High Alpine Lakes of the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado
- See alpine flowers at the peak of their season
- Enjoy unparalleled views from one of the highest sections of the CDT
- Experience a high-altitude adventure carrying only a day pack
- Llamas to carry all food, group gear, and most personal gear
- Wrangler support for the llamas
- All meals and snacks on the trail
|Dates||Jul 21–26, 2014|
|Difficulty||4 (out of 5)|
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The year 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act signed into law on September 3, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. What a way to celebrate this event with our Wilderness Adventure! The Weminuche Wilderness Area, the largest wilderness area in Colorado, was designated by an act of Congress in 1975, and expanded to its current size of 499,771 acres by the Colorado Wilderness Acts of 1980 and 1993. The Weminuche lies in both the San Juan (334,776 acres) and Rio Grande (164,995 acres) national forests of southwestern Colorado. Its average elevation is 10,000 feet with many peaks over 13,000 feet and three above 14,000 feet. The Continental Divide, North America's geological backbone, bisects the Weminuche, with waters flowing either to the Pacific or to the Atlantic oceans. The wilderness is vast and studded with numerous lakes, streams, canyons, and peaks. Black bear, mountain goats, pika, lynx, and mountain lions all make their homes here. Durango, 35 miles to the southwest, is the center for many recreational opportunities for anyone who wants to spend a few extra days before or after our trip.
Our trip begins on Molas Pass, about 10 miles south of Silverton, CO at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. This is a llama-supported trip and we will meet our llamas here. A wrangler employed by our outfitter will pack and balance loads before we head down the Molas Trail to where we cross the Animas River at about 8,900 feet. We cross the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway tracks, then begin our climb up the Elk Creek Trail to its intersection with the Continental Divide Trail at an altitude of 12,500 feet. From this point, we are within just a few miles of five of the highest lakes in the Weminuche: Eldorado, Vallecito, Lost, Verde, and Highland Mary lakes. We will spend two nights at Eldorado Lake and two at Lost Lake. From these lakes, we will visit Vallecito, Verde, and Highland Mary lakes on day hikes. On our last day, we will reconnect with the CDT, pass two more small, unnamed lakes, and conclude our adventure at Cunningham Gulch. At the Cunningham Gulch trailhead, we will meet our outfitter, say good-bye to our llama buddies, and board our van for the short ride back to Molas Pass to pick up our vehicles. We will reconvene in Durango for a memorable farewell dinner.
Because our trip takes place largely at an altitude above 10,000 feet, you should plan to arrive in Durango at least two days early to acclimatize if you live at a lower altitude. We will meet early in the morning on Monday, July 21, at the Molas Pass parking area. Directions to our meeting place will be detailed in pre-trip correspondence. Getting to Durango is fairly easy. It is seven to eight hours by car from Denver, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City, and four hours from Albuquerque. Durango (DRO) is serviced by United Airlines, U.S. Airways, and American Airlines, with frequent service from Denver and Phoenix, and once daily service from Dallas, respectively. There is a taxi/shuttle service from the Durango/La Plata County Airport to Durango, and area hotels will make shuttle arrangements. With some advance notice, your trip leader can help arrange transportation into Durango.
Day 1: We will meet at the Molas Pass Trailhead (10,604 feet) around 8:00 a.m., where our outfitter and llamas will meet us. The llamas will carry the kitchen, our food for the week, and most of our personal gear. From Molas Pass we’ll take the Molas Trail to the Animas River (8,930 feet), cross the river and the tracks from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and start up the Elk Creek Trail. Here we’ll enter the Weminuche Wilderness Area, where we will be for the next five days. We will continue up the Elk Creek Trail to an area known as the Beaver Ponds (10,000 feet), where we will make our first night's camp. Total distance: about 8 miles. Camp elevation: 10,000 feet.
Day 2: We continue up the Elk Creek Trail to where it intersects the Continental Divide Trail -- a distance of only four miles, but an elevation gain of 2,500 feet. On the CDT, we turn south to connect with the trail to Eldorado Lake (12,504 feet). We should arrive early enough in the day to do some exploring around Eldorado Lake. Total distance: a little more than 5 miles. Camp elevation: 12,504 feet.
Day 3: Today we will day hike to Vallecito Lake (12,210 feet), a high alpine lake just below the Continental Divide. Nestled in a basin a short distance from our camp at Eldorado Lake, Vallecito Lake displays the eery, iridescent, azure blue color of a glacial lake. Above the lake to the west are two peaks connected by a saddle that offer fantastic views of the Grenadiers, White Dome (13,627 feet), and Peak One (13,589 feet). Total distance: 5-7 miles. Camp elevation: 12,504 feet.
Day 4: We break camp early and head back down to the CDT, continuing along it to the north for a few miles to where it intersects the Verde Lake Trail, then head west. We pass Verde Lake and follow a faint trail to Lost Lake, where we will make camp for another two nights. There is usually good fishing in Verde Lake. Interested anglers may bring their Colorado fishing license, rod, and reel. Total distance: about 7.0 miles. Camp elevation: 12,182 feet.
Day 5: We can do a long, loop day hike today. From Lost Lake, we follow the Whitehead Gulch Trail to Whitehead Gulch, connect with the Deer Park Trail, and climb up to a saddle between Whitehead Peak (13,259 feet) and Sugarloaf (12,754 feet). From there, we continue off trail around Whitehead Peak, past the Highland Mary Lakes (12,090 feet), and back to our camp at Lost Lake. Alternatively, we can explore off trail from Lost Lake to Highland Mary Lakes, around Verde Lake and back to Lost Lake. Total distance: 5-8 miles depending on choices. Camp elevation: 12,182 feet.
