Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness is magnificent. Sometimes turning back is wise and offers its own rewards. Always be humble with high-elevation hiking goals in the backcountry. Trail stats are at bottom of page.
Weminuche: One. Me: Zero.
By Daniel Anderson Jr.
I am exhausted. Palomino Mountain’s spiny slopes rise behind a rock-strewn tundra meadow. The alpine beauty of San Juan National Forest’s Weminuche Wilderness briefly distracts me from throbbing legs, a heavy backpack, and heaving lungs. At 11,000+ feet, the endless Continental Divide Trail (CDT) through Southern Colorado is heading towards the edge of my National Geographic Trails Illustrated map. Even though the previous two days’ slog has left us severely behind schedule, we seem unable to sustain even a moderate pace. I quickly do the math. Finishing the Weminuche section of the CDT within our demanding timeframe would require five additional 15-mile days. The thought is disheartening. Collapsing on a tabletop boulder, I emit a baritone sigh. It may be time to turn around.
We plan big. Seven days. Ninety-five miles. Shuttle from Durango to the trailhead; ride the Silverton historic railroad back from Chicago Basin. We prepare upwards of fifteen freeze-dried lunches and dinners, baggies of oatmeal for breakfasts, granola and Cliff Bars (of course), and an indispensable heap of Starbursts. Chad, a hiking buddy, packs a portable fly-fishing rod. I allow myself the weight splurge of my journal, Bible, and latest leisure read. The trip will be ambitiously long-distance, fit within a tight weeklong-vacation-from-work timetable, and lend itself to a few restful hobbies along the way. Even though we hail from sea-level San Diego, neither of us prepares for backpacking at high elevations. I’m a pro hiker after all. We’re both fit as fiddles. I don’t give the altitude another thought.
Our road trip to Colorado begins right after work on Friday afternoon. I pick up Chad from SPAWAR’s Point Loma parking lot and hit the I-8 eastward out of San Diego. Traffic is not bad. Our conversation is giddy. The mood dampens, however, as soon as we speed into the Mojave Desert’s peak afternoon temps without a working air conditioning. Open vents and windows are like blow-driers in our faces. Chad remembers he left his trekking poles in San Diego. We lose ourselves for an hour in Phoenix’s perplexing roundabout highways. Pulling into Payson, Arizona around 11:30 p.m., we realize that the upcoming change to Mountain Time will set us back a further unplanned hour. Tired and a bit grumpy, we allow ourselves to indulge in five hours of fitful KOA campground sleep before resuming our breakneck journey.
We finally arrive in Durango a little before 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. Rushing to make our shuttle pickup time, we stop at Gardenswartz Sporting Goods to purchase a map of Weminuche Wilderness as well as a few last-minute odds and ends. It is already past 4:00 p.m. by the time our chartered Animas Transportation Suburban ($300) drops us off at our Wolf Creek Pass trailhead 85 miles east on Colorado’s famously picturesque “San Juan Skyway” (US-160). We are getting a very late start. Budgeting 10 miles distance on the first day, we set out from Lobo Overlook at a brisk trot. Chad and I are quickly at home in the San Juan Mountains’ high-elevation landscape. The adventure begins!
. . . and ends for the day less than an hour later. Chad declares himself kaput. Even though I don’t admit it, my body feels surprisingly feeble. We find a flat campsite a hundred or so yards from the trail with a view over the South Fork of the Rio Grande’s forested canyon. In all directions, the Colorado Blue Spruce are dead and decaying, eaten from the inside by spruce beetles which a forest ranger later confirms is a natural, if marring, process. “This is how nature renews herself,” he reassures us. Accomplishing an inauspicious one and a half miles, we expect to make up the distance tomorrow. We had a very late start after all. As night falls, Chad tootles with his backpack and equipage while I make bean burritos. We quickly fall asleep in my spacious REI Half Dome Plus.
Chad pokes me awake early in the morning with a worried look on his face. I hear the distinctive scuffling of an animate creature against the tent’s ripstop nylon sidewall and quickly reach for my Counter Assault bear spray. Suddenly, a diminutive Mountain Cottontail peaks through the mesh. We burst into relieved laughter, and the panicked rabbit bounds rapidly from under the vestibule. Wide-awake and needing to jumpstart our progress, we set out before dawn.
I lead with a moderate pace, believing that a slow and steady approach may work better than yesterday’s grueling race against the sunset. We tread through a series of beautiful gray meadows flanked by granite pinnacles and wreathed in eerie husks of beetle-eaten spruce. Rock Lake provides mid-morning respite, but filtering water through my swiftly clogged Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter delays us a considerable 40 minutes. The trail contours around several hillsides before opening into Archuleta Lake’s marshy meadows, set in a three-sided cirque under the divide’s snaking apex. We eat an inscrutable tuna and rice lunch on a thin beach and estimate we have completed eight or more miles. Our pace is slower than it needs it to be, and I feel much more tired than I should. I begin to worry how many hours we need to hike today to make up for yesterday.
