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San Juan National Forest Re-opened

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. 

  • 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. The trail cuts trough plenty of willows in this section and stays on the west side of the drainage until just 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.


    The Nebo Creek campsite sits near the intersection of the Vallecito Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. The elevation is appx. 11,500 ft. Coordinates are below. They are something of a guess by using Google Earth, but the campsite is right off the main trail. There are several good tent spots and large logs near campfire areas. The creek is a short jaunt down the hill.

    Campsite Locations

    Nebo Creek N 37° 41' 12.36", W 107° 31' 14.88"
  • 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 down the Vallecito Trail. The trail swings to the west through forest, staying well above Nebo Creek and then makes an abrupt turn back to the south to cross 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 on and other times, there's little help. You may have to wade.

    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. 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.


    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.

    Campsite Locations

    Trinity Creek N 37° 40' 33.01", W 107° 31' 27.89"
  • 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. We have never found any useful logs 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.


    In past visits, we have not found very good campsites at this crossing, though you can certainly find spots to "make do." Perhaps some have developed by now. Better sites may be found south of the crossing in the open meadow area over toward Vallecito Creek.
  • 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. 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. 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 approximate camp and 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 that 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.


    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' 52.44", W 107° 32' 21.60"
  • 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 from Google Earth: N 37° 37' 52.44" W 107° 32' 21.60". 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 2,400 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. As you head up the trail, you will soon come to two avalanche swaths that have left copious quantities of uprooted aspens piled up like pick-up sticks. We last visited this trail the summer immediately following the avalanche in 2005. Getting through this section was an incredible pain. From what we understand, the unmaintained Sunlight trail has been somewhat re-established through this section. Be careful. It may still be easy to lose the trail. 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. It then crosses to the south side of the creek at about 10,880 ft. by means of a large log. (May or may not still be there.) 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. (These coordinates MAY be close to the crossing, but are approximated from Google Earth and are not field validated: (N 37° 37' 53.80"  W 107° 33' 41.22") The trail then stays on the south side of the creek for about 3/4 mile, switchbacking up a steep, open, but heavily vegetated slope and swinging away from the creek to the south. Then the trail drops you back to the creek heading more WNW 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 the last good trees before the trail ascends to Sunlight Lake. There's an excellent campsite here, but if you're not entirely beat up yet, continue another .6 mile on to the lake where some more open sites exist. If you made it this far, congratulations! On the way on up to the lake, and before the trail begins to head more SW, you may observe a trail heading off to the right. This is the trail that goes up into the basin on the north side of Jagged. Coordinates for where this trail turns off are: N 37° 38' 19.31"  W 107° 34' 44.56".

    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.


    The last good campsite that has the shelter of trees is at 11,550 ft. and the coordinates provided below. This is an excellent camp location with room for several tents and 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' 12.86", W 107° 34' 26.60"
  • The High Traverse  Difficult | RT: 6.5 mi / 1,000’

    What we are calling "The High Traverse" is a term we picked up from an Outward Bound group in 1994 that told us about this route and which we utilized to travel from the basin north of and at the foot of Jagged Mountain to an area in the upper Tenmile Creek drainage that offered a good campsite and base camp location for climbing Peaks Seven, Eight, Nine, Storm King, Silex and Guardian. For many groups, reaching those peaks would probably be best done by approaching up the Trinity Creek trail to Silex Lake, so we are providing this route as a secondary approach to those peaks in the event anyone wants to make the same traverse. The Outward Bound group we met was rather "secretive" about this route at that time. They would not allow their own guides or participants to mark it with cairns and were careful to avoid letting this develop into a trail. We have not visited this route since 1994, so it's current condition is not known. We used this route as part of a nine day backpack.