Day 6: We depart Lost Lake early and make our way back to the CDT. From there, we continue north to the CDT's intersection with the Cunningham Gulch Trail and then west to the trailhead. Total distance: about 5 miles. At the trailhead we will rendezvous with our llama outfitter and meet the van that will take us back to our cars on Molas Pass. We will reconvene in Durango for a memorable farewell dinner.
You should plan to arrive in Durango or Silverton at least two days early (on Saturday, July 19) to start acclimatizing if you are from an elevation lower than about 5,000 feet. There is plenty to do in Durango: the old steam train from Durango to Silverton, mountain biking, rafting, and kayaking; and there are plenty of sites to see, including Mesa Verde National Park, Chimney Rock National Monument, Canyons of the Ancients, and Hovenweep National Monument.
Accommodations and Food
Once our trip begins, all meals will be provided. Vegetarians and those with gluten intolerance will be accommodated. Other special dietary considerations must be communicated to your trip leader well in advance of our departure. On our return, we will enjoy a farewell dinner at one of the many fine downtown Durango restaurants. While on the trail, we will be camping. Our llamas will carry the group gear, tents, commissary, as well as some of our personal gear, sleeping bags, mattress pads, etc. A wrangler employed by our outfitter will take care of packing and caring for the llamas, but meals are all group activities. Everyone will be expected to do his or her part and duties will rotate throughout the trip.
This trip is strenuous, with significant elevation changes, and four nights above 12,000 feet. Our longest day will be about eight miles. We will have two layover days with various optional activities, including hikes to nearby lakes and/or peaks and hiking distances of two to seven miles. Even if you never have had problems with altitude, you will want to allow yourself enough time before the start of the trip to acclimatize. Generally you need at least two days; plan to take it easy, and drink lots of water. The Molas, Elk Creek, Continental Divide, and Verde Lake trails are well-marked system trails, but the trails to Vallecito Lake, White Dome, Lost Lake, and Whitehead Peak are faint and not marked. Sections of the trail are rocky, slippery, and steep, but the entire route is navigable by llamas so they're not particularly difficult. Trekking poles might be useful, but you may want to help out by leading a llama on some days during the trip and your hands will be occupied with the lead rope. Monsoon season in the high country starts in July, so be prepared for rain, sleet, hail, and cold temperatures. There could be some stream crossings or wet trails. You may get wet! Be prepared with sturdy, water-proofed boots and knee-high gaiters.
Equipment and Clothing
Your trip leader will provide a detailed equipment list to registered trip members. You will need a day pack with a capacity of 35-45 liters; sturdy, well-broken in boots; and clothing appropriate for the season. Expect temperature from below freezing to the mid-70s at this time of year. Good quality (GoreTex® or its equivalent) rain gear, including a pack cover, is a must! We must be prepared for cold nights, possibly below freezing, so a good sleeping bag, rated to 0°-15° F, and mattress pad are necessary. You will need a tent that can weather wind and rain. Llamas will be carrying our tents, sleeping bags, mattress pads, and other personal gear as we have space, but you should wrap everything in plastic trash bags or dry sacks. You should carry a personal first-aid kit (we will also have a group first-aid kit), at least one liter of water and a water filter or water purification tabs, and rain gear. You can expect your pack to weigh no more than 20-25 pounds (less is better).
There are several good books to introduce you to the Weminuche and the southern San Juan Mountains. Many are available at Amazon.com but the trip leader also encourages you to check out the San Juan Mountains Association Bookstore at the Public Lands Center in Durango, CO.
- Boucher, B. J., Walking in Wildness, A Guide to the Weminuche Wilderness. The San Juan Mountains Association, 1998.
- Pixler, Paul and John Peel, Hiking Trails of Southwestern Colorado, 4th Ed. Pruett Publishing Co., 2006.
- Taylor Gray Mary, photograpy by Herbert Clarke, The Guide to Colorado Birds. Westcliffe Publishers, 1998.
- Lorang Jones, Tom, photography by John Fielder, Colorado's Continental Divide Trail, the Official Guide, 2nd Edition. Westcliff Publishers, 2004.
- Pavia, Jerry, Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Photos, Descriptions, and Early Explorer Insights. Flucrum Publishing, 2003.
- National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Maps, Map #140, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan and Rio Grande National Forest
- USGS Topographic Maps: Howardsville and Silverton
- San Juan Mountains Association: http://www.sjma.org
- San Juan National Forest: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/
This area of the Rockies is heavily used, and very fragile. Often, outdoor recreation is a catalyst for conservation, but we have to consider human impact on the wilderness. Polluted waters, displaced wildlife, eroded soils, and trampled vegetation are just some of the impacts linked directly to recreational activities. This is a Leave No Trace trip, which means, among other things, that there will be no campfires. We will send out information about Leave No Trace camping practices before the trip. We will talk about this low-impact ethic before the trip begins, and learn and practice the skills as we go. We will also discuss national and local environmental issues in the evenings, and talk about how to contact our legislators about issues that concern us.
One environmental issue in the Southwest is the scarcity of water. These mountains are the headwaters of some of the largest river systems in the U.S., including the Colorado River, the San Juan, and the Rio Grande, some of which are over allocated. Water issues predate the wilderness areas. At both Eldorado and Highland Mary lakes, there were dams built in the late 1800s to provide water for mining operations. At Emerald Lake, nearby but not in our itinerary, there was a small dam built in the late 1800s. All this may seem arcane, but a few years back, the Pine River Irrigation District had proposed raising the dam at Emerald Lake and building a road with other supporting infrastructure, in the wilderness area. (“Dam Still Threatens Weminuche," San Juan Citizens News, March 2005, p13.) Only through our action can projects like this be defeated and our pristine wilderness be protected.