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Vallecito Trail Update

We have recently visited the Vallecito Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness from the trailhead near Kite Lake, across Hunchback Pass, down to where Sunlight Creek comes in, then up the Sunlight drainage. New and/or revised information has been posted for the Kite Lake/Hunchback trailhead and the associated approach segments including field-verified GPS waypoints for key campsites and the stream crossings to reach the upper basin of Sunlight Creek and Sunlight Lake. 

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  • Hunchback Pass to Nebo Creek  Moderate | RT: 5.5 mi / 1,900’

    This "approach" is part of a sequence of approaches that utilize the Vallecito Trail beginning near Kite Lake and above the "Beartown" site. The trailhead is located at: N37° 42' 44.57"  W 107° 31' 04.97". Use the "Beartown/Kite Lake/Hunchback trailhead information for instructions on how to drive to the TH.

    The trailhead is actually within the Rio Grande National Forest. The TH number is #813 on both the San Juan and older Rio Grande National Forest maps and is a part of the "Continental Divide Trail" at this location and segment. Once the trail crosses Hunchback Pass, it crosses over into San Juan National Forest and becomes #529, continuing south all the way to Vallecito Reservoir. If using Trails Illustrated #140, they identify this as the Continental Divide Trail and use the #813. Walk south from the TH and follow the easy gradient through open terrain with some willows to Hunchback Pass. The trail first sweeps SE, then makes a gradual turn SW, then west to the open, tundra-covered pass with about 900 feet of gain over just under a mile. Coordinates for the pass are: N 37° 42' 16.62"  W 107° 31' 12.37". Hunchback Mountain is west along the divide and can be easily climbed by those interested in bagging all the 13ers. You can drop your pack, stroll to the summit and return in under an hour.

    From Hunchback Pass, continue south heading straight down an unnamed fork of Vallecito Creek (or could perhaps be considered an unnamed fork of Nebo Creek.)  The trail cuts trough plenty of willows in this section and stays on the west side of the drainage until a little before the trees. Because of the numerous willows, plan on getting pants & boots drenched if it has rained recently. Also, as a general point, the Vallecito Trail is utilized regularly by pack horse groups so you can expect to see and experience some of the typical trail damage done by horses. The trail then turns to the SE and comes to an intersection. A newer trail (#813) that does not show on the 1964 USGS map heads east up Nebo Creek, crosses the Continental Divide and goes to West Ute Lake. That is the continuation of the Continental Divide Trail. The Vallecito Trail continues south and west from this intersection. Near the trail intersection, there is a very large and good campsite on a prominent knoll above Nebo Creek on the NW side. The campsite makes a good base camp for 13ers off the CD trail including Mt. Nebo, UN13,110, UN13,230, and UN13,169, all of which can be done in a single day from the campsite. See "Camping info" for more details.



    Camping

    The Nebo Campsite sits near the intersection of the Vallecito Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. This camp site is not to be confused with another located about a mile farther down the trail where Nebo Creek is actually crossed. The elevation is appx. 11,400 ft. Coordinates are below. These coordinates have been field checked. The campsite is right off the main trail. Because of the beetle kill damage to the old growth trees here, the original camp area has seen some ground vegetation moving back in. There is still one, good, main tent site with fire ring as of 2018, a smaller but usable tent site just off to the NW from the fire ring and 50 yards south, there is a potential camp site located on the grassy knoll. Water may be obtained from Nebo Creek which will lie east of and downhill from the campsite. 


    Campsite Locations

    Nebo Campsite N 37° 41' 10.9", W 107° 31' 14.7"
    11,400 appx. elevation
  • Nebo Creek to Trinity Creek  Moderate | RT: 2.5 mi / 1,000’

    This "approach" is part of a sequence of approaches that utilize the Vallecito Trail beginning near Kite Lake and above the "Beartown" site. The trailhead is located at: N37° 42' 44.57" W 107° 31' 04.97". Use the "Beartown/Kite Lake/Hunchback trailhead information for instructions on how to drive to the TH.

