Weminuche Wilderness-San Juan National Forest-Colorado
It’s difficult to plan a Summer vacation at a year-round school, where classes run as usual through the time that traditional teachers are free to stay up too late and drink too much. We decided to capitalize on a family trip to Santa Fe, and tack on a few extra days to slip in an August high country jaunt in advance of another academic year.
We were pleased that the Prius could handle some light off-roading to camp in the shadow of towering granite peaks in the San Juan National Forest outside Durango, CO. We washed down some leftover grilled chicken and bacon with the last of the beers from the family shin-dig, and dozed off in the back of the car looking forward to an early start on trail. We finally crawled out of our sleeping bags at 8 am. We took our time eating breakfast and checking packs and headed south to Purgatory Flat Trail Head. When we finally left the Prius and hit the trail it was a California start time at a bright and early 10 am.
We dropped into Purgatory Flat where the Animas River cuts through the mountains. Living at nearly sea level and hiking at 8,000 feet, we were grateful for the decline to the valley floor. As we finished the descent we jumped at the sound of a loud train whistle. Passengers yelled out as we filtered water from the Animas. We headed Northeast after mistakenly following a meandering game trail that never quite headed the right direction. Happy to be back on the right track, we followed the river for a few more miles before spotting a camp where we were happy to lay up with already sore hips and salty clothes. The weather was perfect, and we enjoyed one of those rare nights in the tent without a rain fly.
The next day was a long steady climb to Chicago Basin. The trail took a mild upward grade, and by early afternoon we finally reached the edge of the basin. The rugged 14ers surrounding us to the North and South were a wonderful welcome to Weminuche Wilderness, but even more intriguing members of the welcoming party really caught us off guard. As we settled in for a late lunch of salami and cheese, Trail Bride whispers, “look! Shhh,” gesturing towards what we thought was a lone mountain goat below us at the creek. We watched in amazement, only having encountered these majestic creatures from a distance, often hundreds of yards away scampering nimbly on outcroppings of granite cliffs, and tried to keep the ruffling of lunch wrappers to a minimum so we didn’t scare our lunch guest. We soon realized, however, that this one goat was joined shortly thereafter by many, many more. Curiouser, the goats seemed to be slowly circling around us, and closing the distance rapidly. We weren’t sure whether they were attracted to our snacks, the salt on our clothes and gear, or if they wanted to devour our flesh. Needless to say, it was an entertaining, if not anxiety promoting, lunch break.
As we ogled the beauty of the goats, while occasionally yelling out and tossing clods of dirt to keep them at bay, storm clouds gathered in, blocking the warmth of the high-altitude sun. The clouds were followed by thunder, then hail. Big hail. And lots of it. Chunks of increasing size pelted the ground, and our bodies, with surprising force. And it was loud, so much so that we had to shout to hear each other as we discussed what to do next. We almost forgot about the dozen hungry goats, who took this as their cue to move on. Before too long, the storm system passed, and we gathered our gear to push on. But before we could don our packs, the goats were back, and so was the hail. We didn’t hike long before we surrendered to the storm upon spotting a comfortable camp site. We made camp and settled in.
We awoke to a blue-bird morning. We waited for the sun to creep above the peaks above us to give our tent fly and footprint a chance to dry out a bit. As we putted around camp for coffee, breakfast, and packing up, the goats made a reappearance. Again, they circled around us, eating grass, when we saw them go for areas on the rocks where we had urinated, which they licked with gusto. Clearly, these animals were attracted to the salt and minerals in our gear and urine. We had seen the same along the Pacific Crest Trail, where deer would betray their fear of humans to approach spots where hikers had recently peed. We packed the rest of our gear and set off along a dewy and slowing climbing trail toward Columbine Pass.
It wasn’t long before the trees gave way to bare rock, covered in lichen and stacked in bizarre formations. Switchbacks continued as we gained more elevation. The pass stands at a daunting 12,680 ft, and we were relieved to reach the top, having not been at so high an elevation for over a year, and we timed it well, crossing over before late morning with blue skies. The descent was fast but well graded, and the weather was agreeable for the first two hours, and we made good progress. The afternoon clouds gathered again, as expected, and proceeded to drop more hail. This time, we decided that making miles was more important than huddling for cover, and we set out through the mayhem. The hail was painful, especially when it hit our heads and the backs of our hands. We charged forward, knowing if we dropped enough elevation the hail would turn to rain. And it did, eventually. We were tired when we decided to stop for the night along the trail above Vallecito creek. We gathered water from a trickle that crossed the trail, and settled in after doing some yoga poses to get warmed up.
