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.
If coming from Montrose-Ouray-Red Mountain Pass, drive on down US 550 to Silverton and do not go into the town. Rather continue right at the junction just west of town and head uphill on US 550 as it switchbacks and climbs to Molas Pass. At the 10,899 ft. pass, (where there's a large visitor pullout area with vault toilets), drive south and west on US 550 for .9 mile to the signed turnoff for Andrews Lake. The one-lane, paved road to the lake is just over .6 mile to the lower parking area, which is intended for day-use only. There is another fork to this road that heads uphill to a higher, and very large parking area that's intended for overnight horse-packing groups, backpackers and others staying longer term. There are picnic tables here and vault toilets. If climbing for the day of backpacking to Crater Lake, use this higher lot.
If coming from Durango on US 550, drive to Coalbank Pass, where there are pullouts for day use hikers on either side of the road. Continue driving north on US 550 for an additional 6.4 miles, first dropping in elevation to about 9,800 ft. at a sharp bend in the highway, then gaining steadily back up to the turnoff for Andrews Lake. The turnoff is signed. If you arrive at the summit of Molas Pass, you missed the turnoff. Turn around, drive back down .9 mile and drive on in and follow the directions above for parking.
The hike/backpack begins at Andrews Lake at an elevation of 10,744 ft. Follow the paved trail across the west side of the lake. It soon turns to a wide dirt trail and heads south working its way up the hillside on a few switchbacks. (Note: this is not the route shown on the older USGS map that goes around the north and east side of the lake.) This is trail #623 on both the San Juan NF map and the Trails Illustrated map. After gaining about 450 feet in elevation, (this is the steepest gain of the entire hike) the trail levels out and heads straightway through open meadows to the southwest. This Crater Lake trail is the only officially maintained trail in the West Needle Mountain wilderness. You’ll probably notice a less used trail turning off to the left and crossing a grassy meadow. That’s a trail used by climbers trying to summit Snowdon Peak, about two miles off to the southeast. From an access on its north ridge, Snowdon Peak offers a mostly Class 2 climb with a brief section of Class 3 to reach the summit.
In the next mile, the trail will gradually lose some elevation and cross an unnamed drainage. Then it ascends again about 350 feet and works in and out through forest and meadow, gaining another hill crest at about 2.5 miles. All along you can enjoy fantastic views, especially to the west, with peaks like West Turkhead, Grand Turk and Jura Knob in the distance. As the trail begins to turn more to the south and then the southeast, you’ll begin to gain the elevation needed to reach Crater Lake at 11,620 ft., but it never climbs steeply. Although the actual elevation difference between Andrews and Crater lakes is only about 900 feet, when you add in the additional “ups and downs” the total elevation gain will be closer to 1,250 feet. For backpacking in the Colorado Rockies, that’s still an easy one!
One of the last sections of trail will lead through an extensive area of forest and fallen timber. Fortunately, forest service workers have done a good job of clearing the path and removing obstacles. Not far beyond that area, you’ll find yourself approaching Crater Lake, after you’ve skirted a marshy area and hiked over a hill. Once at the lake, most of the primitive campsites are located along the northern and western shores of the lake. There are some really excellent sites to choose from and almost all have an easy access to the lake for water and are located in open forest which offers shelter from possible afternoon thunderstorms with accompanying winds and rain. (Please be sure and follow Forest Service regulations about how far to camp from the lake.)
North Twilight Peak will be sequenced with Twilight and South Twilight for a half-day route from a base camp at Crater Lake. Some sources suggest working around to the SE side of the lake and heading SE through some willows to a small pond at 11,750 ft., and then from there, turning SW and heading up a broad NE ridge toward N. Twilight's east ridge. While that route goes easily, you can short cut it some by walking from a campsite on the west shore of the lake around to the south end, then heading directly uphill through trees for a while, emerging into an inviting, open basin of scattered low trees, grass and rock outcrops.
