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.
From the highway intersection just west of Silverton, CO, drive south on US550 in the direction of Molas Pass for 5.3 miles. About .6 mile, or at 5.3 miles total, after the turnoff for the Molas Lake there is a turnoff to the left into the trailhead parking area, accessible to 2WD vehicles. The dirt parking lot may be muddy at times and have a few potholes to avoid. There is usually plenty of room to park here, but can get a little full on weekends.
If coming from Durango, drive north on US550 over Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass. After cresting Molas Pass, the turnoff for the trailhead will be 1.1 mile further north and on the right. The drive from Durango will take about an hour.
From the Molas Trailhead parking, head south on a connector trail that joins the Colorado Trail about a half mile south of Molas Lake. Follow the Colorado Trail #665 east through mostly open, flowering meadows with enticing views of the Grenadier Range and Snowdon Peaks to the south. The trail maintains elevation as Molas Creek begins to drop away, enters a section of forest and then breaks out of the forest to begin a long descent to the Animas River. Each time we have hiked this section of trail, we have attempted to count the number of switchbacks and each time we have come up with a different number. Suffice it to say there are a minimum of 30. On your way down, enjoy spectacular views of Mount Garfield, Graystone and Electric peaks. From the trailhead to the crossing of the Animas, it's approximately 3 miles.
Eventually the trail deposits you at an easy crossing of Molas Creek (where you can cool your feet from the arduous descent) and then shortly after comes to a well built footbridge across the Animas. Total elevation loss is around 1,700 feet. Once across the Animas, follow along the tracks south and watch for the Elk Creek trail just a short distance away heading up the slope on your left above the tracks. The trail switchbacks up and then begins a contouring path above the tracks over to a low ridge and then Elk Creek. Just before it swings into the Elk drainage, there's a trail that drops back down on the right to some campsites. Once in the Elk Creek drainage, the trail stays on the north side of the creek all the way to the well-known beaver ponds. It's a 3.5 mile hike to there. The trail is well-used and easy to follow and receives regular maintenance. We recall maybe one or two other places where the trail gets close to the creek that would offer a campsite. There are perhaps a couple of spots where the trail crosses a sloping embankment and degrades some. A little over a mile before the beaver ponds, the trail begins to climb above the creek, goes up a side drainage briefly and then gains a flatter bench high above the creek. Once you each that bench, you're less than a half mile from the ponds and the elevation gain is over.
Continue on to the beaver ponds which will be on the right (south side of the trail). There are camp spots right along the trail here, but there are better spots if you cross the ponds on a trail that passes right along the eastern edge of the main pond at the foot of a boulder field. The trail wanders through a few willows, then breaks out into a clearing with several flat campsites on the edge of the trees. This same trail is what you will follow to get to the Elk Creek crossing and then begin a hike up to Vestal Creek and Vestal Basin. On our last visit here in 2011, we saw a cow moose and her calf.
From the Beaver Ponds located just below 10,000 feet on the Elk Creek Trail, skirt around the ponds on the east end following a trail that goes right along the edge of the main pond and a boulder field. On the south end, the trail will meander some in willows and then leave the pond to a flat area with good camping. Continue on the trail south towards a steep embankment drop to Elk Creek. Cross the creek on some fallen logs. (In 2011, there were fallen logs across the creek here that made crossing fairly easy, but this could quickly change.) Once on the south side of Elk Creek, follow the trail on a bench westward for a short time before it begins the steep pull up the Vestal drainage. The Vestal Creek trail is not a regularly maintained trail, though we have seen a trail crew on it before, which may explain why the number of fallen trees across the trail seemed less in 2011. Since it is more of a "use" trail, you may find several variations at times. In our opinion, this is one trail that the Forest Service should develop and maintain in order to reduce resource damage.
As the trail heads generally south up the steep mountainside, you may find multiple branches at times. After about a mile, you'll come to the edge of a second avalanche chute. The main trail will follow more directly uphill along the side of a minor ridge on the east side of the chute. There may be another trail near the bottom of the chute that leads over in the direction of Vestal Creek. Avoid that one. If you're diverted by it, you may find you have to bushwhack up the chute to find the main trail again. Past the avalanche chute, the trail still maintains some distance from the creek. When the creek begins to swing SE, the trail will drop to very near the creek in an open meadow area. There's a large, rotting log on the left side of the trail that makes a good rest stop. From this meadow, looking SSW, you'll be viewing directly up the valley between Electric and Arrow. This is the shortest access to Electric, Garfield and Graystone and the easiest place to cross Vestal Creek is right where the trail comes closest.
For those wanting to continue further up valley to the higher camps, continue on the trail back into forest and reach the "lower meadow" at 11,300 feet. There are primitive camping opportunities here and at the east end of the lower meadow, you'll be directly across from the valley between Arrow and Vestal. It is possible to access that valley from the lower meadow camp, but it ain't easy. For those desiring an even higher camp, continue along the Vestal Creek trail another third of a mile to 11,760 ft. and what we consider to be the best campsite—which is in some of the last, open trees and bordering the creek. Across the creek, there's another flat, open meadow with willows. From this camp, access to the col SSW of West Trinity is an easy matter. Also, a contouring ascent west from this camp can lead you back to the valley between Vestal and Arrow. The ridge and saddle that connects those two summits on their south side also provides access to Graystone. Some groups like to include Graystone with Arrow and Vestal as we did, others will include Graystone with a day up Garfield and Electric.
