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 & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton, hike to Chicago Basin, and meet me there near at 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 began hiking again. The sun did not set right away and by the progress I was making I was reassured that indeed it was the next day.
I met my parents and my sister 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 Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot for trips starting with a train ride. On this day, I picked up a bagel for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch on the trail.
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 Buckhorn 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. Basin Reproduction and Printing Company, Durango, CO, 1976., 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 walked 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 I 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 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, 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 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 2,616 feet.
Day 4, Saturday, September 8
I continued down Vallecito Creek to Johnson Creek, crossed over the bridge and headed up 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 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 night.
Day 5, Sunday, September 9
This morning my ankle was just a little sore when rolled inward and there was not 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 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 much.
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), check out the guide (PDF file) from 14ers.com.
I was camped near the trail and several 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 renamed Eolus) , (919 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 view of the Mountain Village Sunset Plaza Stage. We liked the music and outrageous performance 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 on Saturday.
Day 13, Monday, September 17
We drove back to Amarillo (driving time - 9 hours)