The Stage 3 fire and access restrictions to the San Juan National Forest have been rolled back to a Stage 2 condition which means access to the forest is once more open to the public. However, fire conditions still remain high and we are currently in the middle of a strong heat wave. Consult current regulations with the San Juan NF before planning any trips. Fines for violations are significant.
To begin with, there is no vehicle access to Needle Creek, Ruby Creek, Noname Creek, Tenmile Creek or Elk Creek. The only means of getting to any of these drainages is an excessively long backpack from the nearest pavement, or a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. There's plenty of information available on the internet regarding use of the train. This "trailhead" description will therefore deal with a few useful hints for utilizing the railroad to get to Needleton and from there, to Noname Creek, Ruby Creek, NW Pigeon Creek and Needle Creek/Chicago Basin. In regards to 13ers, the Needle Creek trail will provide the easiest access to Jupiter Mtn., Peak Eleven, Glacier Point and possibly Grizzly and McCauley if you're willing to hike over Columbine Pass. The Ruby Creek trail will provide the easiest access to Pigeon, Turret, Peak Fifteen, Peak Twelve, Monitor, Peak Thirteen and Animas Mtn. The Noname Creek trail will provide the easiest access to The Heisspitz, Peaks Four, Five and Six. Additionally, some people use Noname to approach Jagged and Knife Point, Peak Ten and Peak Eleven and even others.
Ahh. The famous narrow gauge railroad ride. How many times we've paid for that trip. Twice we've reserved tickets months in advance, laboring under the impression that was the only way we could get a ticket, only to have our trip rained out by relentless monsoon. At todays train prices, that's no small loss. So here's a few hints. First of all, you don't always have to catch the train in Durango. At least in some years, they will allow boarding from Silverton, but always check ahead on this because they've changed their policy more than once. We finally discovered in 2009, that not only could we board the train there, but we could show up the day of our departure and purchase tickets without any advance reservation. We just walked over to the train station and made the purchase and in doing so, also saved about $10 per ticket. But be prepared to still pay mostly full, round-trip price because they no longer prorate tickets based on where you may get dropped off. (That was a long time ago.) The reason you can purchase same-day tickets is because they can almost always squeeze you on somewhere, likely in one of the open cars where you may have to stand the entire ride. But hey - it beats packing in all those miles and it only takes an hour to go from Silverton to Needleton. By purchasing same-day tickets, you can be more flexible and schedule a backpack trip when the long term forecast appears more promising. The times we've done this, the train departed Silverton about 2:45 PM and dropped us of by 3:45 PM.
Now here's the next hint that specifically relates to the Noname Creek drainage. We found in 2012 that it was possible to persuade the engineer to allow us to get off the train when it stops at the "Needleton Watertank," to re-supply with water, a little over a mile north of the Needleton drop. He had us stash our packs under a seat on one of the cars instead of throwing them into the baggage car and had us make a quick departure when the train stopped so as not to delay it any. From that drop point, we were able to a walk north, off, but along the tracks, until we came to a spot across from Noname Creek where we could ford the Animas. Doing this saved the over two mile long and difficult hike from Needleton on the east side of the Animas that goes up and over "Watertank Hill." It also saves the difficult task of following the sometimes obscure trail that can be easy to lose in a place or two, and it saves a considerable amount of time. But there is one caveat - in many years, it will not be possible to ford the Animas River until August some time, if even then. To discern if it's possible to do so, we used stream flow data to determine the CFS river volume. Our advice is that the streamflow must be under 150 cfs. Use the following link to make your determination: waterdata.usgs.gov.
Keep in mind this measuring station is upstream from Noname Creek. If you ford the Animas below where Noname comes in, the flow will be even greater. Heavy, monsoon rains can increase flow dramatically. If you do choose to ford here, we are not responsible for your being swept away. If you have an ice axe with you, use it along with another sturdy stick in the other hand. Unlatch all straps on your pack so if you fall in, you can free yourself of the pack and avoid being pulled under. Bringing some sandals for the crossing is helpful. Wear shorts, zip-off pants, or strip down. If you cross below where Noname comes in, leave boots off when you get across because you'll need to wade Noname Creek as well. We crossed a little downstream from Noname at a spot where the Animas widened out a little. Approximate coordinates are: N 37° 39' 37.41" W 107° 40' 44.59" Good Luck!
At the Needleton drop, cross over on the footbridge and if you head south toward Needle Creek, there are numerous camping opportunities past the last cabin. You can also hike north, past the cabins and find several other camp locations beyond the private property of the cabins in meadows after crossing Pigeon Creek.
Note: This approach shares the same terminus as the "NW Pigeon Basin to Upper Ruby Creek" approach. That terminus is the camp location at 11,625 ft. in what we call the "Upper Ruby Creek meadow."
