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Another Class 3 Grenadier summit with a challenging, rocky access and backpack trip for most. Combines well with Graystone and Electric Peak B. If you have multiple days to "clean out" this area, then be sure and include Arrow, Vestal and the Trinities as well. Lidar increased elevation by 13 feet.
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.
From where the Vestal Creek trail comes close to Vestal Creek at about 11,100 ft., and you can see the drainage between Electric and Arrow, cross the creek which will likely be easiest at the closest location of the trail to the creek. There's an old, rotting log right by the trail here, nice for taking a break on. Proceed toward the talus cone at the base of the Arrow-Electric valley, wading through hip-tall vegetation and hidden rocks. One approach is to aim for the center of the drainage which will involve hiking up the boulder-covered talus slope. There may be snow in the narrow drainage center up higher to deal with. Another way into this upper valley is to walk left of the talus slope and head up an open slope just out of trees that has many wildflowers. Continue up this slope to the base of a cliff band and turn left even more so and follow a green ramp up until you can breach the cliff band with a short, 3rd class move. Once through it, you'll be above the center drainage and on the east side.
However you gain the drainage, continue walking SSW amid tedious rocks, talus and boulders and perhaps some snow. Earlier season snow coverage can make this go much more quickly. An ice axe can be handy if there's much snow, especially if you come up the center gully from Vestal Creek. Continue to the head of the valley, eventually veering to the west side of the drainage and follow some open slopes with fewer rocks, smaller scree and a little tundra to the saddle between Electric and Graystone.
From the Electric/Graystone saddle, head west, the goal being to basically “contour” over to Garfield Lake. This will involve an additional mile of hiking across varied terrain. It starts out with a descent of about 150 - 200 feet in more rubble and then heading out west crossing even more rubble until you get across the NW ridge that comes down off Graystone. Once around that ridge, continue hiking, crossing great slabs of sloping rock that always slope to the north. These slabs can be tricky if wet from melting snow or rain. In early season, they could have snow coverage. The lake you see below to the north is not Garfield. Do not be drawn down toward it. Follow a ramp with a small amount of vegetation that cuts across the slabs for a while, but eventually playing out. If you foresee some obstacles ahead, clamber up some slabs to gain a little more altitude and avoid a drop section. Then contour more until rounding another minor ridge and looking down upon Garfield Lake. To make the drop down to the lake (we were probably 200 feet in elevation above it), cross numerous rock outcrops of the same slabby rock with tundra/grass growing in the flatter areas in between each outcrop. This was overall, easier terrain to walk through at least. Nothing should be any more difficult than Class 2+.
Take a short break at the lake and study how you can gain the SSE ridge of Garfield. There is a prominent saddle on that south ridge directly west of the lake. To get there, cross the lake outlet (north end, easy to do) and then walk across a slope of large talus/boulders aiming for a large, flat-sided boulder at the upper edge of the talus and just below some cliffs. From the boulder, follow a green ramp that leads upward toward the saddle. The going here is easy. Followed it SW until you come to a gully on your right that appears to shortcut the saddle and lead directly to the ridge above. It does lead to the ridge and as you gaze north, you'll see a somewhat daunting task ahead. For the remaining distance to the summit, there is a lot of rock, embedded rock, boulders and outcrops to avoid. For much of the distance, it is 3rd class scrambling. There is one false summit to go around as well. At one point, perhaps before that false summit, we departed the ridge line and contoured on the east side below the ridge until we came to a steep, narrow, somewhat sandy gully with numerous clumps of columbine in bloom and a couple of very small trees. We headed back up that gully and regained the ridge. From there, it is more careful walking along all the rocks until you arrive at the small, rocky and not too comfortable summit. If your timing is good, you may get to look down upon the narrow gauge railroad some 4,000 feet below as it passes by and hear its distant whistle.
For the return hike, we suggest going back as you came, but some may desire to continue from the Garfield-Point Pun saddle and continue over to Point Pun. You may want to do some internet research for information about that traverse. Gary Neben has a report about his attempt at this traverse on Mountain Handbook.
For an alternative route to Garfield alone, without the lengthy backpack to the beaver ponds along Elk Creek, there is a "rumored" route that heads along a secondary drainage from the Elk Park area to the unnamed lake at 11,510 ft. below Garfield Lake. We heard about this route from Gerry & Jennifer Roach.