I’d often heard of the beauty of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, but had no real reason to travel so far, what with the mountains in my own backyard. However, in this year of historic drought, we sought greener places. We knew that the flowers and grasses would be shriveled and even the streams would be dry in August in the Sierra this year. The drought had extended north to encompass the entire west coast, so we searched for water elsewhere. And we found it: All those storms which had forsaken the coast had migrated east, to Colorado.
But I knew nothing about Colorado, except that there were plenty of mountains. So I searched online for popular hikes. I also narrowed my search to southwest Colorado, so we wouldn’t have to drive as far. The most popular hike of all was to the Chicago Basin; not only was it beautiful, but you also had no choice but to take a romantic steam train to get to the trailhead. Nice! But upon further reading I discovered that the trails were far too crowded, and it wouldn’t be a wilderness experience by any means. I looked nearby, and found another, less busy trail that also happened to lead toward the Continental Divide. Hiking a section of the famous Continental Divide Trail? Oh, yes. That sounded excellent.
So I bought the Weminuche Wilderness Trail Map, and made some hiking plans. I tried to leave it as open-ended as possible, with no firm distances to be hiked or places to camp, taking anywhere from seven to nine days. My only requirement was to stand on the actual Continental Divide sometime during the hike. True, we were a bit sad not to be riding on the romantic steam train to get to the trailhead, so we booked a motel in Durango for one night and reserved our tickets for the train ride to Silverton. We’d do it all!
And we did. We spent the night at a motel and took the romantic train ride (and had plenty of touristy fun) the next day. Rather than spend another night at the motel, we’d booked a spot at a campsite right next to the trailhead, thinking that we’d get an early start hiking the next morning. As we ate dinner we checked the weather, and the indications were that it was going to rain over an inch that night! Packing up heavy, soggy hiking gear and carrying it for miles right at the beginning of a week-long trek didn’t sound very appealing to us, so we found yet another motel and had a relaxing night. This turned out to be one of our better decisions. We were able to get our packs ready in well-lit comfort, charge our camera batteries, and take one last shower. We woke up before dawn, grabbed a fast-food meal and one final item at a supermarket, and headed for the mountains.
Everything was soaked when we got there, and the people we met on the trail said that it had rained all night. Hooray for the motel! Meanwhile, the day was sunny and warm, and we enjoyed hiking on the trail, which began in earnest by climbing high along the side of Vallecito Creek. The creek itself was deep in a gorge below us, and we got glimpses of it every so often.
We finally descend to the creek – video from the Vallecito Creek Trail
There were originally four bridges over the creek on this trail, until the third one was taken out by an avalanche back in 2004. But we weren’t going to worry about that today. As it was, we were tired from that initial climb up above the gorge, and the elevation was getting to Vicki a bit. So we found a nice campsite in the forest near a meadow and the creek and set up an early camp.
Our second day’s hike began at the crack of dawn, as we wanted to get to the third river crossing (the ford) while it was still warm and sunny, because the creek’s water was icy cold. If something stupid happened and one of us accidentally fell in and got soaked, we wanted to be sure that we had plenty of time to get warm and completely dried out.
Video of Vicki crossing the creek at the Ford
Naturally, since we were so well-prepared, wearing water shoes for traction on the slippery rocks, wielding hiking poles for balance, and using dry bags for our boots, nothing bad happened on the river crossing. True, it was icy cold, but it only came up to our knees, and there was a convenient rope strung across the creek to hold on to. But I could see it being a very dangerous crossing in June when the snows were melting and the river was running high.
We stayed dry on the crossing, but would we stay dry later on? Soon after lunch the thunderheads began building over the mountains all around us, and thunder began booming down-canyon. We hurried onward, trying to escape the expanding cumulonimbus clouds, trying to keep up with the patch of blue sky that kept receding in front of us. And then I checked the map: We were hiking right next to Thunder Mountain! That was when we knew that we were doomed.
