Backpacking San Juan Mountains gives you the opportunity for a one of a kind, trailhead entry and exit excursion into the mountains between Durango and Silverton. We were told often from other trekkers on the trail, about the breathtaking mountains and back country located in the South-West corner of Colorado. The back country is the first thing we consider when planning a backpacking trip. Since this is our vacation, the second thing we consider is our time spent getting to the mountains, getting on and off the trail, and the one of a kind uniqueness the town or area around the mountain has to offer for before and after the hike.
Backpacking San Juan Mountains met all of our requirements. We would be driving to Colorado from San Diego, so that meant a road trip. And we love road trips! Our first nights stop would be Las Vegas. And we love Vegas! The next day we would drive to Durango. The next day we would start hiking and enjoy a very unique experience exclusive to backpacking San Juan Mountains and is the main reason why we decided on this particular trail. We would be taken to and dropped off at the trailhead on board one of the oldest, still operational steam trains! A week later, the steam train would pick us up at a designated time and location on the trail and take us back to town.
The morning of the hike, we arrived at the Durango train station shortly before our 8am train departure time. We had pre-bought our train tickets so there wasn't a hurry to get there. There are two train departure times at 8 and 8:45. If we hadn't pre-bought our tickets, we would have gotten there earlier to ensure we got on the earlier train, so we get on the trail earlier. It's a beautiful 3-1/2 hour train ride from Durango up to Silverton. The train route goes along the Animas River and is constantly shifting from one side of a narrow, windy ravine to another, over multiple small bridges. The route ascends almost 3000ft as it slowly cuts it's way through the mountain range. It's a spectacular ride. We chose the open wall cart so that we could maximize our experience. The train also has a bar cart adjacent to the open wall cart and it took all of our will power not indulge in a pre-hike Bloody Mary. We did still have some hiking to do that day. We will look forward to it in a week, on our way down!
There are two wilderness trailhead stops along the 3-1/2 hour train ride, where they allow trekkers to exit the train and grab their backs from the cargo cart. The 1st one is about 2 hours up at the Needleton Trailhead, the gateway to Chicago Basin. The 2nd stop was another 1 hour past that at Elk Park Trailhead. The train stopped at these locations at the same times each day. The train ride seemed designed around the trekkers interested backpacking San Juans. Our plan was to get dropped off at the 1st stop, Needleton trailhead. Hike up, over, and back around the Continental Divide and come out Elk Park a week later. We bought a roundtrip ticket so we were covered. We just needed to be at that stop, at the time the train was coming back down or it'd be another day in the mountains.
Once we get dropped off at the Needleton Trailhead, its about a 6 mile hike up to our 1st nights campsite in the middle of Chicago Basin. The 6 miles isn't that far, but we'll have our usual first day heavy packs to deal with, we have a late start since the train didn't drop us off at the trailhead until after 10am, and we're gaining over 2500ft in elevation. It was a strenuous day but it was all worth it. The Basin is a beautiful meadow encircled by 13,000 and 14,000ft peaks.
Chicago Basin is place a lot of people like to hike up too, set up base camp, do multiple day hikes and then head back down to the train stop. A majority of people backpacking San Juan Mountains enter or stay in the Basin. Mt Eolus, Windom Pk, and Sunlight Pk are all peaks over 14,000ft and they surround the Basin. Base campers complain that they have issues with aggressive mountain goats pillaging there camps while they are out on day hikes. We weren't making base camp. We were moving on and heading over Columbine Pass. The Basin was beautiful but it was a little too crowded for us. We passed the mountain goat culprits as we ascended up and out of the basin and over the pass.
We planned our lay over on the 3rd day at Columbine Lake, just on the other side of Columbine Pass. We like to have at least one layover day per trip to enjoy the back country and this seemed like the best spot when we did our planning. We knew we'd be tired from the first two days of elevation gain with full packs and this was the only lake along our trail. We spent the day catching up on our laundry, playing cards and fishing.
We packed up and from Columbine Lake, we headed down Johnson Creek. Our muscles were well rested from the layover day and our backs felt light. It was going to be all downhill and a leisurely hike with the trail staying close to the creek. We had a lot of water features along the way and we took frequent stops to admire the scenery, since we anticipated an easy day with plenty of time left over. Once we got to the bottom of Johnson Creek we took a left and headed up Vallecito Creek. After a mile or 2, we stopped and made camp for the night, at a campsite next to the creek.