Ahh. The Ruby Creek Trail. If you succeed in hiking the so-called trail to Ruby Creek from Needleton, the memory will remain with you forever. Both finding the correct start and staying on this trail are challenges. At times, the trail is so steep, you may find yourself using aspen trees for an assist to pull yourself up. In the vicinity of Ruby Lake, the willows become a major obstacle. This trail will make a real peakbagger out of you. But if you make it to the upper basin at 11,600 ft., you'll be rewarded with one of the most amazing camp locations you will ever experience. The rugged peaks surround a flat, flower-laden meadow with the meandering Ruby Creek passing through. A grass-covered bench (with a 20 ft. rock wall to the rear) overlooking the pristine meadow offers the perfect campsite. The peaks soar above you as much as 2,500 feet offering the feeling of being in a vast, outdoor cathedral. If you're not a religious person, you may find religion here. The difficulty of reaching this remote place keeps the rif-raf out. Visitors are few. Those who come are serious peakbaggers for the most part.
Our only visit here was in 1991. At that time, little had been written about this area. Gerry & Jennifer Roach's book, "Colorado's Thirteeners" had probably not even been thought of yet. The 1974 version of "Guide to the Colorado Mountains" by Ormes and the CMC made no mention of this trail. Later editions did but with little detail. Mike Garratt and Bob Martins "Colorado's High Thirteeners" offered a little more information. What kind of surprises us is that it's been 25 years or more since we packed up this trail, so you would think that with another 25 years of use, it would be easier to follow now, but the more recent reports still offer complaints about the difficulties. Thus, the summary below is a compilation of guidance from our own trip, Roach's book, G&M's book, Rosenbrough's book and an individual source that does volunteer work for the San Juan National Forest. We've also consulted trip reports on Lists of John, SummitPost and 14ers.com. Even with all that, we can't guarantee your success, so do some of your own homework. The Roach's book provides the most thorough directions. Coordinates provided are not field checked and are taken from Google Earth. Don't take them too literally. Good Luck.
Be sure and read the trailhead information for the Needleton drop. This approach begins from where the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge railroad drops backpackers off at Needleton. Cross over to the east side of the Animas River on the sturdy footbridge. Almost immediately after crossing turn left and head north on a trail that will take you past the cabins and along the riverbank to a crossing of Pigeon Creek - usually not a problem to get across. Continue following the trail NNE into an open, grassy meadow, called "Campers Meadow" by Roach. At the northern end of the meadow, locate the old fallen tree mentioned by Roach in his 13ers guidebook. The only fallen tree visible on Google Earth are at these coordinates: N 37° 38' 17.67" W 107° 41' 20.94". Roach reports that the Ruby Creek trail takes off about 20 feet past the fallen tree to the right and in about 20 more feet, a faint trail heads diagonally off to the left for Noname Creek. Locate the faint Ruby Creek trail in the trees on the east side of the meadow. Once on the trail, it will lead to the "Upper Camper's Meadow" identified by Roach. The trail then takes a surprising south turn then east to the base of the mountain. The trail then begins climbing to the north steeply.
Supplementing that description is this provided by Will Rietveld, an ultralight, backpacking enthusiast who does volunteer work for San Juan National Forest:
Go L (North) on an upcanyon trail (from the Needleton bridge) for approximately 10 minutes. Near the middle of the campers meadow there is a smaller log across the trail with a section cut out for the trail, (probably the same as Roach's fallen tree). At that point look to the Right and spot a weak trail going up a dirt bank. Once up the bank the trail goes into a meadow and fades (Upper Camper's Meadow). The trail exits the meadow to the S (downcanyon, which doesn't make sense). Stay on that trail as it winds through the trees, and then winds to the E until it reaches an old mine at the base of the mountain. At that location a constructed trail angles up the mountainside on a fairly steep grade. (This is the Ruby Creek Trail now.) The (constructed) trail ends at Pigeon Creek and then its a very steep user-made trail to the Ruby Ck south ridge. From there the trail traverses down into Ruby Creek. Once at the bottom of Ruby Creek, maybe 1 mile below the lake, the trail stays on the S side and is difficult to follow due to low use and avalanche debris. Cross to the N side just before a pond below the lake. (Ruby Lake)
The following is offered by Derek Wolfe (Furthermore on LoJ): "As there are many descriptions of the Ruby Creek trail, here is my take. The trail is fairly easy to follow except near Ruby Lake. When crossing Pigeon Creek ( we think he actuall means North Pigeon Creek which is actually unnamed on the USGS quad) there are two trails, take the trail to the right heading straight up; the trail looks brutal but is the better way to go. (This agrees with Roach.) When hiking around Ruby Lake, stay on the north side of the lake, level with the water. Stay low. When on the east side (end) of the lake, hike about 200 yards and look for the trail that heads north up a grassy gully on the west side of a cliff band. If you take the east side of the cliff band, there is plenty of bushwhacking to encounter. I know, I did both. Once at ~11,300 the trail is easy to follow through the willows. Oh, and the tree with the Columbine that Roach speaks of, does not exist."