We hiked along beyond the fourth bridge, hoping to get a bit further before setting up camp, and that was our big mistake. There had been some great campsites back by the bridge, and now that we hiked beyond it (the trail was even less traveled in this section) there wasn’t a campsite to be found. It was all steeply slanted forest with bumpy moss-covered rocks everywhere. Meanwhile, the storm kept getting closer. Finally I spied a spot way down below us near the stream at the bottom edge of a long sloping meadow. But was it a good spot? Vicki refused to budge. She wasn’t hiking down there without certain knowledge. She might have to hike right back up! So I took off my big pack and hiked on down. And, yes, there was a nice spot not far from the creek. So I hiked all the way back up. And then it started to rain. Of course it did. Vicki already had her raingear on, so I whipped my gear out and got covered. Then we hiked down and hid under a pine tree while it steadily rained. But that got old pretty quick. Still, weather in the mountains usually doesn’t last very long, and this was no exception. When a break in the action came, we began setting up camp.
Our third day began with fine weather. But the big meadow was wet and soggy. So we put on our water shoes and hiked back up to the trail, then put on our boots. Hiking with wet boots is not fun, and it isn’t great for your feet, either. Our goal for the day was to reach the junction with the Rock Creek Trail. At this point we would make some decisions as to how we felt and what we wanted to do next.
Video of rust-stained Rock Creek where the Vallecito Creek Trail crosses it
The campsite near Rock Creek was truly beautiful. We had clear views of mountains in all directions. Rock Creek and its orange, rust-stained rocks didn’t make us very confident, so we pumped water from Vallecito Creek just above the junction with Rock Creek. That seemed a lot safer. We also did some laundry at this camp, and got ourselves into good shape for more hiking the next day.
We decided that we were feeling strong here at 10,100 feet elevation, and that we would try our best to make it to Rock Lake, which was all the way up at 11,841 feet. There wouldn’t be much air up there. So we woke up early and began hiking, as we knew the first section was the steepest. After that there would be a couple of miles of gentle, easy-hiking meadows, and then a final climb up to the lake itself. The day dawned with cumulus clouds already drifting by up above, so we had a feeling we’d be in for some rain pretty soon. And we were right! It hit us near the upper end of the big meadow.
Video of the rain falling as we hike toward some potential shelter under pine trees
Luckily for us, we got to the lake on time to get the tent set up before that second thunderstorm went by. And it’s always a good feeling to be dry and warm inside a tent when it’s raining outside. Although it must be stated that the nearby lightning bolts made it more “interesting.”
We decided that our fifth day would be our layover day, and that my only goal for the trip would be accomplished: We would stand on the Continental Divide, and hike for a short distance on the Continental Divide Trial (CDT). We took our time waking up and getting breakfast, as it would be a relatively easy day-hiking day, and we’d be back at the tent for another night.
The Continental Divide was all that it had been advertised to be. Amazing views in all directions, flowery meadows as far as the eye could see, and tiny blue ponds nestled high above the tree line. Gorgeous!
Well, our sixth day dawned and we were on the downslope now. Almost. We’d been thinking about our route back and we had two main choices: Return the way we’d come, or try to make the hike a loop by descending a different canyon. The latter was preferable, obviously, but it entailed a 1300 foot climb up and over the pass above Rock Lake. This route was no longer considered a “trail” in that it was no longer maintained and was not present on newer maps, but it showed up just fine on older topo maps, and I was able to see it on the computer by zooming in via Google Earth. On the other side of this pass was the Lake Creek drainage, with the Moon Lakes and Emerald Lake, and several waterfalls. It sounded like it would be worth the hard climb, and we weren’t afraid to hike without a trail these days. We were hardened cross-country backpackers.
When we woke up to a red sky in morning, we knew that the sailors should take warning. So we packed as fast as we possibly could, to get ourselves up and over the pass before the lightning began. Still, it was a steep climb and it would take some time to get there. Meanwhile, we watched the storm clouds racing by on either side of us. And the views were fantastic!