    From the basin north of and at the foot of Jagged Mountain, walk north up to the pass on the SW ridge of Leviathan Peak. You'll be hiking on some tundra and there was a sporadic trail at times. At the 12,,940 ft. pass, drop north into the Leviathan drainage. The descent is down a very steep and rocky gully with what we call "boulder rubble." This can be difficult to navigate with a full pack. Even well into July, however, there may be snow that you can utilize to avoid the rubble. Ice axe would be handy here. It was here in all this rubble, with absolutely no shelter whatsoever, that we were caught in 1994 in a huge deluge. Rain came down in torrents creating streams and waterfalls cascading off the Leviathan cliffs and all around. Lightening was striking about every 30 seconds and large boulders were sent tumbling down towards us. It was a horrific experience with no place to go to get out of it. Eventually, we made it down to a small tarn at 12,300 ft. From there, it would have been possible to descend on down to Leviathan Lake on more tundra-covered slopes, but that was not the plan.

    From the tarn, we continued NE regaining some elevation to another small tarn at 12,420 ft., north of and above Leviathan Lake, by following something of a rocky bench to that location. Following the advice of the Outward Bound group, we did not go north from here to a 12,900 ft. pass west of a knoll. Instead, we contoured east, then back to the north around the 13,064 ft. knoll and took aim for another unnamed lake over a half mile away that sits at the foot of Peaks Eight and Nine. From the small tarn at 12,420 ft., we crossed another extensive pile of quartzite rock and ascended about 100 feet to gain a bench level that would take us around the 13,064 knoll. The bench was tundra for a while, but gave way to large quartzite boulders again. We came to a shallow "bowl," filled mostly with tundra and divided by a short cliff band. We had to descend about 100 vertical feet to find a break in the cliff. The best place to get across it left a few feet of exposed rock at a moderate angle to go up and through. No problem if dry, but more intimidating if wet.

    We then continued contouring up a tundra-covered slope heading north. We had seen faint signs of a trail through here. We crossed a small stream not shown on the map and followed a vague trail which had two rock cairns marking it at the next bench section. By this point, we were on the broad, east ridge of Peak Seven. A little farther on, we came to another stream in a deeply entrenched cut that made direct, horizontal crossing impossible. We could see that we would either have to gain 200 feet in elevation to get across or drop a similar amount to reach a place where we could intersect the stream that drains the lake at the foot of Peaks Eight and Nine. We chose to go down, met the tributary of Leviathan Creek and then followed it up to the unnamed lake. A brief trail led us through one steep section but then faded in a field of grass and Marsh Marigolds.

    From the lake, we worked our way up NW to another pass at 12,740 ft. and a small pond just down on the north side. Along the way we encountered another large fissure with a stream flowing in the bottom. It was perhaps only 10 feet wide but seemed like it was 50 feet deep. We circumvented the obstacle by heading more directly uphill until the trench section played out. We then crossed a small stream and continued to the pass. Most of the ascent to the pass is on tundra which is a nice relief from all the boulder talus of earlier. From the pass, it will drop off to the north more steeply than the contour lines seem to indicate. A vague path led us down through a series of tundra ledges broken by solid rock walls. This gave way to a steep tundra slope and which gradually diminishes in steepness as it pans out across the valley. The huge basin below is lush with vegetation and wildflowers and only a few outcroppings. We followed emerging streambeds to avoid walking through all the wet vegetation until we came to the two small lakes/ponds located just west of Pt.12,203. There are any number of camping possibilities between the two lakes. The lake to the north is the higher of the two and we found a good site along the SW side. See coordinates below.

    CalTopo map shows the High Traverse route that can be taken from the basin and unnamed lake just north of Jagged Mountain over to a suggested campsite above Balsam Lake at a couple of small ponds located along the headwaters of Tenmile Creek. This is an optinal approach for 13er summits located in that area such as Peaks Seven, Eight and Nine, and Storm King, Silex and Guardian.


    The higher elevation lake to the north seems to offer the best campsite opportunities with some protection from the wind by exposed rock domes. There are some small, low trees and willows nearby.

    Campsite Locations

    Upper Tenmile Creek Campsite n 37° 40' 45.54, W 107° 34' 27.47"
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