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To begin with, there is no vehicle access to Needle Creek, Ruby Creek, Noname Creek, Tenmile Creek or Elk Creek. The only means of getting to any of these drainages is an excessively long backpack from the nearest pavement, or a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. There's plenty of information available on the internet regarding use of the train. This "trailhead" description will therefore deal with a few useful hints for utilizing the railroad to get to Needleton and from there, to Noname Creek, Ruby Creek, NW Pigeon Creek and Needle Creek/Chicago Basin. In regards to 13ers, the Needle Creek trail will provide the easiest access to Jupiter Mtn., Peak Eleven, Glacier Point and possibly Grizzly and McCauley if you're willing to hike over Columbine Pass. The Ruby Creek trail will provide the easiest access to Pigeon, Turret, Peak Fifteen, Peak Twelve, Monitor, Peak Thirteen and Animas Mtn. The Noname Creek trail will provide the easiest access to The Heisspitz, Peaks Four, Five and Six. Additionally, some people use Noname to approach Jagged and Knife Point, Peak Ten and Peak Eleven and even others.
Ahh. The famous narrow gauge railroad ride. How many times we've paid for that trip. Twice we've reserved tickets months in advance, laboring under the impression that was the only way we could get a ticket, only to have our trip rained out by relentless monsoon. At todays train prices, that's no small loss. So here's a few hints. First of all, you don't always have to catch the train in Durango. At least in some years, they will allow boarding from Silverton, but always check ahead on this because they've changed their policy more than once. We finally discovered in 2009, that not only could we board the train there, but we could show up the day of our departure and purchase tickets without any advance reservation. We just walked over to the train station and made the purchase and in doing so, also saved about $10 per ticket. But be prepared to still pay mostly full, round-trip price because they no longer prorate tickets based on where you may get dropped off. (That was a long time ago.) The reason you can purchase same-day tickets is because they can almost always squeeze you on somewhere, likely in one of the open cars where you may have to stand the entire ride. But hey - it beats packing in all those miles and it only takes an hour to go from Silverton to Needleton. By purchasing same-day tickets, you can be more flexible and schedule a backpack trip when the long term forecast appears more promising. The times we've done this, the train departed Silverton about 2:45 PM and dropped us of by 3:45 PM.
Now here's the next hint that specifically relates to the Noname Creek drainage. We found in 2012 that it was possible to persuade the engineer to allow us to get off the train when it stops at the "Needleton Watertank," to re-supply with water, a little over a mile north of the Needleton drop. He had us stash our packs under a seat on one of the cars instead of throwing them into the baggage car and had us make a quick departure when the train stopped so as not to delay it any. From that drop point, we were able to a walk north, off, but along the tracks, until we came to a spot across from Noname Creek where we could ford the Animas. Doing this saved the over two mile long and difficult hike from Needleton on the east side of the Animas that goes up and over "Watertank Hill." It also saves the difficult task of following the sometimes obscure trail that can be easy to lose in a place or two, and it saves a considerable amount of time. But there is one caveat - in many years, it will not be possible to ford the Animas River until August some time, if even then. To discern if it's possible to do so, we used stream flow data to determine the CFS river volume. Our advice is that the streamflow must be under 150 cfs. Use the following link to make your determination: waterdata.usgs.gov.
Keep in mind this measuring station is upstream from Noname Creek. If you ford the Animas below where Noname comes in, the flow will be even greater. Heavy, monsoon rains can increase flow dramatically. If you do choose to ford here, we are not responsible for your being swept away. If you have an ice axe with you, use it along with another sturdy stick in the other hand. Unlatch all straps on your pack so if you fall in, you can free yourself of the pack and avoid being pulled under. Bringing some sandals for the crossing is helpful. Wear shorts, zip-off pants, or strip down. If you cross below where Noname comes in, leave boots off when you get across because you'll need to wade Noname Creek as well. We crossed a little downstream from Noname at a spot where the Animas widened out a little. Approximate coordinates are: N 37° 39' 37.41" W 107° 40' 44.59" Good Luck!
At the Needleton drop, cross over on the footbridge and if you head south toward Needle Creek, there are numerous camping opportunities past the last cabin. You can also hike north, past the cabins and find several other camp locations beyond the private property of the cabins in meadows after crossing Pigeon Creek.
