As the 57th highest ranked summit in Colorado, Pigeon Peak is a coveted climb by many a peakbagger, and not just for its ranking, but also its aesthetic appearance. Accessible only by many miles of backpacking or shortening the backpack by a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Pigeon is one of the few peaks where you can see the summit from along the Animas, and it certainly makes an impression, soaring a full mile above the river with an impressive, "Matterhorn" shape. Rated at a minimum as a Class 3 ascent, it can be climbed in a day from the Needleton drop, but most parties will want to pack into the Ruby Creek drainage and climb the assortment of other high 13ers there as well.
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.
Pigeon Peak is typically approached from the upper basin of Ruby Creek. For that approach, look under Monitor, Peak Thirteen or Animas Mtn. Read the Needleton Drop to Ruby Creek Approach and then the NW Pigeon Basin to Upper Ruby Creek Approach. Reverse that last approach description to go from upper Ruby Creek to the Pigeon/Turret saddle, then work around the south flanks of Pigeon to arrive at the SW basin to begin the climb of Pigeon.
Alternatively, you can do as we did and begin on the Needleton Drop to Ruby Creek trail, but turn off on the Needleton to NW Pigeon Basin Approach, which is what we have linked to this peak and to Turret. The route description begins from the camp location in that basin at 11,740 ft. From that camp location, a great couloir sweeps down from the summit of Pigeon, first north, then NW, then west, dropping to the large meadow/basin where the suggested campsite is located. Begin by hiking up that great couloir, hiking steeply, mostly on tundra at first. The closer you stay to the center of the couloir, the rockier it will be. But if you swing out to the left of it trying to stay on tundra, you'll also have rock outcrops to work around. In early season, you may have to deal with snow, so ice axe and micro spikes could be very handy. By mid-season and later, you may still have wet rock to contend with. As you near the north ridge of the peak, begin to veer right(south) and you'll be forced more into the center gully.
By the time you reach the higher portion of the peak, you'll be just off the north ridge. The terrain becomes much like Sunlight Peak with great broken or cleft rocks of granite and gravel ledges in between the blocks. There are large cracks to work between and the granite blocks become stacked one upon the other. This is where progress reaches 3rd class scrambling. Like Sunlight, it's quite fun. In our opinion, the scrambling never exceeded 3rd class, even though Roach mentions a crux, 4th class, "steep, chimney-like slot" that goes for 15 feet and says this is the route crux. From there, It continues as Class 3 to the cracked summit block. The northern summit is the true or highest. It took us an hour and a half from the high camp to reach the summit.
Admire the outstanding view, particularly of the other peaks surrounding Ruby Creek. You can view straight down to the Animas River and watch for the early train. You can also view down into New York Basin and Needle Creek far below, where dozens of backpackers are likely working their way up to Chicago Basin to climb the 14ers. While they will all be competing for campsites, you'll likely be all alone here. For a little variation, when you head down, try going more directly down the north face for a while before dropping back into the great couloir and return to the high camp start.