    From the Nebo Creek campsite and the trail junction of the Continental Divide Trail #813 and the Vallecito Trail #529, head south, then SW down the Vallecito Trail. The trail swings to the west through forest, staying above Nebo Creek and then makes an abrupt turn back to the north to cross the unnamed fork of Vallecito Creek that originates near Hunchback Pass. Watch carefully for this minor crossing. Then, the trail continues down and generally west to SW. Along this next stretch there is one small campsite we've noticed on the south side of the trail that has some slope and could accommodate one tent. This is what we would call a "do-in-a-pinch" type of site. Continue down trail to the WSW to a switchback that will drop you to Nebo Creek (which by this point has been joined by the aforementioned unnamed fork and now carries a lot more water). Just below this switchback, there is a not-too-noticeable trail that heads off to the SW which we believe to be an alternate route into Stormy Gulch. When you arrive at the crossing of Nebo Creek, we have usually found this crossing to be a little difficult and somewhat intimidating. The water is swift and nearby the stream heads over the beginning of a waterfall. Sometimes there are logs you can walk across and other times, there's little help. You may have to wade. You can also explore upstream where you may find a better crossing place with rocks that allow hopping over the stream. In our July, 2018 visit, the water was so low, crossing anywhere was easy. Before crossing, if you follow the stream up, there are some good campsites with as many as four possible tent sites. Beyond the last tent site there is a picturesque waterfall. 

    After crossing Nebo Creek, continue downhill, through a series of switchbacks and at 1.25 miles from the Nebo campsite, you should come to an open meadow on the right (west) side of the trail and see a secondary trail heading over to a crossing of Vallecito Creek, below where Trinity Creek comes in. This meadow area is often used as a camp spot by various groups, though it tends to be a little lumpy. From this location climbers can reach The Guardian, Mt. Silex, Storm King, and Peaks Seven, Eight and Nine as day hikes/climbs by heading up Stormy Gulch. But if you're willing to lug your pack back uphill, read about other higher elevation campsites under the "approach" for those peaks.  If hiking back up to the Nebo Creek camp or back over Hunchback Pass to the trailhead, this section from Trinity Creek back to Nebo Creek is the steepest part of the return hike gaining about 1,000 feet in elevation. It is also possible to hike all the way up Trinity Creek and cross the ridge that separates the Trinity Basin from the Vestal Basin and access the Vestal Creek summits.



    Camping

    An easily identifiable trail turns west off the main Vallecito Trail and leads over to where you can cross Vallecito Creek, downstream from where Trinity Creek comes in. This trail leads across an open meadow that is frequently used as a camp location. See approximate coordinates below. The trail that leads west across the meadow can be rather faint. The best campsite will be a few yards north of that trail (see field checked coordinates), and there's another campsite in some younger trees 50 yards south of the trail. 


    Campsite Locations

    Trinity Creek N 37° 40' 33.01", W 107° 31' 30.7"
    Elevation 10,560 ft.
  • Trinity Creek to Rock Creek  Easy | RT: 3.5 mi / 400’

    The 1.75 mile walk from the Trinity Creek camp to the crossing of Rock Creek is an easy, quick jaunt down the trail that will take under an hour with only about 400 feet in elevation loss. Though the trail starts out in forest, it crosses plenty of open valley terrain before re-entering forest for some broad switchbacks that make the final drop to the Rock Creek crossing. As of 2018, because of all the beetle-kill damage, the undergrowth is becoming quite lush in places and at a few points, the trail becomes a little obscured. Some of the delphinium along here grows as much as 5 feet tall! We have never found any useful logs at Rock Creek to cross on here, so be prepared to wade, and at the crossing point, the stream widens out so the wade is long, but usually not challenging. If heading up to Rock Lake, you will not need to make the crossing. The Rock Lake Trail stays on the north side of Rock Creek. Vallecito Creek from the Trinity Creek intersection and heading downstream begins to offer attractive pools and stream fishing opportunities.

    The Rock Creek trail #655 provides access to Rock Lake, a seemingly popular destination for horse-pack groups. From a possible base camp location near Rock Lake, the following 13ers can be accessed, most of which are found on the Columbine Pass and Emerald Lake quads: UN13,302, Irving Peak, Peters Peak, UN13,222, UN13,220, Mount Oso, UN13,417, UN13,310, and UN13,340.



    Camping

    Over the years, the Rock Creek crossing has never seen the development of any really nice campsites. The flattest with the fewest rocks is right off the trail, on the north side of Rock Creek, where the Rock Creek/Lake trail turns off. See coordinates below. 


