San Juan Mountains

6-12 Aug 2001 - by Chris Long

Here is my trip to the San Juans summiting 3 fourteeners. Pictures are on my site:

San Juan Mountains August 6-12, 2001 August 6 The plan was to drive to Durango, take the train, hike in to Chicago Basin and climb Sunlight, Eolus and Windom peaks. We left from Lakewood a little late today, but all we had to do was drive to Durango and sleep. It didnt seem like it mattered much what time we got there.

We stopped in South Fork and ate at The Hungry Logger. After eating and fueling, we were on our way. Just past South Fork, there was a sign that said Wolf Creek Pass was closed from 7pm to 7am. That was bad news. We drove up a little further just to make sure and were stopped by a construction worker.

She confirmed that the only way around was about a 4-hour detour. We drove back through South Fork and through Alamosa and Chama, NM on our way around. We finally arrived in Durango hours past midnight. We hoped it would be easy to find the train station and a place to park and sleep while we waited for morning. The train station was easy enough to find, but we couldnt seem to find where to park for it. We drove around quite a bit looking for a parking spot for the week.

We finally decided just to find somewhere to sleep. We drove to an information center to see what time they would open and maybe sleep in the parking lot. As we were driving around, the police came by and asked us what we were doing. They said there was no camping in Durango. Technically I dont think we were trying to camp, just sleep for four hours in the truck, but I didnt tell them anything. They told us the parking area for the train station was just west of the station. We had passed by there at least twice and didnt remember seeing it. He said it was by McDonalds. Dont remember that either. We followed him over there and found it with ease. I cant believe we missed it the first time. It was dark though.

We pulled in to the parking lot and found a dark spot in the back. We slept for a few hours and then got up.

August 7

Our train ride was supposed to be at 8:15 and we were to check in an hour before. We went into the train station at 7:10. After waiting in line for a little bit, the lady behind the counter put us on the 7:30 train. Apparently the 8:15 doesnt stop in Needleton where we are getting off. That gave us about 10 minutes to run back to the parking lot and get our packs ready and get on the train.

We grabbed our stuff and made it to the train in time. The packs were loaded into a baggage car and we went to our open Gondola. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I didnt have time to organize my clothing selection before boarding and my warmer clothes were all in the baggage car. On the ride in, the sun never came out from behind the clouds. As long as I stayed out of the wind though, it was alright. The train was pretty cool looking. It was made in the late 1800s and was powered by steam and coal. You have to watch out for all the cinders and ashes flying through the air though. More than once I was hit in the eye. I felt like we would be boarded at any minute by some cowboy outlaws trying to rob the train.

The train goes from Durango to Silverton and back again. It is 90 miles round trip and it takes 10,000 gallons of water to do it. It only took 9 months to build the track. It is a narrow gauge train, which means the tracks are closer together. These are 3 feet apart. A regular train is 4 feet apart.

The ride was pretty cool with spectacular drop offs on one side and rock only inches from the other side. Dont stick your head out at the wrong time unless you want it removed.

We met several other people on the train that were going up to the same area we were.

At Needleton, we got off. There is not much at Needleton. It is pretty much just a place to get off with a bridge to cross the river. It is about 15 miles south of Silverton.

We donned our packs and started the hike in. I was ready to start producing some heat. The sun finally came out and I warmed up quickly. After a couple of hours of backpacking, it started to rain a little. It felt good so I didnt put on my rain clothes yet.

The rain got harder and harder and we finally stopped to put on our rain stuff. I was getting chilled. I was wet inside my rain clothes and they were soaked on the outside. My lightweight hiking shoes were not at all waterproof either. It was raining really hard now. We decided to stop and get under cover until it slowed down some.

I took out my emergency plastic bivy sack and covered my pack and myself. I told Tracey to get the tent fly out of her pack. She did and we both got under it. With the trekking poles, we were able to set it up like a tent without a body.

As we were underneath it, I noticed it had a lot of water on the underside. I thought that maybe it was just got wet while we were setting it up, but upon further examination, it was leaking, all over the place. The seams were sealed and not leaking, but the rest of the fabric was letting the water soak through. This was bad news. We were going to be up here for many days. If the tent leaked, we would have no way to keep our stuff dry.

When the rain finally eased off, we continued up coming to a good-looking camp spot after not too long. We set up the tent and got our stuff inside. I put the plastic sheet in between the tent fly and body. I went to get some water while Tracey fired up the stove. We were both cold and needed dry clothes and something warm inside us. We got the tent organized. I felt instantly warmer when I got my wet clothes off. The hot chocolate was tasty too.

We talked about what we were going to do with the trip since the tent was not going to keep us dry. I bought the tent about 12 years ago. It was just a cheap tent from a department store. I dont know if it was ever that waterproof. We decided to hike back out tomorrow and do three other mountains while car camping in between. The peaks we decided on were Sunshine, Redcloud and Handies.

I was still kind of cold and tired, so I went to bed at about 6 pm. I didnt have any problem sleeping. I woke up at about 6 am.

