Trip Report: September 2012
Backpacking in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
Telluride Blues and Brew Festival
This page describes a backpacking trip I made in September 2012 in the Weminuche
Wilderness in southwestern Colorado followed by a trip to
The Telluride Blues & Brews Festival. See the sidebar
for maps and trip
planning reference info.
On this trip, I repeated a trek that I did solo when I was fifteen years old. When
I was a child, many summers our family vacationed in southwestern Colorado, mostly
car camping. My parents and my sister were not up for this 40 mile long backpacking
trip at that time. They agreed to let me do this semi-loop hike alone. We planned
for them to ride the Durango &
Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton, hike to Chicago Basin, and meet me there
near the end of my hike.
I took our beagle dog named Freckles with me. I think it took me 3 or 4 days to
reach Chicago Basin. It rained every day and often low clouds obscured the surrounding
mountains and the sun. This was long before GPS. Sometimes I was unable to see the
surrounding terrain and it was difficult for me to know my location until I came
to a feature such a lake or a stream confluence.
That trip taught me the lesson of always taking a watch on a backpacking trip. One
day I walked until I was very tired and stopped to camp. The weather was socked
in and the gray light filtering through low clouds seemed the same all day long.
I did not have a watch and I had no idea of the time of day when I stopped and camped.
I fell into a deep sleep.
When I awakened, the weather and gray light outside were the same as when I had
gone to sleep. I did not know whether I had slept one hour or all night. Was it
the same day or the next day? This predicament produced a very unsettling feeling.
I had to decide whether to break camp and start walking or just to stay in the tent
and sleep some more. Being a day late to meet my parents and sister would have been
a big problem.
I had been very tired when I went to sleep and at this point I felt wide awake and
refreshed. I reasoned from these feelings that I must have slept all night and that
it was now the next day. I broke camp and begin hiking again. The sun did not set
right away and by the progress I was making I was reassured that indeed it was the
I met my parents in Chicago Basin on the appointed day. At that time, Chicago Basin
was a much less heavily visited place. There were probably only two or three other
groups there in mid-summer at the time of that trip. These days, there are usually
hundreds. I avoided most of the crowds there this year by going in September.
When our dog Freckles and I arrived in Chicago Basin, my parents told me that dogs
were not allowed on the train. We did not know what to do. Hiking from Needleton
out to the nearest trailhead at Purgatory would take an extra day and one-half.
In those days, the railroad made backpackers ride in the baggage car with their
backpacks unlike today when they put your equipment in the baggage car and the people
in the regular passenger cars. We devised a plan to empty out one of the backpacks
and put the dog inside.
The only problem was that during the over three hour train ride back to Durango,
Freckles wanted out of the backpack. We placated him by feeding him miniature snickers
candy bars. This seemed to help him keep relatively quiet and still.
All along the way, I was worried we would be found out in our deception, the train
would stop, and Freckles and I would be put out to walk the rest of the way out.
I counted down the miles as we passed the railroad mileage markers. I really think
that the conductor must have seen and heard that we had a dog hidden in the pack
but no one ever said anything. We rode all the way back to Durango without incident.
Backpacking Trip Report
Day 0, Tuesday, September 4
I left Amarillo around noon and made the 7 hour drive to Durango. I stayed at the
Spanish Trails Inn & Suites, (3141 Main Ave., Durango, CO, (970) 247-4173).
These accommodations were inexpensive but not luxurious. Do not look for luxury
items here such as the availability of a wakeup call or an alarm clock in the room.
I grabbed a beer and a bite to eat at the
Durango Brewing Company. This local microbrewery has an excellent assortment
of award winning suds as well as menu of simple foods.
Day 1, Wednesday, September 5
I awoke early and went to the Durango Bagel as it opened at 7:00 AM. This place
has become my usual breakfast stop before starting my trips into the Weminuche Wilderness.
It is a located immediately adjacent to the
& Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot for trips starting
ride. On this day, I picked up a bagel for breakfast and a sandwich for
I then drove to the Durango-La Plata County Airport and parked my truck for Connie
to pick up when she flew into Durango on the day I hiked out on this trip. I had
previously arranged a cab ride with
Limousine (970-769-3161). The driver picked me up from the airport and drove
me to the Pine River trailhead (43.5 miles, 1 hour 28 minutes).
I quickly hiked up the Pine River Trail to the bridge near the confluence with Lake
Creek (5.61 miles, 479 feet ascent, 220 feet descent). There is a nice campsite
by the river just before the bridge. I decided to hike partway to Emerald Lake.
This was a mistake. The trail rises high above the creek for most of the way up
to the lake. I never saw any suitable campsites along the way. Most of the places
the trail crossed were too steep even for a semi-comfortable bivouac.