We had a lazy morning as we waited for the sun to climb above the canyon walls. We sipped coffee and wiggled our toes, waiting for the relief that direct high altitude sunlight brings. We knew that another big pass was waiting for us, so a bit of procrastination added to our wanting to dry gear out before starting the climb. But climb we eventually did, and the weather cooperated. We pushed upward again towards 12,400 feet, making our way steadily above treeline again. We passed a group of hikers making their way down, who shared their harrowing tale of crossing the pass during the previous day’s storm. Grateful we had laid up short when we did, we proceeded to the summit with blue skies. The pass was beautiful and lush, and summoned visions of what we figure the Scottish highlands might look like, rolling green hills with outcroppings of exposed rock. We descended once more after a brief pause, and eventually stopped for the evening in tall grass aside a frigid flow of glacial melt. We had a leisurely dinner as the sun dipped below the peaks behind us, leaving an a cold afterglow behind it.
The next morning we decided to make a push for civilization. We mobilized a bit earlier than usual, and pushed upwards for a brief climb to a junction that joins the Colorado Trail. Another bluebird morning, along with legs freshly stocked with caloric energy, allowed us to easily climb the few hundred feet to the junction. We took a mid morning break to scramble among the boulders and observe several Pika, which we had only seen a handful of times before. We shouldered our packs once again, and plummeted into the valley below, taking the switchbacks with a sense of aggression as we slowly realized that we might actually be able to make it to the highway before dark, and thus maybe find a ride into town. In short, we wanted to drink beers. And so, we were buoyed with a second wind that carried us down to the valley below to Elk Creek.
The creek itself was dyed a rust color, and appeared other worldly. The water we filtered tasted faintly of blood, which we assume was from the iron that gave the red hues. The next leg of the journey was a steep climb up to regain the elevation we so gratefully dropped the first day. The trail wandered through countless beautiful and ruthless switchbacks, and every time we thought we’d reached a plateau, our hopes were dashed as the viewed another rise in the terrain. At several points we could hear the echo of trucks from the highway, and expected to see the blur of color through the trees, but we didn’t. Eventually, we began to see day hikers, with their jeans and sneakers and young children and no day packs, and we knew we were close. More than once I tried to imagine the longest possible distance a responsible parent would walk from the highway without water with their 5 year old. Eventually we saw the glint of clear coat from the cars parked at the trailhead at Molas Pass. We spotted a young couple packing the last of their things into a pickup, and Trailbride set off running to see if they’d give us a lift. They agreed enthusiastically, and we loaded up our packs and apologized for the stink as they took us down the mountain 30 minutes to the Prius. We were pleased to see the car just where we left it, and thanked the couple profusely for the ride. We changed into town clothes, notified our loved ones that we were still alive, and proceeded to the nearest brewery: Steamworks, in Durango. We enjoyed a variety of tasty brews and some tastier fries and BBQ.
With full bellies and stinky bodies we left the brewery in search for a locally owned dirtbag motel. We were excited to find a $60/night motel with a neon vacant sign facing the main drag. Trailbride checked us in and we quickly made our way to our room. It didn’t take us long to realize the room boasted no air conditioning and a window that faced the rest of the hotel and opened up about three inches. We were hot and sweaty and were forced to wear some clothing if we wanted to stay decent and keep the door open to circulate what little air resided in the cramped room. Thankfully, the shower in the sweaty room more than made up for the humid, rainforest like conditions and we were able to wash away the last 5 days of dirt and sweat. Laying in our underwear with the door wide-open to the rest of the motel’s guest we watched Law and Order SVU and drifted asleep in a pool of our own sweat.
We left the next morning for home, hoping to find Fry bread at the four corners national monument. Arriving at 9 am we beat the food vendors. We quickly snapped our photo as we stood in four places at once and left within 15 minutes of arriving at the monument. We finally found our navajo bread in Flagstaff, AZ and easily added the mountain town to our list of possible places we could live. Cope drove through the night and we arrived at our cabin in the redwoods at 2 am, grateful for one more day before we headed back to work.