Key points about this trail then are as follows once you have located the correct start: 1. The crossing of North Pigeon Creek at appx. 9,500 ft. after rounding a minor ridge 2. The trail fork after that crossing where the steeper, less used trail heading NE above the creek is the correct choice 3. Another trail junction after about .15 mile at 9,800 ft. and a brutally steep climb. The right fork goes up the N. Pigeon drainage. The left fork continues to Ruby Creek. 4. Cresting the ridge that divides the Ruby drainage from the N. Pigeon drainage at appx. 10460 ft. (We think the trail crosses the ridge a little lower as drawn on our map, but this could easily be in error.) 5. The trail division mentioned by Roach on the traverse to Ruby Creek and avalanche debris mentioned by Rietveld 6. Crossing to the north side of Ruby Ck. at the lower, small lake below Ruby. 7. The willow bushwhack above Ruby Lake. If you make it to the suggested campsite, you will have achieved peakbagger man/womanhood.
While some camping opportunities may exist at the small lake below Ruby, the most practical camping solution is to put in the effort to reach the broad meadow-basin at 11,625 ft. See camping information below.
The large, flat meadow at 11,625 feet sits at the foot of Pigeon, Turrett, Peak Fifteen, Monitor, Peak Thirteen and Animas Mtn., and access can be gained from here to all these summits. Ruby Creek is a meandering stream through here. A multitude of wildflowers cover the meadow. This is simply an idyllic spot with one caveat: Marmots. On the ESE side of the meadow/basin, there is a welcoming campsite that's nice and flat, grassy, a few feet away from the stream and that has a short, rocky cliff behind it with small trees atop. Because this spot has been frequently used, the local marmot population has become rather accustomed to the "hairless ones" that come to visit in the warm months and emboldened in their efforts to acquire the tasty, salty treats these summer invaders bring. It was here that we first observed that marmots can climb vertical rock walls. So here's some very useful advice: Do not keep any food in your tent. Hang it in a drybag from rope or sling, midway in the middle of the most vertical section of the rock wall you can find. Do not leave clothing around, or anything else that may have some salty flavor to it. When gone from camp, keep your sleeping bags rolled up & packed away as well as clothing. We've had marmots chew their way into our tent. They will find a way to chew on anything you leave out. Keep your boots inside the tent while not wearing them. You've been warned.
The trail that continues on to Peak Twelve and the Pk. Twelve/Monitor saddle will be east of this campsite, above the rock cliff formation and crossing through some low trees.
This route description begins from the suggested campsite in the upper basin of Ruby Creek at 11,640 ft. The trailhead is the "Needleton Bridge" and the approach is the "Needleton Bridge to Ruby Creek." For most, the train ride and backpack into this basin will occupy a full day, therefore plan on your ascent of Monitor (and likely Peak Thirteen and Animas Mtn.) to occur on the following day.
From the suggested campsite, walk back to the north some and then head NE up into the large basin that lies below Monitor, Peak Thirteen and Animas Mountain. Ascend on a steep, grassy slope with a few willows for about 800 vertical feet in the general direction of Peak Thirteen. Almost directly under (west of Peak Thirteen), is a tundra-covered slope that you can follow up until the tundra runs out at about 12,800 ft. Keep working up on loose talus that has fallen from the Peak Thirteen cliffs above. As you're making this approach, you will see two "ramps" that cut across the SW face of Peak Thirteen, both rising from left to right (west to east) below the cliffs. The lower ramp is steeper and from this perspective, seems to almost intersect the upper ramp near the Peak Thirteen-Monitor saddle. Rosebrough rates the lower ramp as "a third class scramble on generally solid rock." G&M had you use the second, less steep ramp per our interpretation, (because they did not mention two ramps). They described this higher ramp as "six feet wide at its narrowest point and littered with loose rock and sand." To get to this upper ramp, we headed a little left, following the talus slope to the beginning of the ledge system. This ledge is like a huge gash across the face of Peak Thirteen and is unmistakable. It's easy to both gain and follow, and never too steep. It brings you out at the left side/end of the saddle between Peak Thirteen and Monitor.
To climb Monitor from this saddle, there's only one real problem - getting past the array of spires and crags along this saddle that would make a direct assault along the ridge very slow and difficult. To avoid these problems, we dropped down on the west side of the saddle some and crossed at least three steep couloirs, mostly filled with sand & gravel. (Both G&M and Rosebrough had you do similar.) We observed any number of cairned routes that crossed this section, so follow what seems most evident to you. As you cross into and out of these couloirs, there will be rock ribs to surmount where some short (10ft.) near vertical, 4th class maneuvering will be required on generally solid rock. We did not require rope. Once past all this mess, the remainder of the route to the summit of Monitor is over Class 3 scrambling terrain. Just follow the ridge line over mostly broken, but manageable rock.