There are primitive sites in the lower meadow at 11,300 feet, then another site area around 11,700 feet and a third site area at 11,760 ft. on the edge of a higher meadow. Above there, there are no trees but it may be possible to find more campsites in open tundra. There are abundant willows in some places. Another favorite campsite is above treeline, further up at Vestal Lake.
The following summary will apply to all the peaks accessible from Vestal Creek. These include: Peaks Two and Three, The Trinities, Vestal, Arrow, Electric, Graystone, Point Pun (unranked) and Garfield. In describing the routes for all these peaks, we have used the beaver ponds on the Elk Creek trail as the "base camp" starting point. Mileages and elevation gain are measured from there for each. However, for those with the strength and fortitude, you can continue the backpack portion of the trip by heading up the unmaintained and sometimes confusing Vestal Creek Trail. That hike will be included with each summit in this area as part of the "approach." Not only is the Vestal trail confusing at times with multiple tracks to follow, it is very steep and also harbors a large number of fallen logs to cross. The campsites in upper Vestal Creek are also known for their aggressive and camp-destroying marmots. Protect your food supply accordingly and even your gear as well. In 1992, we had marmots chew their way into our tent, then they both slept and defecated on our sleeping bags. In addition, they completely destroyed a pair of shorts we had left outside to air out, chewed on our packs and socks left out and they chewed through one of the tubes for our water filter. In short, they were attracted to anything that had salt on it.
To climb Arrow, use the same instructions as for Graystone by beginning from either the "lower meadow" along Vestal Creek at 11,300 feet or from the higher camp at 11,760 ft. From the lower meadow camp, you'll need to ascend SSW steeply for 600 feet to gain the valley between Arrow and Vestal. This will be something of a bushwhack that will take you through trees, willows, rock benches and minor cliffs, and tundra. Roach reports a "strong climber's trail up through here. In 1992, there was no evidence of such. According to Roach, the trail starts from near the east end of the lower meadow and begins faintly. If coming from the higher camp, you'll need to contour back to the west across rock benches interspersed with tundra and grassy shelves to the same valley. Once in that valley look over to the great east face of Arrow and identify the prominent ramp on the east face that sweeps upward with increasing steepness to the summit. This will be your easiest access to the heavenly heights. This route can be found in at least 4 sources: the "Guide to the Colorado Mountains" where it's identified as a "steep and slabby NE gully;" "The San Juan Mountains" by Robert Rosebrough where it's identified as the NE Rib route; "Colorado's High Thirteeners" by Garratt & Martin where it's identified as a "channel/ramp;" and "Colorado's Thirteeners" by Gerry & Jennifer Roach where it's identified as the "Classic Northeast Face" route. All of these (if you can find them) offer additional details that may assist your climb.
Here's our description of this classic Colorado ascent: At the NE end of the ramp and at about 12,200 feet, a talus cone allows access to the ramp. Once on the ramp, you can enjoy well more than 1,000 feet of gain on steep, slabby rock. Most of the time, it is quite solid, but with an occasional scramble or some loose rock to navigate through. In some places the rock is quite polished, so if it's wet, it can be a little problematic. Also, in early season, you may encounter snow. Ice axe and micro spikes could be useful then. We did this in early July and did find some snow, avoidable by staying right of it. None of this section exceeded Class 2+. At about 13,600 ft., where the ramp now turns more westward and angles up more steeply, it divides and turns into what more properly may be called a gully or couloir with a rock rib dividing the two. The one further to the south we found filled with snow so we chose the other, sometimes traversing onto the rib. You will likely find cairns along here. We stayed mostly in the couloir. As it steepened it became what we considered to be 4th class climbing, but we're not rock-jocks. This couloir joined the north ridge and we turned left (south) to make the final scramble on 3rd class terrain to the rocky summit feeling a real sense of accomplishment. All along this route, the views of Vestal Peak's Wham ridge are absolutely spectacular. This is truly one of the most unique peaks and sights in all of Colorado and the view from the Arrow summit is no cheap photograph either. Revel for as long as you can on this spectacular summit and enjoy a 360° view of Colorado's most rugged mountains. From an upper Vestal Creek campsite, we made this climb up in about 2 hours. We never used rope, but it's not a bad idea for a climb such as this to have a short piece for emergency use.
We should note a variation to this route in the other sources cited. Roach warns to not stay on the ramp's eastern edge, but to get into the higher, western ramp near its bottom. (I think this is probably what we did.) Roach has you working the rib probably more than we did. His mention of a climb up a Class 3 chimney at the head sounds familiar to us, but we may have considered this closer to 4th class, coming from our less experienced perspective compared to someone like Gerry Roach.