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.