Right when we reached the top of the pass was when it began to hail. And the wind started blowing like mad. We hunkered down behind a rock wall and rested for a short time, but it was getting colder fast and we knew we needed to get down out of here as soon as possible. It was far too exposed a location in this weather. But the views were excellent. And ahead of us was our long multi-day path back to the car. It was bound to be wonderful. If the weather would only cooperate! So down we hiked off the pass toward the Moon Lakes.
Windy panorama video from the pass between Rock Lake and Moon Lake
It was at this point that we made another fateful decision. I knew that the official Emerald Lakes Trail ended here at Moon Lake, and that surely there was a campsite. So we crossed the creek and hiked west on the side trail along the lake. Lo and behold, there was a fine campsite! I wanted to keep going, as we’d hiked less than two miles so far that day (with lots of climbing and descending) but Vicki had had enough. She was firm. We would be camping right here, because she deserved it after the effort of hiking up and over that insanely windy pass at that crazily high elevation. I agreed. Some things are not worth arguing about. Especially when you’re certain to lose the argument. We set down our packs in a dry spot under a pine tree, and got out the tent. The rain, by this point, had begun to diminish, and a patch of blue sky was heading our way. Maybe we could dry things out for a bit!
We dried out everything in the sun as a fresh breeze snapped our laundry on the line. I got out my solar charger and began charging my kindle. We walked downstream and filtered enough water for dinner and the following day’s hike. It was a truly beautiful afternoon spent lazily on the shore of a high alpine lake. What could be finer than that?
Meanwhile, we couldn’t help but notice that the stormy weather hadn’t really stopped. Oh, no. Dark towering clouds drifted by on either side of our little valley, and thunder boomed occasionally in the distance. As much as we were loving our sunny day, we realized that it couldn’t possibly last. Our hearts were singing blithely but our minds knew better.
And then we saw it: A dark, towering cloud directly upwind of us at the head of the valley. And we knew that it meant business. We ran to the clothesline, untied it from the trees, and threw the clothes into the tent. I grabbed my solar charger and Kindle and put them inside as well. We even grabbed our backpacks and put them under the tent in the vestibule areas. We only made one mistake: We left the bear cans full of food under the pine trees not far away. But surely the storm wouldn’t last that long. Right?
Video of rain and thunder at Moon Lake as we hunker down in our tent for the next few hours
Over the next few hours we played solitaire, rummy, and poker. We read books. We took naps (in the sleeping bag as it was getting cold). It just kept raining and raining and raining. I admitted to Vicki that she had made the right decision in stopping here, because being caught out hiking in a downpour like this would have been completely miserable. Every time we thought it was over, we looked outside to see more dark clouds, and gave up on the idea. There were deep puddles everywhere except under our tent (hooray!) and then it began to get dark. Meanwhile, we were starving. We eventually had no choice but to wait for a quick break, at which point Vicki darted out and grabbed the snack can. We would have a cold dinner using one of our lunches. And so we did, but it wasn’t all that satisfying, somehow. We had been getting used to having a cup of hot salty broth before dinner and this would have been the perfect evening for it. No such luck.
We went to sleep with a light rain pattering on the tent, and only woke up later when it was quiet. We could hear some unknown creature walking around outside the tent. Vicki heard it first. She shook me awake. “Something’s outside the tent!” I sat and listened, but I didn’t hear anything. Still, Vicki was certain. So I did the usual manly thing: I growled and I roared! I made plenty of noise to show whatever it was that I was the biggest, baddest, and meanest thing around these parts, and that I wasn’t the tiniest bit scared of unknown noises in the darkness. I dutifully grabbed my headlamp and unzipped the door to the tent. I stuck out my head and shone the light all around. Nothing was there. So I gave up and got back into that nice warm sleeping bag. But before I fell asleep it was back, and I heard it this time. It was only a few feet from the tent, making some kind of strange slurping sound. It was spooky, and I admit that the hair stood up on my head. But I got myself under control. I grabbed the headlamp and unzipped the door as fast as possible. I looked around once more, and this time I saw the reflection of a pair of eyes near the edge of the campsite. But what KIND of eyes? That was the question. I watched for a while, and it soon became clear that it was a deer. I growled some more but it didn’t move. It knew that it was faster than me, and that it was perfectly safe. And then it dawned on me: That slurping sound. It was the deer licking up my urine from where I had gone not long ago during a break in the rain. Disgusting but true! There is so much rain up in those mountains that salt is an extremely rare and precious commodity. All the other salt had been washed away into the Pacific Ocean a long, long time ago. I’d seen this phenomenon before in the Sierra, and had read about mountain goats following campers around in the Rockies not far from here in the Chicago Basin. At that point I knew two things: That I was an idiot for not having walked further from my tent when the world was deep in puddles, and that nothing I could do would stop that deer from licking up that salt. So I got out my book and read it for the next hour as I listened to slurping noises in the night. The only person I growled at was me, for being so lazy.