    Campsite Locations

    Rock Creek N 37° 39' 17.2", W 107° 31' 12.9"
    Elevation 9,970 ft.
  • Rock Ck to Sunlight Crossing  Easy | RT: 4.2 mi / 500’

    The Vallecito Trail from the Rock Creek crossing to the location where you can wade across Vallecito Creek to access the Sunlight Creek drainage is an easy two mile descent with a loss of 500 feet in elevation. The trail passes through a mix of forest and open meadow areas. Aspen trees begin to join the conifers. Beetle-kill has destroyed most of the old growth conifers. By now, the elevation loss from Hunchback Pass has left the hiker entrenched in this deep valley with mountain peaks soaring impressively above on either side of the valley. The trail will exit the forest into an open meadow just before arriving at the Sunlight Crossing location. You'll likely see more than one fainter trail heading off to the right (west) toward Vallecito Creek, but as of July, 2018, a small cairn marked the turnoff to head for both campsites and the crossing. Coordinates for this turnoff are: N 37° 37' 48.5"  W 107° 32' 17.2".  There are several, excellent campsites located near the creek along the east bank and this could make a good base camp location for day excursions. As mentioned on the Trinity Creek to Rock Creek approach, stream fishing opportunities abound all along the Vallecito to this location.

    To reach Sunlight Creek from here: The field-checked crossing coordinates provided will put you well south of where Sunlight Creek actually comes into the Vallecito. Below that intersection, the Vallecito splits briefly and then below where the two branches come back together, the stream widens out a bit and offers a crossing possibility. Trying to wade across before the spring/summer runoff has subsided by mid-July can be tricky if not dangerous. A long ice axe in one hand and a solid, long stick in the other will prove very useful. Loosen the straps/buckles on your pack in case you fall in so you can quickly free yourself from the pack. On at least one of our trips across, we found an old rope and strung it up across the Vallecito at the crossing which provided a solid hand line. IF you check closely on Google Earth, someone has posted a photo at what we believe to be the actual crossing location we have used. From the east side of the Vallecito, you can look across and spot a trail over on the west bank. The times we've crossed here, water has ranged from knee to upper thigh deep. The current is challenging. Coordinates are: N 37° 37' 52.1"  W 107° 32' 21.7".  If you are on the main Vallecito trail (which is farther east away from Vallecito Ck. than the USGS map would have you believe), watch for the small cairn and follow the faint trail generally west bypassing some taller willows and crossing a nice open meadow. The trail will fade some, but look for it becoming defined again just before it drops down an embankment and crosses a small, marshy, muddy area. The now more defined trail will lead directly to the Vallecito crossing point. 

    Just before that trail drops off the embankment, there is a good camping area located in some mixed trees (aspen & conifer) north of the trail and on a low rise. There is also another good campsite after you drop down the embankment. A fainter trail will head off north and in about 100 yards will go up onto another low, open rise. Make a hard turn to the left and walk to another well-established camp location surrounded by a mix of aspen and conifers. 



    Camping

    As mentioned above, there are numerous campsites along the east bank of Vallecito Creek in the vicinity of the crossing. Use our coordinates as a general reference point and go find your preferred spot. The area shows evidence of being popular with horse-packing groups.


    Campsite Locations

    Vallecito crossing to Sunlight Ck. N 37° 37' 52.1", W 107° 32' 21.7
    Vallecito/Sunlight Camp N 37° 37' 51.6", W 107° 32' 17.4"
    9,722 feet elevation
  • Sunlight Creek Approach  Difficult | RT: 6.5 mi / 2,425’

    The trick to finding the Sunlight Lake trail is to find a way to ford Vallecito Creek. Be sure and read the Rock Creek to Sunlight Crossing Approach for more detail. We have succeeded twice at a location about 150 - 200 yards down from where on the USGS map, Vallecito Creek has split and then come back together and then levels and spreads out a little. Try these coordinates which were field verified in 2018. N 37° 37' 52.1" W 107° 32' 21.7". There will be a good trail on the other side if you're in the right location. Wade on across in water that may reach mid to upper thighs and can be fairly swift, earlier in the season. Once across, leave your boots off or on loosely and head upstream on the trail and cross to the NORTH side of Sunlight Creek. You'll probably have to wade this one as well. It's best to just go ahead and cross right where the trail meets Sunlight Creek. We've never found a better location by looking upstream on three separate trips.