The trail’s first real climb shoots 1,500 feet up a series of tangled manzanita switchbacks to a ridgeline plateau at 12,594 feet. Somber stratus clouds promise blustery weather on top. Three grizzled horse-riders straight out of a John Wayne film warn about the “wee-aand” and politely ignore the small-talk revelation that we are from California. Finally reaching the top, I slump onto the Arnica-padded ground. Chad follows a few minutes behind.
We are struck with the trail’s first encircling high elevation panorama. In all directions, the saw-tooth San Juan Mountains extend laterally in zigzag north-south rows, leaping over deep glacier-carved valleys. Wrinkled summits seem a mere arm’s length away as they lean over plunging avalanche descents. The tree line is one thousand feet below us. “Now this is what we came for!” I exclaim. We both manage to grin as we take a few celebratory pics.
Pausing only long enough to swallow a throat-desiccating Nature Valley bar, we plough forward over what seems to be three or four miles until we reach a sign that points crushingly behind us: Lobo Overlook is only eight miles away. Ouch. Hiking for four or five hours, we are making less than two miles an hour. I am stunned. My inner speed and distance gauges are totally off-kilter. To complete today’s allotted 15 miles, we need to hike another dreadful-sounding seven. To make up yesterday’s distance, we must complete a farfetched 17. We push on along the divide’s tundra spine and are surrounded by sweeping 360° views over the Rockies. My legs, heart, and lungs heave with every step. Thru hiking with full packs at such a high elevation is new to me, and I realize that I did not prepare for this. I worry about what Chad is thinking.
The Continental Divide Trail
Having hiked extended sections of the Pacific Crest Trail, I expect this length of the Triple Crown Continental Divide Trail to be similarly maintained. We quickly discover this is not the case. The path’s rock-filled washout and horse-trod ravines require constant step-stone vigilance. Trail forks are poorly marked, and signs are often indecipherable without a map to interpret weatherworn lettering. Like its name implies, the CDT hugs the Rocky Mountains’ continental divide for every practical length, maintaining extremely high altitudes while following inconsistent ridgeline elevations.
Such strenuous labor, however, is well worth the effort. Hiking the CDT ensures unending trailside vistas over the surrounding rugged terrain. Unlike California’s visibly terminable Sierras, an endless tracery of rocky crests lace every horizon and create an indescribable sensation of being lost in a sea of mountains. The weighty silence of distant forests, empty meadows, and meandering watercourses is punctuated by a bugling elk at least once every day. Wispy cirrus clouds zoom overhead in deep blue skies. Top-of-the-world alpine landscape never gets better.
Trudging several more spectacular miles, we approach an imposing pass underneath South River Peak and decide to halt for the day at 12,700 feet. We hunker-down within the scanty protection of a clump of stunted, windswept shrubs directly on top of the otherwise exposed chine. Goose Creek’s dramatic green-slope gorge drops behind us while a westward undulating forest ushers row after row of serrated mountaintops. Although my mind and heart are racing, I pan every direction to take in the scene.
Weminuche Wilderness clocks in at an expansive 488,210 acres, making it Colorado’s largest wilderness area. Sprawling over Southern Colorado’s San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests, Weminuche’s average elevation is 10,000 feet. Four hundred and ninety miles of maintained trails crisscross the landscape, and 31 often remote trailheads offer access. The continental divide cuts the wilderness in half, and the CDT stretches 85 miles from Weminuche’s southeastern corner at Wolf Creek to its northwestern edge where it joins the Colorado Trail.
Donna Ikenberry’s helpful Hiking Colorado’s Weminuche and South San Juan Wilderness Areas points out that the Weminuche length of the CDT climbs a total of 17,000 feet over these 85 long miles while dropping a total of 15,000 feet. Donna also confirms my expectation that the late summer months are the best time to enjoy Weminuche’s trails; that is, if you want to avoid some of Colorado’s deepest annual snowpacks which may be present as late as July. Chad and I carefully plan our trip for the second week of September, and the weather is fabulous. Mosquitoes are absent. Occasional clouds and light rain showers, a.k.a. “mountain weather,” should be expected at any time of the year.
I get little sleep. Waking up late, my body feels absolutely terrible. Rarely have I felt so unpleasant in any hiking context. Chad directs me to force down a few unwelcome mouthfuls of oatmeal before we embark up the switchback climb towards Piedra Pass. My usual strategy up steep grades is to jet up without interruption and stop for a rejuvenating break at the top, enjoying the physical exertion as well as the expected vista. This habit does not serve me well on the divide. I am wiped out by the time I summit the pass, and I find that my body does not recover as I slump at the top. We glance around unsuccessfully for Mountain Goats. Feeling utterly spent and with many, many miles to go, we force ourselves forward and reach Piedra in about an hour. Several nearby White-Tailed Deer flounce into a stand of alder.