A little further up the open, grassy basin, you should spot a trail that appears at about 12,200 feet and follows along the edge of a NE running ridge. The trail ascends steeply following just east of that northeast ridge. The trail will lead into a steep gully that then intersects the east ridge, well above any of the lower obstacles, at about 12,800 ft. You will now be about ¼ mile east of a prominent notch visible from below. Cross one minor notch and continue to the more prominent one. A year or two earlier, when some friends of ours had reached this notch, it was full of snow and they felt it was too exposed to continue, so they turned back. When we came to the notch, there was no snow and it was an easy matter to just drop down some on the north side and then re-ascend on the other side of the notch. Since our climb was in early September, it would seem prudent to at least have an ice axe for tis notch, if climbing earlier in the summer.
While the lower climb out of the basin is mostly on tundra, you will now be on a tundra-rock mix. Continue hiking directly along the ridge after the notch toward the now rocky, and fairly flat summit. This is an elongated summit of smaller to medium rubble. The highest point will be toward the western end. Soak in the magnificent view, especially of Engineer Mountain to the west, then plot your route over to Twilight Peak.
The main problem with Twilight Peak comes, according to some sources, along the north ridge and near the summit. Studying the peak from North Twilight you can see another “notch” problem but can not really tell what will be the best way to negotiate it. So descend about 300 feet down to the connecting saddle, passing a large cairn made of white quartz, and begin the ascent up Twilight's north ridge, for a brief while on tundra and small scree. Hike up the easy lower ridge section and progress to within 100 or 150 feet of the prominent notch. Watch carefully for a faint path leading off the ridge and contouring to the right, off the main ridge (about where the tundra plays out). Follow the path (or make your own contour path) over to an outcrop overlooking the deep gash that comes down from the notch above. The path descends about 75 feet into the gash. The descent is a little dicey. Once in the steep and narrow couloir, there is really only one immediate exit possibility. A very steep and narrow, secondary couloir heads toward the summit, climbing out of the main couloir. Going up it involves some 3rd class climbing on mostly solid rock with some small tundra benches interspersed. (See photo gallery) It was a little exposed, but we never felt too uncomfortable so we scrambled on up at least 150 vertical feet. Near the top, we chose a right fork in the couloir and this brought us out on a much easier slope for a stroll to the summit. The left fork probably goes just as easily. All in all, this was easier than we expected. It took us 45 minutes from the North summit.
Once you're done with the mesmerizing view of the Needle Mountains to the west and a rest break, it's time to head back. From here, you could retrace your route back toward North Twilight, down its east ridge and back to Crater Lake. But we decided to press on to the southeast, descending Twilight Peak and heading toward South Twilight, which is unranked. The traverse is easy and takes only about 10 minutes. There is about a 260 foot gain to the summit where you can spend some additional time studying how to ascend West Needle, either this day or the next. If not going on to West Needle Mtn. at this time, then much of the return route we describe here will become your approach to West Needle the next day.
So head south off South Twilight toward a saddle. The descent is quite steep. We stayed on slopes or a moderate gully just south of the main ridge. It was high class 2 work, with even very brief class 3 at times, but kind of entertaining in some places. Once at the saddle and looking back up, it appears rather difficult. The saddle is marked by a standout gendarme. From the saddle, descend north, at first down a steep, grassy slope that eventually gives way to more rocky terrain. We did all we could to avoid the rock fields and utilized all the tundra we could find, but at times had to resort to some rock hopping. Descend to below 11,800 ft. and then follow a bench area over past the small, unnamed lake and northeastward for a short distance. Work your way down a steep gully that deposits you on the west side of the flowing stream (but still above it) that drains the small lake, but the stream does not show on the map. Watch carefully from above to spot a faint trail that leads across the slope below the east ridge of North Twilight. Do not decide to keep elevation and contour northeast and upward toward the saddle southeast of Crater Lake. This will be a time-wasting mistake, turning into an interminably long and rugged traverse across loose rock slopes.
If you find the trail we mention here, follow it NE as it contours across the open slope toward Watertank Canyon. Much of this game path crosses through tall grass. As you approach the canyon and some trees, begin heading up the slope and into the open trees, staying on the SW side of Watertank Canyon. When the canyon is in view, you'll see a place where it dramatically steepens as it heads down to the Animas. You want to get above that drop. Once you do, stroll NNW through the remaining trees and then lower willows to the small pond at the crest of the canyon where Crater Lake comes back into view. There is a fairly easy trail to follow in this section. Chart your preferred route back to your campsite, but keep in mind that there are cliffs above the south end of the lake that force you up and then back down, if trying to go that way for the western shore.