    Once across Sunlight Creek, the trail begins the arduous journey up the Sunlight drainage. The incredible beauty and remoteness of the upper Sunlight Basin will compensate for the difficulty in getting there, or at least keep telling yourself that as you struggle up. The 2,500 feet in elevation gain will be one of the most difficult you'll encounter in the central Weminuche. WARNING: Do not be misled by either G&M or Rosenbrough's book (if you still have them), that the trail is on the south side of Sunlight Creek. Both are wrong. After crossing to the north side of Sunlight Creek, the trail heads up an embankment, swings to the left, climbs a little more and comes to a more level location in the forest. Watch for the Sunlight trail heading off to your left, marked by a couple of cairns. The trail you're on will continue north heading toward Leviathan Creek. Make sure you do not miss the Sunlight trail and go too far north toward Leviathan Creek. This critical turn will be less than 5 minutes from crossing Sunlight Creek. 

    As you head up the trail, you will cross numerous fallen logs. Then there is a brief section where it follows closely alongside the creek. We last visited this trail the summer immediately following substantial winter avalanches in 2005. Getting through this lower section was an incredible pain. From our 2018 visit up this trail the unmaintained Sunlight trail has been somewhat re-established through here. Most of the tree-crossing problem has been eliminated. New growth has come back in. The trail is still difficult to follow. Someone has marked it at many locations with small cairns but it’s still easy to lose. If you do lose it, be aware that the trail does pull away from the creek to the north some at two locations in order to gain elevation at steeper sections of the valley. Once out of the smaller aspen re-growth, the trial moves more into conifers and becomes easier to follow. The trail then crosses to the south side of Sunlight Creek at about 10,800 ft. There use to be a nice log here to get you across, but that log has been swept to one side. You will likely have to wade again. This is a critical crossing to make if you want to stay on the trail. It occurs where the valley constricts and leaves little choice as to where to go. The trail takes you right to this crossing. The following coordinates for this crossing were field-verified in 2018. (N 37° 37' 54.5"  W 107° 33' 41.5") 

    The trail then stays on the south side of the creek for about the next 3/4 mile. Immediately after crossing to the south side of the creek, the trail wades through lush, tall undergrowth, heading west. It then climbs up onto a bench well above the creek, levels out and eventually comes back close to creek level. After that, where a major tributary comes in from the south, the trail almost gets lost in willows and undergrowth and crosses multiple stream channels. If you lose it here, head generally to the west, to a more open but vegetated slope that climbs steeply. You should be able to re-find the trail heading up through here. It is fairly well-defined and switchbacks up the steep, open, but heavily vegetated slope and swinging away from the creek to the south and west some. Then the trail heads NW to round a side of the mountain, passing by some tall dead trees and drops you back to the creek heading more westerly and crossing to the north side again around a willowy area where things have again flattened out and the stream meanders some. The trail may be difficult to spot in the willows. Just beyond this crossing, you'll be in what were the last good trees before the trail ascends to Sunlight Lake. (They’re all dead now.) There's two small campsites here. They use to be larger but lush vegetation has taken over much of what use to accommodate up to four tents easily. If you're not entirely beat up yet, continue another .6 mile on to the lake where some more open sites exist. The trail up to the lake does not follow the main watercourse, but rather, a secondary drainage. If you made it this far, congratulations! On the way on up to the lake, just as the trail begins to make a turn to the SW and cross a small stream, there is a trail that will take you into the basin north of Jagged Mtn.  Field-verified coordinates for where this trail turns off are: N 37° 38' 19.4"  W 107° 34' 44.8". You will likely have to hike uphill a little to locate this trail. It cannot be seen from below on the Sunlight Lake trail. 

    The following 13ers may be accessed as "day hikes" from the tree camp or a campsite by Sunlight Lake: McCauley Peak, Grizzly Peak, Greylock Mountain, possibly Jupiter Mtn., UN13,121, Peak Eleven, Knife Point, Peak Ten, Jagged Mtn., Leviathan Peak and Vallecito. Quite a spectacular and varied collection!


    It should be noted that the trail route drawn on this map is an approximation at best and should not be taken too literally except at a few critical junctures that are noted in the approach description. GPS plotting was not used.

    Camping

    The last good campsite that has the shelter of trees is at 11,550 ft. and the coordinates provided below (however most all the older growth trees are dead now). This is an excellent camp location with close access to water. It makes a good base camp for a number of 13ers in the surrounding area. You may also continue to Sunlight Lake where several sites exist but at the lake you'll be more exposed to the weather since there are only a few low trees.


    Campsite Locations

    Sunlight Tree Camp N 37° 38' 12.7", W 107° 34' 26.30"
    Elev. 11,550 ft. appx.
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