Needle Mountains Backpacking

The Needle Mountains are a subrange of the San Juans, in southwest Colorado, part of the Weminuche Wilderness. Tall, rugged, tightly packed mountains, with lakes and streams everywhere. Over the weekend I did a backpacking trip through part of the range. This was about 35 miles in a little over 3 days, with a mix of on trail and cross country travel and summits of four mountains in the range, including its three fourteeners.

View Needle Mountains in a larger map

Starting Thursday morning, I had a nice and mellow hike of about 15 miles from Purgatory Flats, following the Animas River and then Needle Creek to get to Chicago Basin, well back into the wilderness and a few miles from the fourteeners. For the Animas River portion the trail parallels the Durango-Silverton railroad, a popular attraction with several trains running daily.

There is a train stop at the head of Needle Creek, which hikers can get off at to shorten the Chicago Basin hike to about 6 miles. I didn’t opt for this, as I was planning the trip on short notice and wanted to minimize the number of moving parts, but it seems like a great option and the convenient access made for a lot of people camping in the Basin. Rainy and dreary the first night, I got to sleep early and started hiking the next morning about 3:45am, under clear skies and a full moon.

Just north of Chicago Basin is the Twin Lakes bench, which is ringed to the west, north and east by several mountains. These include the three fourteeners in the Needles: Mount Eolus, Windom Peak and Sunlight Peak. I wanted to climb all three, and needed an early start to have a shot at that; while Friday’s forecast was clear, thunderstorms could still crop up in the afternoon and cut any climbing short.

I went for Eolus first, to the west of the lakes, which went quickly until I got to the “catwalk” a few hundred feet below the summit. Dawn light on Eolus and the catwalk:

This is an easy walk along a ridge a few feet wide, with certain death on either side. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any hiking with this level of exposure, and despite the unchallenging terrain I still had to work up my nerve and move. After the walk the rest of the climb is an exposed scramble, still fairly easy but requiring lots of care. Long views from the top:

From here I dropped back to the Twin Lakes and climbed the east side to another bench below Windom and Sunlight peaks. Windom was an easy climb, mostly scrambling over talus with little exposure. As I headed down Windom the day was getting cloudy, with rain the next valley over and occasionally distant thunder. Maybe climbing Sunlight wasn’t the best idea but I kept going, watching the weather every few minutes for signs of change. Things seemed stable, and I quickly made it up to the base of Sunlight’s summit. The summit itself is imposing, several large blocks stacked against one another, harder to climb than anything else in the day and with serious injury or worse on a fall. One side of the summit, hinting at the several hundred foot drop off to the side:

After deciding several times not to try to climb to the proper summit, I eventually went ahead anyways, picking my way up, planting my chest on the summit and turning right around. Nervous as heck, it felt great to be done and I quickly made my way back to the saddle neighboring the peak, around 1:30pm. I’d left my pack here, and rather than return south to Chicago Basin I went north, deeper into the range.

The transition here was stark and immediate. Most people camping in Chicago Basin are there for the fourteeners, so the area around the Twin Lakes is pretty crowded too (not horribly), but hardly anyone continues further on. Until the next afternoon, when I crossed into Vestal Basin about five miles away, I only saw two campers and a few short areas with trails. Most of the terrain is smooth granite and grass, makes for great and interesting hiking. Sunlight Lake and Jagged Mountain, shortly after dropping down from the saddle:

Several more miles of hiking brought me to Leviathan Lake for the night. Nice time circling it in the morning, after a good sleep.

I continued going north and got to the saddle south of Storm King Peak in the late morning. The weather was great, and there were cairns going up the ridge to the summit, so I started up. This peak is at 13,750′, with great views of the northern areas of the Needles and of the Grenadiers, another small range to the west. Climbing went well, with far more scree and loose rock than the mountains from the previous day but still easier going than Eolus or Sunlight. Looking north from the summit, towards Trinity Lake and the saddle marking the entrance to Vestal Basin:

I needed to get to Vestal Basin, but the north face of Storm King Peak is sheer so I backtracked and circled around, slow going through continuous talus and scree. Made my way to the saddle — lots of shale, oddly — for tremendous views of the Grenadiers which form the southern boundary of the basin.

From here I went down the drainage, joining the unofficial trail going into the trees and brush without much trouble. A few thousand feet of descent (ugh) led to the Colorado Trail, where I camped the night and hiked up to my car at Molas Lake the next morning. Great trip.

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