Dennis Gebhardt's guidebook, A Backpacking
Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness, says this about camping along
the Emerald Lake trail, "At mile 1.5 the trail levels off into a meadow called the
"cabbage patch" which is full of miner's candles. If you have walked from the Pine
River Campground you may be eyeing this area as a campsite. It is not too satisfactory
and there are a few small sites closer to Lake Creek a little further on."
With the absence of any suitable campsite near the trail, I ending up walking all
the way to Emerald Lake, an additional 6.24 miles, 2,176 feet ascent, and 288 feet
descent from the bridge on the Pine River Trail. By the time a got there I was beat.
My pack for this solo, 8 day trip started out at 55 pounds. I had read this restriction
on the San Juan National Forest website, "No camping or campfires within 1/4 mile
of Emerald and Little Emerald Lakes except in designated campsites. No camping within
1/2 mile north of Emerald Lake." After I reached Little Emerald Lake, I walked perhaps
another hour, following the trail east of the lake, without ever seeing a "designated
campsite". I was about to drop when I spied an old fire ring not far from the trail.
I am not sure this was a designated campsite but I was absolutely exhausted. I set
up my bivy sack, boiled some water with my Jetboil stove for dinner, and called
it a day. I tried to leave as little impact as I could. I did not see a designated
campsite until I had hiked another 1.75 miles the next day where I reached a sign
1/2 mile north of the lake.
Day 2, Thursday, September 6
On this day, I hiked north along the east side of Emerald Lake and followed the
trail to Moon Lake at 11,620 feet (4.53 miles, 1619 feet ascent, 83 feet descent).
This seemed like a long way after my previous day's exertions. North of Emerald
Lake, I spoke with an elk hunter camped there. Later on, I passed some llama trekkers
coming down from Moon Lake. I recognized the tack as being from
Buckhorn Llama Company. The couple confirmed that the llamas had been rented
from Buckhorn. When I reached Moon Lake, I camped in a nice spot on the raised peninsula
jutting into the southeast side of Moon Lake. The scenery was spectacular. That
night I enjoyed a dazzling view of the stars from a high elevation, with no light
pollution, on a cloudless, still, and moonless night.
Day 3, Friday, September 7
Next, I hiked up to Half Moon Lake and continued over the pass above Rock Lake and
into the Rock Creek Drainage. The U.S.G.S. quad map shows the trail crossing the
creek draining Moon Lake, then passing along the northeast side of the lake, and
ascending fairly straight up the drainage from Half Moon Lake. The lower portion
of this trail, including the creek crossing east of Moon Lake was poorly developed.
A few hundred feet above Moon Lake, I found some cairns. As I ascended to Half Moon
Lake, the trail became easier to follow. The trail from Half Moon Lake up to the
pass and down to Rock Lake was easy to follow with many cairns and in some places
an easy to see path.
The view from the pass above Rock Lake was dramatic. I could see for many miles
in all directions. I spied Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window to the northeast. At
Rock Lake there were more campers with Llamas. I continued down Rock Creek to the
intersection with the Vallecito Creek Trail. Along the way I tried unsuccessfully
to remember the spot where I had camped on the second day of my hike 41 years before.
I continued south, down Vallecito Creek, looking for a campsite. About 1.3 miles
south of Rock Creek, I saw a strong trail branching west from the main Vallecito
Creek Trail. Sometimes these strong side trails lead to a nice campsite so I followed
it. It turned out to be a trail that crossed Vallecito Creek at the mouth of Leviathan
Creek. This trail is not on the U.S.G.S maps. I found a satisfactory campsite near
where this side trail crossed Vallecito Creek. In retrospect, it might have been
better to have walked another 0.75 miles south to camp in the meadows by the mouth
of Sunlight Creek. This day I traveled 7.20 miles, ascended 845 feet, and descended
Day 4, Saturday, September 8
I continued down Vallecito Creek to Johnson Creek, crossed over the bridge and headed
up to the Johnson Creek drainage. While, walking down the Vallecito Creek Trail,
I turned my ankle and fell. At first, I thought I probably had not injured my ankle
very much but I was still concerned. I have seen what seems like a very minor sprain
in the first few minutes progress to a sprain so severe that weight bearing is impossible
the next day. I continued on without much problem and hiked to an elevation of about
9,800 feet up Johnson Creek and stopped to camp. This day I covered 5.83 miles,
ascending 689 feet, and descending 747 feet. That night I kept checking my ankle
worrying about what it would be like in the morning as it got sorer through the
Day 5, Sunday, September 9
This morning my ankle was just a little sore when rolled inward and there wasn't
much swelling and no bruising. I thought my ankle would be fine so I continued up
Johnson Creek, over Columbine Pass, and into Chicago Basin.
