divide for a fishing trip, and an hour or so later, a violent but brief thunderstorm hit us.  After it ended, we continued north on the trail and encountered one of the wranglers walking back and carrying a saddle over his shoulder. I asked if a horse had gotten away, thinking perhaps the lightning had sent a horse scampering off. We were informed that lightning had struck the trail behind them, knocking a woman and her horse to the ground and killing the horse ridden by the wrangler, which was why he was walking back to their truck to get a replacement horse back at their ranch.

            Johnson Creek Portion of the Columbine Pass Trail

Thankfully, there was a long sturdy bridge to take us across Vallecito Creek to the Johnson Creek Trail that then took us 8+ miles up to Columbine Pass. As we crossed the bridge, I noticed four scruffy fellows with rifles waiting at the other end, and I was a bit concerned. Naturally we stopped to talk to them and learned they were on day 25 of a 30 day re-creation of mountain men heading to a Rendezvous. Cricket, Lodi, Hopi, and Flip introduced themselves, and since we were all camping near the bridge for the night, they invited us to their campfire. It was a delightful evening. Everything they were carrying was authentic or reproduction of late 1800s equipment, except for their prescription glasses, medications, and topo maps. They had begun with over 80 pounds each but their homemade packs were much lighter at this point (you can see a white pack on the ground in the far right of the photo.)

The next day we met their friend, Deer Runner, a nearly full-blooded Sioux Indian, who was coming over Columbine Pass from the west side to join his friends for the last few days of their adventure.

The trail gains 3500 feet of elevation with an average incline of 11% as you trudge up to the pass.  There are seldom bridges over side creeks, so you get over however you can!  I believe this is Grizzly Gulch Creek.

Len gazes at the terrain closing in around us as we gain altitude.  The quite narrow Johnson Creek drainage is surrounded by six 13,000 feet peaks as well as numerous 12,000 foot tall mountains. You feel them towering above you for much of the switchbacked climb.

Camping places are scarce up in this terrain, but we found a lovely, wooded, flat area for the tent.  Obviously, we were spending the night as guests of this hoary marmot which curiously observed us for a long time. I wasn't sure which I enjoyed more -- the marmot scampering all around the area or Len chasing it to get a good photo.  

To the right of center in the photo below is Len hiking the final portion up to Columbine Lake which is just below the pass. You can see the trail will switchback to the right just beyond Len. Marmots and pika were prevalent here above treelike. Often they give out a high-pitched screech to warn of our presence.

Columbine Lake (12,320 feet) signals you are nearing Columbine Pass (12,680 feet). The area around the lake is a very fragile ecosystem and camping is not encouraged. The half-mile climb to the pass is quite steep from here.

Len and I atop Columbine Pass (12,680 feet). The actual pass is only about 20 feet by 10 feet but the views in each direction were spectacular. While we were up there, a family came up from the Basin, and their teenage daughter took off her daypack, whipped out a cell phone, and dialed a friend in Durango. The call did not go through, but the parents explained that they were local residents who made this trip several times a year, and that about half the time, calls did connect.

Needle Creek Trail

The very steep Needle Creek Trail takes us down from the Pass, and after a mile or so of switchbacks and 1480 feet elevation loss, we reached Chicago Basin. This photo shows the trail. We had to be very cautious because one misstep could have you tumbling down and off the side of the trail.

Below is the magnificent Columbine, the state flower of Colorado. Appropriately, I photographed them just a dozen feet or so below Columbine Pass at an elevation of over 12,600 feet, on the trail going down into the lovely Chicago Basin.

Chicago Basin

Chicago Basin is a very popular backpacking destination in the Weminuche Wilderness owing to its easy access via the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad out of Durango, its proximity to three of Colorado’s 14-ers, and its scenic beauty. During its peak period of use (July 4th through Labor Day), Chicago Basin is crowded and campsites can be hard to find. If you are planning a trip to the Chicago Basin, especially during the peak period, you will have to share your wilderness experience with quite a few other people. Over 60 groups were camping there when we arrived, and a backcountry forest ranger had been stationed there to assist and monitor the campers.

This area of the San Juan Mountains is especially popular with climbers since Windom Peak (14,087 feet), Mt. Eolus (14,084 feet), and Sunlight Peak (14,059 feet) are all accessible from the Basin.  These San Juan Mountains are often referred to as the Swiss Alps of the United States. 

Why do we push our old bodies to go explore the high backcountry in Colorado's wilderness? Perhaps this answers that question!

And of course, mountains equal waterfalls!

More scenery as we descend into the Chicago Basin.

It amazes me how the miners in the 1800s got heavy-duty digging and mining equipment up this high in the mountains, and then got the ore back down to civilization!

After our night of camping in Chicago Basin and enjoying the spectacular views, it was time to continue our descend down the Needle Creek Trail long the creek of the same name which is on your left as you proceed down the narrow, steep canyon. The creek has numerous small waterfalls and cascades and I was amazed as I realized that the trail was originally a wagon road for carrying supplies up to the Chicago Basin and ore back down.

The Needle Creek Trail descends 2900 feet in six miles and ends at the Animas River by the Needleton stop of the Durango and Silverton Scenic Railroad. Many hikers use the railroad to access and leave the Chicago Basin, but we are hiking out via Purgatory.

Purgatory Trail

The Purgatory Trail runs 11 miles from Needle Creek downriver through the magnificent Animas River Valley seen below.  The Durango-Silverton Scenic Railroad is your companion for the first six miles of your hike, but it is across the river on the west side. The Animas River is actually the boundary for the Weminuche Wilderness area because no mechanized equipment is allowed within designated wilderness.

After six miles, a bridge takes you out of the wilderness area and gorgeous campsite possibilities abound amidst huge conifers and flat terrain. You are in Cascade Canyon where Cascade Creek joins the Animas River. Across from you, Crazy Woman Gulch Creek also joins the Animas. Animas, Purgatory, Crazy Woman -- you have to love the names here!

You also have entertainment as trains pass by. The area is called Cascade Wye. "Wye" is a term for "Y" shaped tracks which allow trains to be turned around, and in winters past, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad trains would come this far and turn around to return to Durango because winter snows closed the canyon beyond. In the 1990s when we were here, the railroad had a program where you could live here in a refurbished boxcar with plumbing, electric, cooking, and beds. They'd drop you and the boxcar off with everything you'd need on Monday and haul you back out on Friday for $800. Here's a photo of one of the steam engines crossing Purgatory Creek seen below.

Then you hike the final five miles from Cascade Canyon out to Purgatory Ski Resort area which is 25 miles north of Durango on State Highway 550. The trail ends at the Purgatory Campground. In the photo below, Len is atop the ridge looking back down at the magnificent Animas Valley we just left.

Scott and Steve are working their way across Purgatory Flats about halfway between the Animas River and the exit at Purgatory Campground. From here its uphill to the campground and highway.


Photos and info on the Squaw Pass, Squaw Lake, and Squaw Creek Trails up to the Continental Divide Trail

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