Trip Report: June 2021 Backpacking and Climbing in the West Needle Mountains

Crater Lake and the Twilight Peaks Massif
Crater Lake and the Twilight Peaks Massif

Introduction

This page describes a backpacking and climbing trip to Crater Lake and the West Needle Mountains in the Weminuche Wilderness in southwestern Colorado that I made in June 2021.


Crater lake is a beautiful, glacially formed lake high in the West Needle Mountains, south of Silverton, CO. It is adjacent to the spectacular Animas River Gorge which is over 4000 feet deep. It is near the peaks of the West Needle Mountains including Snowdon Peak, North Twilight Peak, Twilight Peak, South Twilight Peak, and West Needle Mountain.

Photo: Crater Lake.
View from the Top of North Twilight Peak

The Crater Lake Trail starts at Andrews Lake. The lake is near Molas Pass on U.S. Highway 550 which runs from Durango to Silverton. After turning off 550, a 0.6 mile drive on Forest Service Road 590 provides access to the lake. The Crater Lake Trail is 5 miles long and ascends 1,700 feet.


Day 1: Monday, June 14, 2021

I drove from Amarillo, TX to Durango, CO (8 h, 525 miles). Durango has an elevation around 6,500 feet. I wanted to stay near Purgatory Resort which has an elevation 8,950 feet. That would have helped me more to acclimatize to altitude before going higher into the West Needle Mountains. Unfortunately, I could not find lodging there.

Day 2: Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Four days earlier, the San Juan Public Lands Office told me that Andrews Lake Road was covered with snow and that there was thigh deep snow on the switchbacks immediately above the Lake. I had been watching the weather, the remote sensing snow depth SNOTEL sites, and the Colorado DOT highway cameras in the region for several weeks. I did not think would be that much snow.

I drove to Andrews Lake. There was no snow on the road nor on the trails immediately above the lake. I thought there was no reason to delay my trip to allow for more snow melt.

I spent another night in Durango to further acclimatize.

Day 3: Wednesday, June 16, 2021

I drove back to Andrews Lake and began my trek. I hiked the Crater Lake Trail to the Snowdon Peak Trail branch (0.94 miles, ascent/descent 468/-47 feet).

I walked east-southeast up the Snowdon Peak Trail about 0.5 miles and found a good campsite. I hung my food between two trees. I left my tent, sleeping bag, and other items I did not need to climb Snowdon Peak at the campsite.

Campsite West of Snowdon Peak
Campsite West of Snowdon Peak

I resumed hiking, planning to climb Snowdon Peak via the Northeast Ridge Route and return to this campsite (4.14 miles, ascent/descent 2,614/-2614 feet). I climbed to the saddle between Snowdon Peak and point 12,628. The upper part of this trail is extremely steep with long sections of 45° or greater slope.

I began ascending Snowdon's northeast ridge which involves mostly class 2 climbing with occasional class 3 moves. I looked up and ahead to where the standard route leaves the ridge and transverses Snowdon's east face before ascending to the summit (see the photo below). This transverse, with a slope great than 60° is a class 3+ climb and is not just a hike. As Rosebrough puts it in Rosebrough, R. (1986, pg. 112). San Juan Mountains a Climbing and Hiking Guide (1st ed.). Cordillera Pr. , "The traverse of the east face involves delicate and somewhat exposed climbing."

Snowdon Peak, Northeast Ridge with Route Highlighted
Snowdon Peak, Northeast Ridge with Route Highlighted

At this point I was getting very tired. I began climbing clumsily. I decided it was a bad idea to continue to the summit. I turned around and descended to my campsite. The steep descent was difficult. The slope angle was so high that I had to step carefully to avoid having my feet slip out from under me.

Day 4: Thursday, June 17, 2021

I broke camp and hiked to Crater Lake (4.09 miles, ascent/descent 1,286/-846). Shortly after leaving camp, I saw a black bear galloping across a meadow a few hundred yards away. In over fifty years of backpacking in this region, I have never seen a bear while hiking. I have seen bear scat several times. I have seen bears at dumpsters in the area several times. I know there are many bears in the area, but I never see them while hiking. I think they must hear, smell, or see me before I see them and they stay out of sight. I think this bear saw me before I spotted him. He seemed to be hightailing it into the woods out of view.

Day 5: Friday, June 18, 2021

I spent two nights at Crater Lake, elevation 11,650 feet. It is a beautiful, glacial formed cirque lake. There are nice campsites in the trees on top of the remnants of the lateral moraine on the west side of the lake (see the photo above).

To the south, it has the spectacular backdrop of the Twilight Peaks massif. I want to return to this area and climb North Twilight and traverse Twilight and South Peaks. West Needle Mountain could also be climbed on the same trip.

On this day, I met renowned, seventy-eight-year-old alpinist Jim Donini as he was leaving his campsite at Crater Lake. He is a past president of the American Alpine Club and has made notable climbs around the world. He told me that he had climbed on all seven continents. He presently lives in Ouray, Colorado during the northern hemisphere's summer and in Patagonia during its summer.

Day 6: Saturday, June 19, 2021

I broke camp and descended to my car at the Andrews Lake trailhead (5.03 miles, ascent/descent 2,165/-2,431 feet). I drove to Durango. This was a busy weekend in Durango. Finding a hotel room was difficult and expensive. Most of the hotels were full and the ones with vacancies were charging two or three times their usual prices.

Day 7: Sunday, June 20, 2021

I drove home to Amarillo.