The next day we continued up Vallecito Creek. We needed to gain back all of the elevation that we had lost the day before. We were all getting more in shape as the days went by and all our packs kept getting lighter and lighter as we ate through them. Early in the afternoon, we came to a spectacular river crossing where every rock, the entire river bed actually, was redish-orange. It was only a couple miles short of the nights destination and we had made great time up the creek, so we stopped for a while and took a couple photo ops.
Once we came close to camp, just past the Nebo Creek turn-off from Vallecito Creek, I realized that I couldn't tighten my pack to my back. I kept tightening my straps until they were out of adjustment and my pack still felt really loose. It became clear what happened when we finally got to camp. My packs external frame had broken in half! This was a BIG problem on many different levels. Of course, figuring out how to make it work for the last 2 days was a problem that need to be figured out. But the bigger issue was going to be listening to my friends for the next 2 days. And far beyond that! This didn't have a solution. You see, my friends and I take sides and have long heated debates on which is the better backpack. Internal or External Frame? I wont get into that here. Let's just say I'm an old school, vocal proponent of a Kelty External Frame Backpack, and this incident was not in my favor.
The frame broke into two pieces and I had to find a way to reattach them. The frame was hollow, so I found a couple sticks that I carved down to make wooden dowels that would be a press fit inside the frame. I pressed them half way inside the 1st frame piece and then slid and pressed the 2nd frame piece over those dowels. Then I duct taped the joints. This would keep the frame pieces lined up on top of each other but this was a weak joint that could easily pivot, bend, and break those dowels. I then took the 4 plastic rods that were in my camp chair and used them with some duct tape to create a brace around each joint. This removed the joints ability to pivot. The makeshift frame felt strong and I was confident it would hold long enough to get me off the mountain.
I packed up my injured backpack in the morning and we started our hike up Hunchback Pass on our way to the Continental Divide. Once we jumped over the Continental Divide, we would make camp at one of the upper lakes at the top of Elk Creek. This was our last day of elevation gain. The next day would be spent hiking down Elk Creek to the train pick-up spot at the Elk Park Trail Head.
It began raining when we got to the top of the Continental Divide. We would of loved to spend more time on top of the Divide, but it was cold, wet and windy. Plus, it became dangerous and scary with thunder and lightning happening on both sides of the valley. The rule of thumb in the mountains is to get done with passes and peaks before late afternoon storms roll in. We were exactly where we didn't want to be. We hurried down to the Lake we intended to camp at. Luckily, the rain stopped just as we were setting up camp. This was our last campsite of the trip and the rain temporarily subsiding gave us a chance to enjoy the breathtaking scenery from our campsite, that both, looked up at the Continental Divide and down Elk Creek Valley.
It kept rained all night! We knew we had to get to the train stop at a certain time and we weren't looking forward to waking up and breaking camp in the rain. There really is nothing worse than waking up and trying to pack-up in a downpour. As the morning approached, we became anxious. It wasn't light out yet but we were all awake hoping for an opportunity. As soon as the pelting sounds hitting our tent became less frequent and were similar to that of a bag of microwave popcorn on it's final kernels, we made our move!
We packed up as quickly as we could, focusing on the items that don't mix well with water first, like our sleeping bags and clothes. It began to unload on us as we were finishing up, but we were all packed up and had our rain gear on. I hate making and breaking camp in a downpour but I don't mind hiking in it at all. We worked our way down the valley as the storm began to dissipate into low elevation cloud banks. The clouds formed below us in Elk Creek Valley and we were about to dip into and hike through them on our way to the Elk Park Train pick-up point.
We were on the trail so early, since we broke camp at the first sign of a break in the rain, that we were at the trailhead when the train stopped there on it's way UP to Silverton. We asked the conducted if we could jump on and go up to Silverton with them. Having lunch in town sounded much better than eating granola and waiting at the train stop for it to come back down. They were super cool about it and said that since we bought a round trip ticket and we were dropped off before even completing the first leg portion, we were good to go.
While we were having lunch and a beer in Silverton, a small old mining town, the sun broke through and it turned into a gorgeous day with broken white clouds against a sky blue backdrop. Just in time for us to jump back on the train and take our position in the open wall cart right next to the trains bar cart. We thoroughly enjoyed the 3-1/2 hour train ride down through the mountains and windy river ravines as we drank local Colorado Micro-brews and downloaded our adventure to fellow train riders. A benefit exclusive to backpacking San Juan Mountains!
We made it into town and had dinner at a highly recommended to us local favorite, "Serious Texas Bar-B-Q". It was serious and definitely didn't disappoint. The next morning we starting making our way home. And by that I mean we pulled into Las Vegas on that Friday night and spent the weekend there. Like I said, We Love Vegas!