I underestimated the high country. Livestrong.com estimates there is 25% less oxygen in the air at 8,000 feet than at sea level, and that the body loses twice as much moisture through perspiration. The body needs four or five days to produce more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and acclimatize to high altitudes. In the meantime, heart and respiratory rates increase to compensate. Blood is redistributed away from the stomach to the heart, lungs, and brain causing vomiting and lack of appetite. Dehydration is common. With continuous physical exercise such as backpacking, extreme fatigue results.
More signs confirm that we are not making good time: Piedra Pass is a paltry 16 miles from Wolf Creek. I am finally convinced that we will not be able to make Chicago Basin within our allotted timeframe. We continue to weave around gorgeous alpine hillsides with fading optimism. At a junction with East Trout Creek trail, Chad and I powwow about our future course of action. After sobering deliberation, I propose that we turn around, retrace our steps three miles, and take the lower altitude West Fork San Juan Trail back to US-160. “I like that,” Chad says. I am relieved but disappointed. I rarely do not achieve a planned destination, but we humbly acknowledge that we are not physically prepared to complete our original itinerary.
The West Fork San Juan trail follows its namesake tributary downhill from the divide, and Chad and I hike towards lower elevations with relish. We pause to identify the ground-covering Franciscan Bluebells, Bottle Gentian, and Rock Goldenrod and plummet into a cavernous streambed ravine between the mountains. Compared to the CDT, the mostly downhill hiking is easy, and we make tracks towards a spot on the map ambiguously marked “Springs – Sulfur.” Relaxed, we follow the growing river and pass a crew of mounted bow-hunters who quiz us for elk sightings. We are unable to provide any useful information.
After three or four miles, we pass through wildfire-gutted woods which create a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Steep mountainsides rise on either side of the rushing stream and alluvial meadows. With rotting root-systems, many trees have fallen over the trail. Scrambling over deadfall requires much energy, and our speed slows to a clambering shuffle. Soot blackens our pant legs and gear. Pausing to rest, Chad gathers a generous helping of pink-flowered Fireweed to steep into Lipton-like tea over dinner.
As afternoon wanes, we pitch our tent in a premade riverside campsite with a perfectly flattened tent area, a stone fire ring, and a thoughtful pile of firewood. Gingerly wading barefoot down the West Fork, we spot steaming threads of water descending a colorful, extremophile-carpeted embankment into a rock-walled pool. We are apparently not the only duo present: a ukulele, iPhone, and unsmoked blunt are suggestively arranged nearby. Hallooing a few times to obviate awkward scenarios, we plunge in and enjoy a toasty hot spring siesta.
Exit the Weminuche
Waking up well-rested, we break camp and head for US-160. The trail is well-maintained and soon rises up a western incline hundreds of feet above the river. Scenic overlooks above the canyon offer spectacular views. Dramatic granite hoodoos rise above the conical canopy and give the backdrop a lonely Jurassic Park feel. Chad and I pause to take a few goofy glamour shots.
The Weminuche and CDT have humbled us. With unforgiving trail conditions and elevations, the land is more than we bargained for. In any hiking context, weather, animals, altitude, and the land itself all pose risks. No element is sufficient to keep one at home, but they do require forethought, physical and mental resolve, and a liberal dose of modesty.
Backpacking commonsense maintains a flexibility for the unknown which may alter excursions at any moment. In the wilderness, I am not in control. It is this dynamic which attracts me in the first place, adding a rich perspective to life. I enjoy every moment on the trail, every victory and every setback. Although we do not achieve our hoped-for terminus, a magnificent, harsh environment reminds me of my smallness. Hiking in the wilderness demonstrates the limits of mankind’s ascendency over nature.
After a speedy descent of five or six miles, we reach the highway and stick out our thumbs. A successful property manager, a shirtless cowboy hat clad youth, and a chakra-propounding organic farmer are each kind enough to haul us various distances until we arrive, safe and sound, back in Durango where my Mitsubishi Galant waits patiently for us in the DoubleTree parking lot.
September 5-10, 2014
Dan Points: Hands-down “10” for superb vistas over Rocky Mountains
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous. Be prepared for soaring elevations and harsh trail conditions.
Distance: 37 mile loop
Time: Five days
Trails: Followable but rough
Directions: Google Map it. We took I-8 out of San Diego to AZ-85 and I-10 through Phoenix (minus the detours). We finally exited the city on AZ-87 to AZ-260 and joined eastbound I-40, turning north on NM-602. At Gallup, go north through Farmington to Durango. Route requires every minute of 12 hours from San Diego.
More information can be found at Colorado Wilderness’ website or at the National Forest Service’s website. This review from Backpacker Magazine provides waypoints and other tips for our original route.