From the summit, you have a great view of the pass between Ruby Creek and Noname Creek, Peak Twelve and even Jagged Mountain in the distance. Gaze carefully down the great east face of Monitor that offers some fine, sport climbing routes. Then, begin working on plotting your ascent of Peak Thirteen. Peak Thirteen is not considered a "ranked" summit because it does not rise enough from the saddle connecting it to Animas Mtn., but climbed from Monitor, it is certainly worth the effort and to get to Animas Mtn. from Monitor, you might as well bag it.
The route description for Peak Thirteen begins from the summit of Monitor Peak. The mileage and elevation gain provided is measured from the Monitor summit. Most parties will access these peaks from the Needleton Drop using the "Needleton to Ruby Creek" approach. However, it is also possible to use the "Needleton to NW Pigeon Basin" approach, (which branches off from the "Needelton to Ruby Creek" approach), followed by the "NW Pigeon Basin to Upper Ruby Creek" approach. Peak Thirteen on this site is done in sequence with Monitor Peak first.
From the summit of Monitor, descend the 3rd class north ridge back to the Monitor/Thirteen saddle. To continue on to Thirteen, you'll have to renegotiate the 3rd and 4th class sections of the saddle until you breach all the obstacles and stand at the north end of the saddle area and are looking up at the south ridge of Thirteen. Walk over to the gently sloping upward tundra area seen in the photo provided at the base of the south face. From here, begin a traverse over to the east face of the peak. We stayed at about the saddle level on this traverse. "Furthermore" on LoJ reports doing a descending traverse until they could go no more." Just follow the path of least resistance.
At whatever point you believe yourself to be directly below the summit, head straight up. We found some evidence of a trail on this traverse and a cairn pointing the way up. The climb up was very steep and as you looked back down the east side of this mountain as it precipitously drops away, it felt very exposed. Some would rank this as 4th class. In our notes, we considered it a solid 3rd class scramble. There were no difficult "climbing moves," just constant working up over short rock outcrops to very narrow ledges, often covered in tundra. Knowing that this steep slope further down turned into a thousand foot cliff made us a little nervous. A misstep could result in eternal consequences, so you'll have to decide if rope use is appropriate. We did not use rope. There wasn't much to anchor yourself to for belay anyhow. The scramble to the summit, perhaps 350 to 400 feet up will take longer than expected. Rock climbing/scrambling at high altitude like this always goes more slowly. Congratulate yourself when you reach the summit. Take another break to enjoy the stupendous view and begin to analyze your route over to Animas Mtn.
This route description begins from the summit of Peak Thirteen. The mileage and elevation gain provided are measured from there. Animas Mtn. is part of a sequence that includes Monitor Peak and Peak Thirteen.
From the summit of Peak Thirteen, work your way down gingerly along the north ridge. Much of the time, we stayed off the ridge crest on the east side, picking our way through large rocks, cracks and sandy ledges. This will lead to the first of two saddles where the terrain changes to a tundra and broken rock walkway in the sky. Navigate NW and contour around on the west side of the ridge highpoint of 13,620 ft. This will take you to the next saddle at 13,500 ft. Work up to the base of the cliffs forming the summit block of Animas. There is a large and evident couloir that leads towards the summit. It is steep, but not particularly difficult, with just a few brief 3rd class climbing moves along the way. Exposure is limited. Near the top of the couloir, climb to the right over blocks and ledges to exit the gully. This will be the most difficult section of this ascent, still in our thinking 3rd class. (Some may consider it 4th class.) Once out of the couloir, take a left turn and it's a brief stretch of boulder-hopping to get to the summit.
While visiting on the summit, you may want to study Heisspitz to the north, if you have not climbed it already. Again, the overall view is superb, especially of the Pigeon Peak east face. For the descent, return to the 13,500 ft. saddle as you came. From the saddle, descend south in the prominent and wide gully filled with sand and talus that makes for one of those very quick descents for a while. G&M recommended descending 600 feet and then turning right (west), traverse over several minor gullies and then enter a "broad, cliff-bound gully that has a high wall on its west side." We felt this was unnecessary and instead worked our way left, avoiding the head of two minor gullies. We then came to an area where we could descend farther over sloping granite outcroppings with gravel ledges in between. With careful route selection, we made it back into the main basin under the three summits and rejoined our route from the morning. The remainder of the descent is easy and has plenty of tundra. Take a well-deserved break at your campsite and contemplate your efforts this day.