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 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.
This approach is preceded by the Needleton to NW Pigeon Basin approach. It assumes a high camp in the basin WNW of the Pigeon Peak summit and in summary, circles you around the south flanks of Pigeon, then ascends to the Pigeon-Turret saddle and then drops into the headwaters of Ruby Creek. This approach shares the same terminus as the "Needleton to Ruby Creek" approach which is the camp location at 11,625 ft. in what we call "Upper Ruby Creek Meadow."
From your campsite located at the foot of Pigeon Peak in the beautiful meadow at 11,740 ft., head in the direction of a saddle on the SSW flank of Pigeon. The saddle/pass is at 12,780 ft., so it's about a 1,000 foot gain from the campsite over a vast talus and boulder field that lies below the west face of Pigeon and its dramatic cliffs. To our surprise, there was something of a trail through here, probably originally established by the goats that have inhabited this area for decades or longer, but also increasingly used by humans, especially once this route was published by G&M. With still fully loaded packs, this high altitude route can be literally breath-taking.
Once at the saddle, continue now east along the south flank of Pigeon, then swing NE to the Pigeon-Turret saddle. Along this section, you'll be gazing down into the isolated New York Basin. The amount of broken rock and talus diminishes and some of this section passes through tundra. You may still find and make use of faint trail. The Roach's make mention of this route around Pigeon in their book. At the Pigeon-Turret saddle, things become rockier again. On the south side of the saddle, it's possible to make a high camp by locating some tundra/grassy spots between rocks and larger boulders. We actually camped here in 1991 at 13,100 feet elevation. It was breezy but you can't beat the view. You most certainly would want to consider hiking up Turret from this saddle. From this location, it is the only true "walk-up" summit of the Ruby Creek group. Additionally, this saddle is the start for a circuitous route to Peak Fifteen and the easiest way up that summit.
From the Pigeon-Turret saddle, walk north, heading downhill toward Ruby Creek, about 1,500 knee-bashing feet below. The descent starts out on loose, small rock and talus, then a mix of tundra, rock and scree to the valley bottom. Expect some low willows towards the bottom which can best be avoided by hiking near the main drainage. Earlier in the season, there may be snow. Ice axe and even something like micro-spikes may be useful. Once in the beautiful-flower-covered basin, use the same campsite as described in the Needleton to Ruby Creek approach. See 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.