August 8

It was a beautiful clear morning. It didnt rain all night. I almost wanted to just go up and climb one of the fourteeners then come back down again. We spread out all of our wet or damp stuff to dry in the sun. After it dried, we packed up and started the hike out. About half way out, it started raining again. This time we stopped right away and put our rain stuff on. The rain was much more enjoyable now that I was dry. It rained for about an hour or two. We saw many people on their way up. When we got to the trailhead, I found a nice cement block to sit on and make some angel hair pasta with Alfredo sauce. There were several others there, waiting for the train. Some were from Texas, some from Arizona. The train finally came and we boarded. We made it back to Durango without a problem, although I couldnt resist getting some Nachos on the train.

In Durango, we went to a sporting goods store to get some lightweight, but waterproof shoes. We ended up getting several other items also. Then we were off to a Mexican restaurant for some dinner. It was delicious and I was stuffed when we left.

We went to the parking lot for one more night.

August 9

When we woke up in the morning, we got a refund for the unused parking lot days we had and got some breakfast at McDonalds. Today we drive to Lake City and drive the Alpine Loop to the trailhead. This was the first place I had ever been in Colorado. I drove up to South Fork for the SouthWest Four Wheel Drive Association winter quarterly meeting. My friends Curtis and Connie were there and we drove the Alpine Loop over Cinnamon pass into Animas Forks and over Engineer pass. It is a beautiful area and is one of the reasons I moved to Colorado.

This trip we were doing this time wouldnt even get to Cinnamon pass on the road, but we would get much higher in the mountains. We drove to the Grizzly and Silver Creek trail head and cooked some dinner. The road was all 2wd to this point. There is a bathroom at the trailhead.

There was a family there from Texas. This area sure is popular with the Texans. We readied our packs for tomorrow and went to sleep.

August 10

We woke up at about 4:30, had some breakfast and were on the trail at 5:15. The plan today was to climb Redcloud and then Sunshine if the weather permitted. Sunshine has the distinction of being the lowest fourteener in the state at 14,001 feet.

The trail was dark, but the going was easy with my new Black Diamond Moonlight headlamp. I lost my Princeton Tec one and had to replace it. The BD only weighs about 3 ounces and the batteries are supposed to last about 70 hours.

The sun came up after a bit. The area was beautiful. I love it in the mountains.

We made it up to the saddle, and then kept moving. There was a good trail all the way to the top. I signed the register and took some photos. The register was almost full and it hadnt been there for very long. I could see Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, Matterhorn and Uncompaghre and lots of other mountains.

I had a snack and some water before heading down the saddle towards Sunshine. I made it to the top of Sunshine in about 45 minutes. I waited for Tracey and had a snack. The clouds were getting lower so we didnt stay for very long.

Back at the saddle between the two, we headed down. It was somewhat steep and loose, but would save us some time and elevation gain. At the base of the scree and talus slope, there was a light trail with cairns in the hard to see sections.

The trail after that was good and met up with the trail we came in on where the two streams converge. We finished the hike out and took a nap. It took us 7 hours round trip for both mountains.

After our nap, we decided to go out to eat. The family went the night before and it didnt seem to be too far away. We drove down the road to Sherman. There was a restaurant there, but they didnt open for a couple of hours.

We drove back to 149. There was a restaurant there called The Crystal Lodge. We went inside. Apparently, they had a guest chef from France there. The prices were kind of expensive, but we were on vacation so we ate anyway. I had the rib eye steak with some kind of pepper sauce. Tracey had some kind of stuffed shrimp with a pastry surrounding it. The food was absolutely delicious, and not just because weve been camping all week. Traceys was better than mine though. The service was also excellent. I highly recommend this place if you are in the area. We drove back in and decided to check the American Basin trailhead for Handies peak. The road was a little rough, but there were passenger cars up to the fork between AB TH and Cinnamon Pass road. Beyond this point, 4wd is recommended. We drove all the way to the parking lot for the AB TH. It was impossible to find a flat spot to park the truck and we ended up putting some rocks under the tires to even it out. Even so, it was difficult to sleep with the tilt.

August 11

We woke up and started about 45 minutes later than yesterday. The trail up was good, although some parts of it did not make sense to me. They go up and then down again before going up once again. It looked like they could have made the trail in a different place and not have had to go up and down. I hate losing elevation when Im going up.

The higher up we went, the thicker the clouds became. It didnt look like rain though, so we continued. When we arrived at the summit, many of the clouds were lower than us. The sun was shining though. I looked down and saw my Spectre Brvcken (I think that is what its called.) It is supposed to be a rare phenomenon caused by the sun being behind you. It casts your shadow on a cloud and the cloud reflects light from the sun back to you. It was really cool.

We went back down the same way meeting some people from all over the Midwest on their way up.

We were back to the truck in no time. It took us 2 hours to summit and about an hour and a half to get back down.

We headed home after a great vacation.

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