We have recently visited the Vallecito Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness from the trailhead near Kite Lake, across Hunchback Pass, down to where Sunlight Creek comes in, then up the Sunlight drainage. New and/or revised information has been posted for the Kite Lake/Hunchback trailhead and the associated approach segments including field-verified GPS waypoints for key campsites and the stream crossings to reach the upper basin of Sunlight Creek and Sunlight Lake.
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.
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 Gerry Roach in his 13ers guidebook. N 37° 38' 17.67" W 107° 41' 20.94". Last time we were there, the old log/tree was barely distinguishable. We've heard reports that it is now gone, so you may need to use the coordinates. 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. He warns to not be mislead by heading straight ahead on the stronger trail. The Noname trail drops down a little NNW to another meadow called "Hunter's Meadow" by Roach. The trail continues from the NW corner of the meadow and in another 100 yards joins the now more distinct Animas River trail.
Cross N. Pigeon Creek at .5 mile. Continue north, hiking fairly close to the river towards Water Tank Hill. The hike up the hill starting at .7 mile, is not too bad or steep and the trail easy to follow. It gains about 200 feet in elevation, then contours above the river for a while. The descent back off Water Tank Hill is the trickier part, requiring something of a slide down a steep, partially-vegetated gully. You almost need a rope for this thing, especially if wet! Once down, continue north on the trail with little difficulty for a short while, but then you'll begin to come to some places where other trails began to split off, usually to the right. At one point we wandered to the right and a trail of sorts began to lead us on a contouring uphill direction. This trail soon played out and was probably more of a dead-end game trail that has misled other hikers. We corrected for the error and went back down closer to the river and picked up the real trail and continued north. For the most part, if you want to stay on route, keep near the river and do not be led uphill. Just before Noname Creek, the trail winds through some alluvial rock piles. Though one could get off route here if not paying attention, we found several cairns to help us through and arrived at the crossing of Noname Creek.
Take off the boots and locate some walking sticks to assist your crossing and wade on over. Then dry your feet and continue north, on past the campsite location mentioned in Roach's book (80 yards north of Noname) and come to the trail junction indicated by Roach. A cairn-marked trail leads up a short, steep embankment to the beginning of the Noname trail. Under no circumstance should you head east on the north side of Noname, immediately after crossing the creek. That will result in a difficult bushwhack. Now read the Noname Creek Approach that will guide you into the upper basin.
As previously mentioned, you can camp in the "Campers Meadow" north of the cabins and the Needleton bridge, after crossing Pigeon Creek. From there, the next good campsites are not until you cross Noname Creek. There is one campsite located in a glade of aspen not long after crossing Noname. The next good campsite is at the foot of the Noname trail, right alongside the Animas. The coordinates below can be used for the general area where you can find this campsite and also the beginning of the Noname trail. This campsite is just north of where the Noname trail heads off.
The mileage and elevation gain provided is measured to where Noname Creek splits into its south and east forks at 10,760 ft. There are two campsites in that area that provide a good base camp for the peaks in the upper Noname drainage. The trail description below however, will describe the trail farther past those two camp locations.
The Noname trail begins by the Animas River near these coordinates: N 37° 39' 47.88 and W 107° 40' 42.58." You must first hike up a brief, steep embankment above nearly river level to find the trail. It heads off in NNE direction, gaining elevation through an open field and then nearly switchbacks to head ESE and begin the long steady climb along the north side of Noname Creek. The trail gains over 1,000 feet elevation in the first mile. On our last visit in 2012, we found numerous areas where deadfall had obscured and/or blocked the trail. A San Juan Forest official reported to us in 2017 that someone had apparently gone in on this trail in the summer of 2016 and cleared away many of the problems, apparently with the illegal use of chainsaw. The trail continues in forest most of the time with a few openings. It usually stays well above the creek. The majority of the elevation gain is in the first two miles. It's almost 3 miles to the starting point for our route up The Heisspitz. Coordinates are: N 37° 39' 24.58" & W 107° 37' 57.11." The first good campsite is about 5 to 10 minutes beyond that point, on the right, with access to the creek.
Beyond the start for The Heisspitz, the trail continues east, climbs a steep section where we found a large area of downed timber just before the old cabin. It's easy to walk right past the cabin. Look down on your right from the trail and back a little. There is some reasonable camping there. This cabin can be seen on Google Earth. On our 2010 visit, we camped here and found enough roof remaining on the cabin to use it for shelter while it rained and we cooked dinner. In 2012, more of the roof had fallen in, leaving only one small protected area inside. By now, we imagine nothing of the roof is left.
From the cabin, it's another.6 mile to a great campsite near the east end of a long, relatively flat meadow. It will take about 15 - 20 minutes from the cabin to reach this campsite. Shortly past the cabin, the trail may enter a very marshy area even in mid-summer. You may need to circumvent the marsh by contouring left and around, working through some willows, then return back to the trail. The campsite towards the end of the meadow is located to the left (north) of the trail. There's a use trail leading over to it. It's located in a group of tall conifer trees. It's a short walk from the campsite down to the stream, where we found through the willows a nice gravel bank, a placid pool, some trout and a great place to cool off and get water.
