NOTE: NE summit contour found higher by Garratt and Martin. Elevation is interpolation of spot 13045 and next higher contour.
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.
Primitive and designated camping opportunities abound in the area. There is a Forest Service campground and trailhead at Little Molas Lake (west of the highway and just north of Molas Pass). The City of Silverton maintains a campground at Molas Lake where you can also find pay showers. The upper parking lot at Andrews Lake we have spent several nights in sleeping in the back of our pickup. There is no tent camping there.
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.)
West Needle Mountain is a lengthy enough day as it is, so we did it as a stand-alone route from a base camp at Crater Lake. Circle around the north end of the lake and pick up the trail through the willows to the small tarn at 11,750 ft., southeast of Crater Lake. From the tarn, head southeast, down the beginning of Watertank Canyon, utilizing some trail for a while. Stay mainly in the middle of the drainage, initially. There are some willows but they are low and easy to deal with. After losing about 400 feet in elevation, the trail fades away and you will come to a place in the drainage where it plunges away steeply. This is probably around 11,400 ft. At the headwall, direct yourself to the right, skirting above the headwall and walking through the forest for a ways. You may pick up a faint trail that will lead you out to an open meadow area with sparse trees. The grass here is tall as you continue downward. Towards the lower end of this meadow, we found a cairn that marked where a trail headed off to the southwest contouring across the open, grassy slope. Hopefully that cairn is still there. This trail is easy to follow once located and leads right to the creek that drains the small, unnamed lake, east of and well below the Twilight Peak summit.
At the creek, (which does not show on the USGS map), wander around through the trees and willows, staying on the west side. This will lead to a split in the drainage. Exit the watercourse and head up a dry, grass & tundra filled gully to the left. Make your way up toward the saddle south of South Twilight, that is easy to identify with a large, pointed gendarme. The climb/hike up to the saddle is across familiar territory now, if you descended off South Twilight Peak this way.
Pause at the saddle to discuss your options for climbing West Needle and to take some photos. Some may want to abandon our suggested route here. One option discussed in some sources leads over to the south end of the saddle between West Needle and an unnamed twelver at 12,932 ft. From here, it is reportedly a 3rd and 4th class scramble to the summit. From our perspective, it appeared steep and questionable. Another option is to head toward the great couloir that divides the northwest face of West Needle, highly visible from this saddle and Twilight Peak.
For that option, descend the couloir in front of you, heading down toward the unnamed lake below the northwest face of West Needle, that sits at the head of Twilight Creek. It was easiest to descend on the left side of the couloir for a while and we utilized that knowledge on our return. At the lake, take a break and empty your boots of pebbles and dirt from the descent. From near the lake, head toward the great couloir, but don't head directly into it yet. Save yourself some grief and utilize some tundra on the left side of the talus cone at the base of the couloir and ascend along the edge of the rocks to the top of the cone where there are some cliffs. Cut along the base of the cliffs at the head of the talus cone and then drop into the main couloir. Follow the great couloir all the way to the summit, a task much easier said than done. While it was fairly steep and always filled with rocks & rubble, the going was never too difficult, so just keep with it and struggle on. We should add that earlier in the season, this couloir would undoubtedly be filled with snow and would make an excellent snow ascent – not too steep or difficult. Ice axe and at least micro-spikes advised. The couloir tops out between two flat summits. We visited both with strong winds and partly cloudy skies. The map shows the south summit as the highest, with an elevation of 13,045 ft., but we found a cairn and summit register on the north. Apparently G&M felt the north summit was higher and gave it an interpolated elevation of 13,062 ft. That elevation has since been used. The register had been in place since 2001 and only about 4 or 5 people a year had signed it. It had taken us a little under 4 hours to arrive here from the Crater Lake campsite.
To return to camp, go back down the same couloir you ascended in. There is unfortunately no scree that you can plunge-step down so you must take it more slowly. Nevertheless, I think we were down in about 45 minutes and then headed back up to the gendarme saddle south of S. Twilight. Going back up the 700 feet was not all that bad. We started back up, not in the couloir but to the right on tundra slopes and followed those slopes for a good distance up before dropping into the couloir. Then we held to the right side where footing seemed best and there was a rock wall to grab for an assist. At the saddle, hike down the tundra and then the rock and pick up the trail you followed in in the morning. Retrace your route back to Crater Lake.
Bonus Points: There is a high-ranked twelver just north of West Needle. UN12,932 ranks as #693 and is a fairly easy, Class 2 ascent from the gendarme saddle by contouring SE from that saddle over to another saddle, then ascending the NW ridge of the peak.