Colorado's most vast space offers stern challenge

By R. Scott Rappold, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)November 8, 2012 

WEMINUCHE WILDERNESS AREA, Colo. -- There are many places in Colorado so beautiful, quiet and remote a hiker might feel like she has walked into her own private paradise.

Then there's the Weminuche Wilderness Area, so vast and peaceful a hiker might feel like she's the only person in the world.

Colorado's largest wilderness area is a 488,000-acre blank spot on the highway map roughly bordered by Durango, Silverton, Creede and Pagosa Springs. Laced with 500 miles of trails through the rugged heart of the San Juan Mountains, it's a place where you can hike for days and not see a soul, where the nearest parking lot might be 20 trail miles away.

When it was created in 1975, wilderness advocates overcame the objections of loggers and the hopes of Hinsdale County to have a highway between Lake City and Pagosa Springs.

Humans are guests here, not masters, which you may feel all too keenly when you see fresh bear scat on the trail or hear the ghostly yips of coyotes in the darkness beyond the campfire's glow. The sound of twigs cracking in the night might remind you these mountains were the last refuge for grizzly bears in Colorado.

That's not to say solitude is a guarantee. A couple of popular locations, including Chicago Basin, where fourteener climbers camp to tackle Windom and Sunlight peaks and Mount Eolus, are notoriously overcrowded in summer.

The wilderness was named for a band of the Ute tribe, and it is twice the size of the next-largest Colorado wilderness, the Flat Tops Wilderness. It is bisected by 50 miles of the Continental Divide, and its peaks and valleys form the watersheds for many creeks and rivers flowing to the Pacific and the Atlantic, including the San Juan and Rio Grande rivers.

Take the train

One of the more unique hiking experiences in Colorado is getting dropped off by a steam train miles from civilization. As the sound of the engine fades and all you hear is the babbling of the Animas River, you realize it's just hikers and the wilderness.

Most hikers take the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton. From there, it's a 7-mile hike up to Chicago Basin, base camp for three fourteeners. The scenery is spectacular, and these peaks are some of the most-loved of the 54 fourteeners. But the area is being loved to death. Campfires are banned; on summer weekends forest rangers supervise the crowds; and a notorious herd of mountain goats waits to lick your urine and chew at your sweaty backpack for the salt.

It goes without saying, but hang your gear in a tree. The amazing views of the Needle and Grenadier ranges of the San Juans from the summits make it worth the hassles.

The train will run again next year.

Hikers looking for a longer and quieter adventure should get off at Elk Park, the other wilderness train stop. From there a 36-mile loop crosses the Continental Divide, drops into the stunning Vallecito Creek valley, crosses Columbine Pass into Chicago Basin and runs back to the train.

It's one of the greatest backpacking loops in Colorado, and you'll have a smile on your face as an 1880s coal train rumbles you back to civilization after experiencing such sights.

Just don't miss your train.

Emerald Lake

One of the gems of the wilderness is Emerald Lake, the third-largest natural lake in Colorado, with crystal-clear waters that take on a green hue in the right light.

Because it takes 10 miles and more than 2,000 feet of uphill hiking, you'll find few day hikers with whom to share the scenery. The trail starts from the area of Vallecito Reservoir.

On a recent midweek trip, more horses were on the trail than hikers, and just one other party was camped in the area of the lakes.

That's a good thing, because campsites are somewhat limited.

Camping is prohibited within a half-mile of the lake, meaning backpackers take one of the handful of legal sites near Little Emerald Lake or camp higher up the valley, where spectacular alpine scenery makes a good substitute for lake views.

For a good leg-stretcher, hike up the trail to Moon Lake at the head of the valley.

The first 6 miles of the trail, along the Los Pinos River, is also ideal for horseback campers.

Hike the Divide

The Continental Divide Trail runs 80 miles through the Weminuche, between Wolf Creek Pass and Stony Pass near Silverton.

This is serious backpacking, with long days above timberline and strenuous climbing. But you'd be hard-pressed to find better views for a long backpacking trip. Be sure to have a ride or shuttle car waiting at the other side.

In The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas, co-author and legendary photographer John Fielder wrote, "If you want limitless views and countless photo opportunities, this is the hike. You only dip below 12,000 feet for about an hour during the ten-day journey."

Don't have 10 days in you? Many shorter loops are possible combining stretches of the CDT with other trails.

To explore one of the less-visited areas, hike over Weminuche Pass near Rio Grande Reservoir and form a loop by crossing the shoulder of Rio Grande Pyramid and explore some of the area's glacial lakes and broad, lush valleys.

Hidden hot springs

On the Weminuche's east side, the jagged peaks give way to desolate, broad valleys and long mountain ridges, requiring marathon approach hikes.

One of the highlights of the wilderness's east side is Rainbow Hot Springs, four miles up the trail near Wolf Creek Pass. Small pools along the west fork of the San Juan River offer a relaxing respite after the hike.

Take U.S. Highway 160 over Wolf Creek Pass and turn right at the sign for the West Fork Campground. From the end of the road follow a Jeep road until you reach the trailhead.

Go left at a junction where the trail to the right is closed, pass several campsites, and look for an access trail to the river below.

Day hikes

The Weminuche doesn't readily give up its secrets to day hikers, but let's face it, backpacking isn't for everyone. You can still get a taste of the wildness and be back at your campground for s'mores.

Fourmile Falls: A few miles up a gentle trail, Fourmile Falls is a spectacular destination, where water cascades down an immense cliff.

Photographers should get a pre-dawn start to get the best light on the falls, which briefly shine in the morning sun. Ambitious hikers can link up with the Anderson Trail to Fourmile Lake and return to the trailhead over the side of Pagosa Peak.

The trail begins at the end of Forest Service Road 645 north of Pagosa Springs.

Highland Mary Lakes: This day hike from Silverton offers a glimpse of what the Weminuche is all about: high tundra, wildflower fields, remote lakes and extensive views -- all in an 8-mile there-and-back hike.

Make a longer loop by combing it with the Cunningham Gulch Trail.

The trailhead is the end of Forest Service road 589 east of Silverton. Passenger cars will need to park about a mile below the trailhead.

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