Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness, September 2007
See the sidebar for maps, guidebook excerpts, and checklists.
Click here to see photos from this trip.
Tom, Taylor, and I drove from Amarillo to Durango on Friday, September 7. We arrived
fairly late and checked into Silverpick
near Purgatory Ski Area. After
a final round of gear checking and packing, we turned in for some sleep.
The next morning, we drove up Missionary Ridge Road to the trailhead near the edge
of the Weminuche Wilderness at 11,485 feet on Lime Mesa. The drive from the bottom
of Missionary Ridge Road to the trailhead, takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The road
is pretty good up to Henderson Lake but deteriorates significantly as you go higher.
At one point about a mile or two below the trailhead, we considered stopping and
walking the rest of the way after our first look at a particularly rocky and rough
portion of the road. We got out of the Suburban, surveyed the road, and decided
to continue. We drove all of the way to the trailhead without problems. In dry conditions,
I think most high clearance vehicles such as a standard pickup truck or SUV could
make the trip. We donned our packs and the new chef from
The Sow's Ear at Silverpick
drove our Suburban back to the lodge.
The first day we had planned to hike to City Reservoir. My mapping software measured
this leg of the hike as 7.5 miles with 1,161 feet of climbing and 1,724 feet of
descending. The trail had a lot of small ups, downs, and side-to-sides and it seemed
like a much longer and harder walk than I had anticipated. We stopped short of City
Reservoir and camped in Missouri Gulch.
It is easy to make a wrong turn in this area. As the trail descends steeply from
the crest of West Silver Mesa, the trail gives off a spur to the south before the
main trail reaches Missouri Gulch. This spur trail is not on the USGS 7.5 minute
topo map and is approximately at these UTM coordinates: 13S 268950mE and 4158405mN
at elevation 11,168 feet. I determined these coordinates and this elevation by looking
at my maps after the returning home and they could easily be off by a few hundred
feet. If you take the spur trail south at this point, you will end up in lower Florida
Park and not at City Reservoir. I made this mistake on a previous trip a few years
The next day we hiked to City Reservoir. There are nice campsites along the river
below the dam and more at the head of the lake. We paused briefly before tackling
the steep ascent to Lake Marie. We took a long lunch break at Lake Marie and enjoyed
the rugged beauty of the Crystal Valley with Florida Mountain gazing down own us.
Next, we followed the trail up and onto Silver Mesa. The trail along Silver Mesa
is rocky and at places not well worn. Despite the path not being readily apparent
at times, giant rock cairns made following the correct route a cinch. Someone must
have put in lot of effort piling up all those rocks and we were appreciative of
their work. I was concerned that there might not be much water atop Silver Mesa
but we found adequate supplies in and around the many glacial tarns.
As we approached Trimble Pass, the weather began to look ominous and nightfall was
approaching. We felt that proceeding on to Chicago Basin this day would have us
arriving exhausted, perhaps wet and cold, and well after dark. We considered hiking
down the gully southeast of Trimble pass to Lillie Lake to camp. Peering down the
steep rocky gully, we opted to camp on a relatively flat bench near a tarn just
below Trimble Pass. This proved to be a wise decision. We immediately begin setting
up camp. Just as I got my bivy sac ready, we were hit by a mixture of rain, graupel,
and snowflakes. After less than an hour, the precipitation let up and we enjoyed
dinner from our high alpine camp perch at 12,700 feet.
On day three of the trek, we hiked over Trimble Pass, traversed over to Columbine
Pass, and descended into Chicago Basin. Trimble Pass was the high point of our excursion
at 12,840 feet. The traverse across to Columbine Pass afforded spectacular views
of "Tom" Johnson Creek Drainage. The views of the Needle Mountains from these heights
were breathtaking. We chose a campsite at the top of Chicago Basin at the point
just below where the trail down from Columbine Pass descends below the tree line.
The usual route for the hordes of summer hikers and 14'er climbers traveling to
Chicago Basin consists of a ride on the train to Needleton, crossing the Animas
River on the footbridge at Needleton, and hiking up Needle Creek to Chicago Basin.
I call this trail I-14 as it gets so much use in the summertime
by the peak baggers. In the days just before our trek, the Forest Service closed
the Needleton Bridge for repairs. Consequently, we had the normally well-populated
Chicago Basin almost to ourselves. The only other camp we saw with that of the group
from 14ers.com. They were in the process of breaking
down their camp after a summer of trail work on the routes to Eolus, Sunlight, and
Our original plan called for a rest day in Chicago Basin followed by an ascent of
Sunlight Peak. Since we took an extra day reaching Chicago Basin, we decided to
take the rest day and skip the climb. We enjoyed the day lounging around the camp
we shared with five deer and a pair of very bold gray jays. A herd of mountain goats
usually hangs out above Chicago Basin on the steep slopes leading up to Twin Lakes.
We used binoculars to look for them repeatedly without success.
On the next to the last day of our outing, we made the long walk down from Chicago
Basin, along Needle Creek to its junction with the Animas River, and down the Animas
River to Cascade Wye. I found this a particularly long and tiring day. On the way
down we passed the site of Connie's and my previous moose encounter
At one point, Taylor slipped on a steep part of the trail covered with tiny rocks
that act like ball bearings underfoot. Thanks to my being close at hand and my Advanced
Wilderness Life Support training, I was able avert his almost certain death. Joking
aside, Taylor deserves the tough guy award for completing the rest of the trip despite
being rather scraped and banged up from the fall.
The area around Cascade Wye was a great place to camp. After several days in the
backcountry, just having a picnic table to sit around seemed like a great luxury.
We enjoyed a roaring campfire that evening. We saw no bear sign in this area as
had been previously reported and that I had personally seen in prior years.
The next morning we hiked up Cascade Creek to Purgatory to complete the trek. I
enjoyed soaking my weary body in the hot tub at Silverpick while rehydrating with
some delectable local beer from The Ska Brewing
Company. That evening we drank fine wine and feasted at
The Sow's Ear
The next day we toured Pueblo Bonito at
Chaco Culture National Historical Park and then drove on to Albuquerque.
The next morning we drove home to Amarillo.