The trail route to what we call NW Pigeon Basin starts out on the Ruby Creek Trail, so some of the following is copied from that description. 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 Bridge 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."
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.
The access to the basin NW of the Pigeon summit comes at a trail intersection on the Ruby Creek trail at 9,800 ft. In the Roach book, the trail to the basin is described as following a "tiny ridge." The trail quickly fades to a cairned route that turns to a Class 2 bushwhack according to Roach. Their route has you continue heading SE above the creek to 11,000 feet where the bushwhacking relents some and then continuing SE to the meadow at 11,700 feet for camping. One recent internet source says this of the Roach route:
"It starts out well enough with some sparse cairns, but the cairns peter out and you spend a lot of time second guessing your route. You see what looks like a faint trail that lasts for about…50 feet and then totally disappears, only to see a different faint trail 50 feet to the side… which lasts for about…. 50 feet. Repeat ad nauseum."
Our route is not much different. In 1991, we never saw any indication of the trail junction at 9,800 feet. We also had no sources or books that could tell us about a potential route into this basin and suitable campsites. The basin, for all we knew could have been the bottom of a rock glacier. So instead of attempting to bash our way directly up N. Pigeon Creek, we continued on the Ruby Creek trail until we crested the south ridge of the Ruby Creek drainage at a fairly prominent knoll. Approximate elevation at this crossing point was perhaps 11,400 ft. From that ridge, we followed the ridgeline SE, gaining another 800 feet in elevation. A short distance from the knoll, heading up the ridge, we observed a primitive campsite and the actual trail into Ruby Creek. (We had obviously gotten off it.) Continuing up the ridge via bushwhacking, at about 11,000 feet, we began to break out of the trees and had a better view of where we were heading. Following this ridge involved navigating around or over many fallen trees, rock ledges and outcrops, but it at least kept us on the proper course. There was still another 3/4 mile to go and part of that involved hopping over a boulder field, but eventually we made the upper meadow at 11,740 feet and were relieved to find excellent camping. So pick your poison. Either way to this pristine location will be difficult.