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Boulder, CO

A guide to the wilderness of the West.

Weminuche Wilderness


Weminuche Wilderness

Derek Bartz

Trip Date: July 3-4, 2015
Location: Weminuche Wilderness
Miles: 55
Vert: 8,000'
Start/Finish: Molas Pass / Purgatory Flats TH
Permit Required?: Free, self register
Season: July-October

First solo trip out into the backcountry over the 4th of July weekend.  Amazing, that after thousands of miles and hundreds of nights out; I've never gone it alone.  With the long weekend I drove down to the San Juans and to finally check out the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado's largest.   

My plan was to do the classic Grenadier/Needle Loop in the northwest corner of the wilderness.  It circumnatigates the super scenic Grenadier and Needle Mountains, going over two passes along the way and visiting the popular Chicago Basin.  Most people chose to take the narrow gauge Durango/Silverton Railway to the Elk Park or Needleton trailheads located alongside the Animas River; but not wanting to waste time or spend the money my trip began at Molas Pass (taking the Colorado Trail East) and ended at Purgatory Flats.  Not taking the train adds 12 or so miles to the trip, making it about a 50 mile "loop" plus side trips.

Spring time in the San Juans is beautiful.  I had scene images of vast mountain sides of vibrant green tundra speckled with lingering snowfields and this was my main inspiration for the trip.  With all of the late season snow the San Juans had received, spring arrived late in the high country and my timing was perfect.  Upon approaching Hunchback Pass fields of green tundra were visible ahead, as well as a considerable amount of snow.  Up on the divide this scene stretched out for miles and miles.  Lush, rolling tundra backed by big peaks in every direction.  This is what makes the San Juans so unique; unlike most of the mountains in Colorado, the San Juans are a complex series of big mountains and deep valleys covering a vast area.  From this section of the divide, no cities or roads are visible; something not so easily achieved on the other narrow, linear ranges of the state. 

Overlooking the Elk Creek drainage from the divide

 Resisting the temptation to just head North instead

Resisting the temptation to just head North instead

Turning South on the CDT, I quickly lost the trail that drops down to Kite Lake as I was drawn to walking the ridge of the true Divide.  I only realized this when a lake unexpectedely appeared below me to my right; something not shown alongside the trail on the map.  It was Vallecito Lake, and an amazing site to stumble upon.  The turquois blue waters of the hanging lake rest in basin above 12,000' with The Guardian and Mt Silex towering above to the South.  Easily the most beautiful lake I have seen in Colorado.  Being alone, and realizing I was now off my intended route I hesitated a second before continuing down the faint path toward the lake.  I wasn't sure if the path continued on the past the lake outlet, which appeared to have cliffs guarding easy headway down towards Vallecito Creek.  A steep descent brought me down to lake level; had the incoming storm not been looming overhead I would have loved to test the waters.  A nice (if not exposed) campsite sat 20' above the lake, and from there I picked up a cairned route that led the way through the cliff bands and eventually down valley to the Vallecito Trail.  

Sublime walking on the divide

It began to rain around 3:00pm, so I just continued walking alongside the raging Vallecito Creek until turning west on the Johnson Creek Trail and ending my day at tree line near Vallecito Basin.  From camp the clouds finally broke right around sunset and some of the most intense light I have seen in a while graced Organ & Amherst Mountains; another highlight of the trip.  

Vallecito Trail

I awoke pre-dawn to be up on Columbine Pass by sunrise, it's always worth it.  After dropping down to Chicago Basin, it was only 7:30am so I headed up toward Windom Peak.  This should have been a simple climb, but there was still a considerable amount of lingering snow in the Twin Lakes Basin.  Horrendous postholing ensued.  I put up with it for a while but as I climbed higher the snow conditions continued to deteriorate.  If you have never experienced a full body posthole before consider yourself lucky.  Continuely sinking down to my armpits and struggling to make any forward progess, I turned around just short of the saddle.  

Vallecito Basin from near Columbine Pass

Soft snow, ugh.

From Twin Lakes, it was a 5,000' descent down to the Animas River, where I took a left following the Animas River trail until crossing the bridge toward Purgatory Flats.  

Lush vegetation along the Animas River Trail

This trip was fantastic and provided a great introduction to the area, but the trails in this area tend to cross the divide and then drop right back into the river bottoms.  Future trips to the Weminuche will definitely include off trail travel that gets me closer to the interior of the Needle and Grenadiers.  Vestal Basin, Sunlight Lakes, and visiting some of the higher lakes are all high on the list.