The view from Columbine Pass at 12,680 is remarkable. I could see for miles and
miles. Looking back down the Johnson Creek drainage I could visualize how the previous
glaciers had carved out the many cirques creating moraines and lakes. Looking into
Chicago Basin, I could see the striking peaks of the Needle Mountains including
Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom.
On several previous trips, I have camped in the first forested area that is reached
when descending from Columbine Pass. Unfortunately, in this very dry year, the creek
by this campsite was dry and I had to continue on down another 0.3 miles to a campsite
a little nearer a water source. This day I walked 5.65 miles, ascending 2,895 feet,
and descending 952 feet.
Day 6, Monday, September 10
This day I hung around my campsite in Chicago Basin. I did some laundry but mostly
I rested and read. In the evening I enjoyed the luxury of a cigar and some Scotch.
Most of the day, I shared my campsite with a herd of mountain goats. They seemed
to be very habituated to a human being in their midst. They followed me everywhere.
As I watched, I realized they were mostly interested in my urine. Any place I urinated,
they dug at the dirt incessantly eating and licking. They must have a very salt
poor environment and were trying to get some in any way that they could. Some people
say that you should pee on rocks to keep the goats from tearing up the ground so
Day 7, Tuesday, September 11
Originally, I had planned to climb Sunlight Peak on this day. The weather was bad
and I felt like the weather despite a day of rest. It was cold and clouds obscured
the mountains. I decided I would have more fun resting in camp again. For anyone
wanting to climb Sunlight Peak (round trip, 4.94 miles, 3,337 feet ascent and descent),
here is the guide from 14ers.com:
Sunlight Climbing Guide.
I was camped near the trail and a number of people stopped by to chat this day.
Chicago Basin is a popular place even after Labor Day. In the afternoon it began
raining. It rained long and hard that night. Prior to this point, the weather had
been perfect for entire trip. It did not get very cold and except for a few pellets
of graupel, it did not snow at my elevation.
Day 8, Wednesday, September 12
I hiked down Needle Creek to Needleton and rode the
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad back to Durango on this last
day of my trek. The previous day's rain continued intermittently the whole day.
Connie flew in from Amarillo, picked up my truck at the airport, and checked into
the Durango Lodge next to
the train station
(150 East 5th St., Durango, CO (970) 247-0955). After I cleaned up, we had
dinner at Cosmopolitan Restaurant (now
Historic Main Avenue Durango, Colorado 81301, (970) 259-2898).
Telluride Blues and Brews Festival 2012
Day 9, Thursday, September 13
This morning, we drove to Telluride for the 19th Annual Telluride Blues and Brews
Festival. Traffic was very slow because of road construction. This year we planned
to camp in Town Park for the first time. The campground opens for the festival at
8:00 AM on the Thursday before the festival. We arrived in Telluride about 10:30
AM and this was a little too late to arrive. The campground was filling up and we
were lucky to get a good site.
We set up camp and went into the main part of town for lunch. We rode the gondola
to Mountain Village to see MarchFourth Marching Band at the free Sunset Blues Concert.
We arrived a little early and sat on the patio of 9545 Restaurant (Siam's
Talay Grille is now in the same location), (119 Lost Creek Lane, Telluride,
CO 81435, (970) 728-5678)
where we had cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. The patio provided a great
Mountain Village Sunset Plaza Stage. We liked the music and outrageous
art and costumes.
After dinner at La Marmotte
(150 San Juan
Avenue, Telluride, CO 81435, (970) 728-6232), we went to the Historic Sheridan
Opera House for the Bal De Maison special performance by Little Hurricane. They
were unlistenably bad and we left early.
Days 10,11, & 12, Friday-Sunday, September 14-16
For the next three days we enjoyed perfect weather and the music of:
- Phil Lesh & Friends
- Gov't Mule
- The B-52's
- The Chris Robinson Brotherhood
- Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
- Little Feat
- Robert Randolph & the Family Band
- Anders Osborne
- Heartless Bastards
- Phil Wiggins & Rev. John Wilkins
- Tab Benoit
- Little Hurricane
- MarchFourth Marching Band
- The Lee Boys
- Kelley Hunt
- Big Jim Adam & John Stilwagen
In addition to the main stage during the daytime, I also went to the Juke Joints
at night taking in the Todd Wolf Band at the Elks Club on Friday and Orgone at the
Fly Me to the Moon Saloon on Saturday. Of course everyone loved the Grand Tasting
Day 13, Monday, September 17
We drove back to Amarillo (driving time - 9 hours)