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.
The hike/backpack begins at Andrews Lake at an elevation of 10,744 ft. Follow the paved trail across the west side of the lake. It soon turns to a wide dirt trail and heads south working its way up the hillside on a few switchbacks. (Note: this is not the route shown on the older USGS map that goes around the north and east side of the lake.) This is trail #623 on both the San Juan NF map and the Trails Illustrated map. After gaining about 450 feet in elevation, (this is the steepest gain of the entire hike) the trail levels out and heads straightway through open meadows to the southwest. This Crater Lake trail is the only officially maintained trail in the West Needle Mountain wilderness. You’ll probably notice a less used trail turning off to the left and crossing a grassy meadow. That’s a trail used by climbers trying to summit Snowdon Peak, about two miles off to the southeast. From an access on its north ridge, Snowdon Peak offers a mostly Class 2 climb with a brief section of Class 3 to reach the summit.
In the next mile, the trail will gradually lose some elevation and cross an unnamed drainage. Then it ascends again about 350 feet and works in and out through forest and meadow, gaining another hill crest at about 2.5 miles. All along you can enjoy fantastic views, especially to the west, with peaks like West Turkhead, Grand Turk and Jura Knob in the distance. As the trail begins to turn more to the south and then the southeast, you’ll begin to gain the elevation needed to reach Crater Lake at 11,620 ft., but it never climbs steeply. Although the actual elevation difference between Andrews and Crater lakes is only about 900 feet, when you add in the additional “ups and downs” the total elevation gain will be closer to 1,250 feet. For backpacking in the Colorado Rockies, that’s still an easy one!
One of the last sections of trail will lead through an extensive area of forest and fallen timber. Fortunately, forest service workers have done a good job of clearing the path and removing obstacles. Not far beyond that area, you’ll find yourself approaching Crater Lake, after you’ve skirted a marshy area and hiked over a hill. Once at the lake, most of the primitive campsites are located along the northern and western shores of the lake. There are some really excellent sites to choose from and almost all have an easy access to the lake for water and are located in open forest which offers shelter from possible afternoon thunderstorms with accompanying winds and rain. (Please be sure and follow Forest Service regulations about how far to camp from the lake.)