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.
There are two possible approaches for Peak Fifteen. Both begin at the "Needleton Drop" trailhead. The first approach is the "Needleton Drop to Ruby Creek." Then you would use the NW Pigeon Basin to Upper Ruby Creek" approach in reverse to the Pigeon-Turret saddle and beyond to the saddle at 12,780 ft.
The other approach, which is how we did it, uses the "Needleton Drop to Ruby Creek" approach up to the turnoff trail at 9,800 ft. Then use the "Needleton Drop to NW Pigeon Basin" approach for Pigeon Peak, followed by the "NW Pigeon Basin to Upper Ruby Creek" approach. Mileage and elevation gain provided are calculated only from the Pigeon-Turret saddle and the total elevation gain includes the climb back up to the same saddle on the return trip.
From the saddle at 12,780 ft. on the south ridge of Pigeon, if you're hauling a backpack head east contouring toward the Pigeon-Turret saddle. After the first gully, walk up onto a rocky outcrop overlooking New York Basin below and drop your backpack to return to later. Then begin a descent into New York Basin by way of the second gully on a combination of rock, tundra and grass lower down. If you're not hauling a backpack, you may want to begin this descent from the 12,780 foot saddle. If coming from the Pigeon-Turret saddle, you can follow the natural drainage SW that develops which drops you through the same gully as cited before. However you approach this, you need to drop some into New York Basin, ultimately as low as about the 12,000 foot level. In 1991 we located a faint trail that contoured below the cliffs of Turret to the east. Vegetation at times was lush and we were low enough to pass by some scraggly trees. You'll have some ups and downs and will cross the bottom of a great couloir on the south side of Turret. Keep contouring east staying below any cliffs. The next major couloir will be the one that separates Turret from Peak Fifteen. Continue past that to the next major couloir. This should be the correct one for ascending Peak Fifteen. Coordinates for the base of it are: 37° 37' 33.72" W 107° 38' 04.09". (Not field checked.)
Now the real fun and work begins. In 1991, we found the correct couloir marked by a cairn. It is very steep, filled with loose rock and you may find snow. Again, ice axe and micro spikes or crampons may be useful, even with this southern exposure because the gully is so narrow. In the couloir, there is one steeper rock section that required some climbing to get over, and when we did this, there was one stretch of snow that we roped up on for safety as we hiked up using our axes. For part of that section, we could wedge ourselves in the gap between the snow and the rock wall, but later on, we had to get fully out onto the firm and icy snow. Continue all the way to the notch-saddle between Peaks Fifteen and Sixteen. Here, you may wish to make the brief scramble up Peak Sixteen, in order to survey the route to Fifteen. It's only about 80 feet up.
Using the G&M route description, we headed west up the ridge, but did not gain the full 50 feet advised. This sent us out on a pitch where some of our party began to rope up. In the meantime, being the last member waiting for his turn, I scouted around a little more and found the "ledge" mentioned by G&M that's 50 vertical feet up from the saddle. We all headed for that ledge, which was really more of a narrow shelf that soon plays out as you near the north face of the peak. Finding this ledge became the crux of the climb. G&M describe climbing up another 50 vertical feet after the first ledge to another wider, sandy shelf, traversing west 75 yards to a gully that allows access through a final cliff band to the summit ridge and then hiking 50 yards west to the high point. As for us, after locating the crux ledge, we began to find cairns marking a route up toward the summit ridge. There was one spot with a brief chimney move between two large boulders, but was not very exposed. Overall, we used our rope for protection five times on the ascent and descent. This was mainly for the sake of one party member who wanted it. Others in the group felt they could have done this without roped protection. The best description we have found for Peak Fifteen is the G&M route.
As for equipment, you don't necessarily need a full, climbing length rope if you want to save weight. 100 feet might get you by. A few slings and/or webbing along with a couple of small to medium cams may prove useful. Helmets are a must. One member of our party suffered an eye injury from a small pebble that struck him. There's plenty of debris to send showering down on party members. We never really did any serious belaying. Use of the rope was as much psychological as anything. At one point however, we did rappel on the way down the main couloir. Without question, this is the most difficult summit of those surrounding Ruby Creek by its easiest route. The view from the summit is of course, simply amazing and impressive. Return from the peak as you came.