With a belly full of bacon and eggs, I launched an overnight trip from the N. Tenmile trailhead on a flawless bluebird Saturday. Volunteer rangers from FENW (Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness) were staged at the trailhead to help assist tourists with forest service info. I was told of a duo of hunters on a scouting trip looking to do the exact same off-trail route that I had in mind. I found it hard to believe, and never did end up seeing them.

This point to point hike features busy trailheads, with a whole lot of nobody in-between.


Peak Wild Rose blooms everywhere in the 9,500′ to 10,000′ range


North Tenmile Creek


Foothills Arnica


Past the junction with the Gore Range trail, the Tenmile dispersed and disappeared into thick willow and mud bogs. I had thought to myself that I should have known better to pick an off-trail trip such as this so early into the backpacking season. It had only been weeks since the last patches of snow had melted from the area and I was paying for it in the form of an arduous effort through swamps.

I was all alone after the junction, and like most of the trail-less drainages in the Gore, there was no sign of human presence past of present. I moved quietly, taking my time and being content with it. As I stood and scouted my intentions to climb over the unnamed pass to the Gore Creek watershed, I spooked a herd of elk that moved from right to left across my line of sight.


Elk herd

I watched and waited for them to disappear, so as to not disturb them anymore as they moved down into the timbered sections of the valley. One lone one to two year old bull trailing thirty cows into the forest below me.


Uneva Peak


While climbing the pass, I turned around to see the cross couloir on Mount of the Holy Cross in plain view. Many of the peaks of the Sawatch were visible, including the unmistakable and gigantic snowfield remaining on the eastern face of Mount Massive.


While I had the opportunity, I climbed the shoulder of Deming Peak to get a bigger perspective. Here I can see my route down to the bench lakes and much of the 12’s and 13ers overlooking the Gore creek valley. The sights in the sky exquisite, my descent held snow; a perfect opportunity for an afternoon glissade down the north facing runout.




After my quick method of going down, I had a bit of up to complete in order to reach a string of three unnamed lakes I had been eyeing for years.


Much of the fun involved in this process is to scour the topo and identify potential honey holes for fish. Sometimes I show up disappointed, sometimes I get lucky in finding an inhabited and nameless tarn high in the alpine. Sadly I’ve busted out the rod just twice this season.





I ended up finding just one lone and old camp by the third lake in the series. A rotted log used for a bench next to an old fire ring had small blades of green grass growing in the middle of the circle of stones.


With no fish to be caught, later into the evening I left camp to climb into some of the higher peaks above the shelf.

DSC05230Deming Peak – Several times during the day I heard boulders tumbling down the face


From the perspective in the photo above I could see I-70 and Vail to the west. To the east I could again see the six lane interstate coming down from the continental divide, and a small sliver of the Eisenhower-Johnson tunnels. When the interstate was first proposed from Summit to Eagle county, officials originally wanted to build the road right below where I was standing in the photo above. Local citizens in both counties were outraged and successfully fought the prospect to put the interstate through this vast Wilderness valley. Instead developers brought their earth movers to Vail Pass instead; an environmental hinder that wasn’t much better. In the early days after the road was built, locals called Seventy the great wall of death for wildlife.

DSC05257Sweet Rocket?

DSC05265Gore Creek Valley

I slept in late in my tent until the sun forced me outside on another exemplary day. As part of the Adopt-a-Trail program launched this year in Eagle county in conjunction with the USFS, a group of us took responsibility for some of the maintenance on the Gore Creek trail. From the base of Red Buffalo to the graves, I recorded a log of work to be done. The hope is to get back here for an overnight later this year, or next to knock out some much needed trail work back here. I never need much convincing to come back to a place as peaceful as this.

The fourth of July weekend marked the first snowless passage into the high country of the year. Peak runoff had been in weeks past, eventually moving into full on summer in the high alpine. Myself and the company who joined me in the San Juan’s planned a very ambitious itinerary. This would allow for very little camp time  (more importantly, less time to fish), but allowing us to still loop through some of the most dramatic scenery in the state on a fifty mile horseshoe in four days.


CT marker hundreds of yards from where the trail crosses HWY 550 and Molas Pass


Animas River, Mount Garfield

As we wound down the switchbacks towards the Animas river, we could hear the horn of the train speed down the narrow gauge railroad. What smelled like gunpowder lofted up into the hills from the base of the valley below.

The weather forecast for the first two of four days was awful. With high hopes that it wasn’t going to rain on us the entire two days, we stuck to our original trip plan without modification. Almost immediately after departing the trailhead, full rain gear was out and the wet walk had begun.


Berkley the dog, Kel, Les and Mike hiking through the Elk Creek meadows


Tumbling stream, massive avalanche path


A common theme the first day was witnessing the vast amount of waterfalls (both seasonal and perennial) flowing quickly by the aid of all the rain the region had been experiencing over the previous three days.


Red Columbine


Giants loom in the clouds and escape our sight for the immense blank canvas in the sky extends in every direction.

The heaviest rain came towards the end of our six hour hike in that first day. We had decided to find camp in the comfort of the timber before climbing higher towards the crown of the Elk Creek drainage and the Divide. Rain halted around dinner time which ended up being perfect in terms of getting a morale boost by starting a healthy fire to get warm and dry.