Another 5 - 10 minutes on the main trail east will bring you to a major fork in Noname Creek. Before this junction, the trail re-enters forest. Before reaching the east fork of Noname, which comes cascading down from above, watch for a cairn that marks where a trail continues up into the upper east basins of Noname. There is another campsite over on the south side of where the east fork comes cascading down. Crossing over to there may be difficult. We had to climb upstream some and then located a massive log across the east fork, then drop back down to the trees on the edge of the meadow and the campsite. A trail also continues from here to the south and towards Twin Thumbs Pass. The trail soon disappears in the knee to waist high, lush vegetation on the east side of the creek.
Back to the east fork trail, which turns off before reaching the east fork of Noname Creek, head steeply uphill through trees gaining 200 feet in elevation before reaching another attractive, open meadow. There are more camping opportunities here. Proceed east and watch for a trail junction. (N37° 38' 47.43" W107° 36' 19.86") By this point, the trail is becoming more faint. Going straight will take you towards Knife Point and the pass north of Knife Point that allows access into the Sunlight Creek basin on the side of Jagged Mtn. The left fork of the trail begins to ascend steeply up through open areas first, then some forest to another large open meadow at about 11,800 feet to the northeast. At times this trail becomes rather vague and passes through some willows which obscure it even more. If you can stay on it, it will bring you out on a flat promontory with open trees that overlooks the beginning of a spectacular, narrow gorge that the NE branch of Noname Creek passes through. There's a good campsite on this promontory. Beyond there, the trail heads north briefly through willows, then follows along the north side of the marshy meadow at 11,800 ft. heading east. It continues to become more vague. At one point, it heads up and over a rock outcrop and after a while may eventually seem to play out. With careful route finding however, you can follow it all the way up to the unnamed lake at 12,552 ft.
The upper Noname drainage is a challenge to reach, but the reward is great. This is a spectacular area headed on the east by the impressive Knife Point. It ranks as one of our top five favorite places in Colorado. Visitors to here are infrequent. Wildflowers in places are absolutely abundant. The surrounding peaks soar relentlessly high. We rank this area with upper Ruby Creek and upper Sunlight Basin as being the best you will find anywhere in this amazing collection of peaks. If we should ever return and then die falling off a peak, you could just leave our bodies here. There's hardly any place on earth that could be closer to heaven.
The following coordinates are a summation of places mentioned and coordinates given in the text above:
From the first good campsite, about 3 miles up Noname, you can hike back down the trail a short distance (5 - 10 minutes) to the coordinates provided at the base of a runout slope. N 37° 39' 24.58" W 107° 37' 57.11". Turn north and head uphill in the open drainage/avalanche chute. As you progress upward, don't let the natural contours direct you too far to the right. You'll need to head more to the left, crossing the main gully that comes almost directly off the Heisspitz summit and work through trees to another gully. On the prominent west ridge of The Heisspitz, there is a large, rocky prominence with an elevation of 12,552 ft. The saddle to the right of it is your intermediate goal. Head up the grassy slopes, on the left (west) side of the gully that comes from that saddle. We found the very steep, grassy slopes to be somewhat laced with game trails, sometimes well-defined and other times sketchy. We kept our eyes out for elk or deer as a result, but never spotted any. The last few hundred feet to the saddle is on loose rock and talus.
From the saddle, the route was obvious – just follow the ridge east to the double summit, which was not so apparent from this angle. Lower down, there is a fair amount of 3rd class rock scrambling on large boulders, making this section kind of entertaining. As you advance up the mountain, things become easier and return to more class 2+ hiking – steep and rocky., mostly boulder talus. As you approach the first and western most summit, we swung out on the north flank a little for the finish. Heisspitz has two summits of nearly equal height, but reports indicate that the eastern summit is the highest, and we concur, even though Google Earth has a higher elevation for the western summit. To be sure, you can quickly venture over to that eastern summit. To go between the two summits, there is one substantial gap that you must drop into and then ascend out of – a final obstacle to make one feel like they “earned” the summit.
Enjoy the absolutely amazing views and celebrate your accomplishment. To your south, across the valley, the view is dominated by the sweeping rock lines of Animas Mountain soaring more than 2,500 feet above the valley floor. To the north is the intriguing Ten Mile drainage and across that, the backside of Arrow, Vestal and the Three Trinities. What an amazing sight! These are some of the most dramatic peaks in the entire state. You may want to etch this place permanently into your memory.
For the trip down, return as you came. The immediate descent can be somewhat entertaining, having to negotiate some of the 3rd class rock again. Further down, it is a relentless descent on merging game trails through the tall grass.