All I can say is that it had been one hell of a day.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. All the rain clouds were gone, hopefully for good. We had a long day of hiking ahead of us, past several waterfalls and mile-long Emerald Lake. We really had to hike further than usual as we’d only hiked two miles the day previously, but even then we weren’t too worried. We’d see what happened, and simply hike downhill, enjoying the beautiful Colorado High Country. This was our seventh day on the trail.
The second set of Waterfalls on the Emerald Lake Trail below Moon Lake
Video of gusty wind along the surface of Emerald Lake
Video of Vicki wading into the icy waters of Emerald Lake
The next morning dawned clear and cold. It was our eighth day on the trail, and there was frost on the grass in the meadows. But at least there weren’t any rain clouds. We ate some warm breakfast and drank our hot coffee, wrapping our hands around the cups for warmth. We could see our breath when we breathed out. The tent was all wet inside from the condensation of our breathing all night, so we shook off the tarp as well as we could, and packed up the heavy, soggy tent. We’d have to dry it out later that afternoon.
Today was also our last day in the Weminuche Wilderness. By the end of the day we’d be staying in a small campground at the end of a dirt road. Civilization, of a sort. We weren’t sure if we were ready for it, but in a way it would be nice. Somehow I knew that what we most wanted was a nice hot shower, and that this campground wasn’t going to have one.
After one last descent on the Emerald Lake Trail we would intersect the Pine River Trail, and the rest of the hike would be essentially flat. Just a long walk down a wide valley. And near the end of the trail we’d be hiking on a right-of-way through private land. I know it sounds boring, but that private land turned out to be a very beautiful ranch, and even the cows were happy there.
Even though the trail had been flat and easy, it had also been hot in the sun. Our feet were hot and sore, and we were sweaty and stinky after a week with no shower. We still had one more day ahead of us, a long, ten mile hike on roads, both dirt and paved, and I wasn’t really looking forward to it. But that’s what we had to do to get to the car. Unless, of course, I could hitch a ride. That would be optimal. Too bad we were way out here on the end of a dirt road, the only campers in a tiny six-spot campground. Still, I waited and hoped that someone would show up, either returning off the trail or driving down the road. And I lucked out! I got a ride! We met some nice folks who were hosting an RV Park not far from our car, and on the way I found out that they had hot showers for only five dollars! I thanked them profusely for the ride, then drove back to the campground and picked up Vicki. We got our stuff together and drove all the way back for those showers. And they were great. I even shaved my bristly beard and felt like a new man again. Then we drove back to the campground and had ourselves some dinner at a civilized picnic table.
The morning dawned on what was to be our final and ninth day of hiking, but we didn’t have to hike it. And we were happy with that. We had a long drive home to San Diego ahead of us, and as we left we began checking out the road maps to see if there was anything of interest that we wanted to see along the way. On the way back to Durango we stopped and looked back at the mountains we’d just been hiking through. And we were glad we’d come out here. The rain, the green, the flowers, and the peaks had all been magnificent. It had been an excellent hiking trip.
For an interactive topo map check out my Caltopo Page
Even more pictures and videos can be found on my Flickr Album Page