 We awoke that next day to even more fog, but still dry conditions. As we were gearing up to leave camp, a CDT thru hiker stopped on by and we chatted for several minutes about his experience so far this season. The joy he expressed was something I could relate to when I was in the midst of my thru hike in the summer of 2011. He had been living a simple life for months hiking solo from the north Mexican border. As happy as he was to be out on the trail, he seemed just as happy to finally share some company and conversation.

DSC04776Huge blossoms of blue columbine on the descent up Elk Creek

As we approached treeline a fine mist overtook the atmosphere and it became apparent that we weren’t going escape the fog anytime soon. We were walking right on up into a thick cloud; a windy rain storm taking place around 13,000′.


Upon reaching the old mining cabin near the headwaters of Elk Creek, we took the opportunity to get out of the rain and regroup. The thru hiker stated that he had slept in this same cabin the night prior to escape the rain. I looked out to the dense layer of fog and imagined what the peaks should look like. It felt like a true tragedy that we were unable to see, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire Colorado Trail.

Switchback after switchback we sweated out the climb as the rain turned sideways and we eventually topped out on the continental divide. Now we were wet inside and out, above treeline, without any hope of immediate relief from the cold, wet and wind. The descent into the Bear Creek drainage was cold. When I saw two intact mining cabins in the distance I immediately began to plan a clear path to get to them.


We spent roughly an hour and a half in the nicer one of the two old cabins. An empty chest sat in the corner with an inscription of resupplies for thru hikers. Old and new junk, tools and equipment littered the inside. It was our quick refuge as we watched wave after wave of rain push through. We began sitting impatiently after several in the group began to shiver, even after soup, snacks and all. Options were discussed (a full spectrum of them), some even extreme as trying to make it back to Molas Pass by the end of the day. Eventually someone pointed out a sliver of  blue sky, and slowly that particular cloud of moisture that had drenched us, moved out of the area.


Exploring the area around the cabins, observing clouds and attempting to make up minds for the remainder of our outing.


Through democracy we made the correct choice in deciding to continue on our originally intended loop. Shortly after that commitment, a mist turned to heavy rain yet again as we went up and over Hunchback Pass. I can only speak for myself in saying that I was still having fun. On the bright side, it wasn’t like we were getting chased off the high altitudes by lightning.

DSC04826 Downslope of the Vallecito

The original plan to climb up to the Sunlight Lake amphitheater was no longer desired for obvious reasons, so we decided to make a bit more distance down Vallecito Creek. Once we determined camp, the rain came to a conclusive halt.


Organ Mountain, meadow of Vallecito

Nothing makes you appreciate clear and sunny, like a consistent string of overcast clouds with rain for consecutive days. Keep in mind that we are only weather wimps because of how spoiled we are as Colorado residents (roughly 300 days of > one hour of sunshine per day on average). We went from keeping our heads down and getting through it, to tripping over ourselves while gawking at what we were unable to see in days prior.


Fording Johnson Creek; slightly distressing to see how quickly the current carried Berkley when, for a second, he decided to lift his paws from the rock river bed.


Johnson creek spilling from one channel to another


On the Johnson creek trail, we made our way up valley with the next landmark goal being Columbine Pass.



Around treeline we crossed paths with two young female Wilderness Rangers. For as often as I’ve been on Wilderness trails, this instance was one of two or three occasions where I had the pleasure of talking shop with USFS on a trail. With crosscut saw in hand, they didn’t sound exactly thrilled when I reported the twenty plus deadfall back around 10,000′.


Sublime ascension


Avalanche Lily, right where they’re supposed to be




Berkley enjoying Columbine Lake


Short side trip to see Hazel Lake and Grizzly Peak (13,708′)


North end of Columbine Pass

Dark clouds moved in and out over the range. For the first time all trip, we heard thunder around 15:30. Chicago Basin is a sight to be seen and there’s good reason why it’s riverbank boasts such a crowded area. Restoration sign posts dot the old makeshift camping areas where terrain have been overused. In terms of the jaw-dropping scenery and crowds, this valley reminds me much of the more popular areas of the Maroon Bells. An extremely high concentration of 14ers certainly contributes here. The Basin also lends itself to more exposure due to the Needleton train stop right off the Animas. People do not need to walk in forty miles like we did to see it.


Sky Pilot


Evening splendor in the Chicago Basin with crystal views of Needle Ridge, Sunlight Peak (14,059′), Windom Peak (14,082′), Jupiter Peak (13,830′)


Cascades near the final plunge to the valley floor


There was an insane amount of mountain goats in Chicago Basin. The highest concentration of them I had ever seen. There must have been between twenty-five to thirty-five individual billies, nannies and kids within a two mile linear stretch of the drainage. Brave too (as most of them are); individuals make habits of wandering in and out of camps.




Kings Crown


I undervalued just how pretty the Animas River trail would be. We passed through an enormous old growth forest filled with shade and were subdued by the lullaby of the river.


Coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive flying the colors on the Fourth

Eventually we began to cross paths with the dayhikers coming down into Purgatory Flats from the trailhead. A gasped woman walking downhill asked, “How far is it?”

“How far is what?”, I responded.

“Oh … I don’t know.”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers