Fire and Ice
The first week of our trek on the San Luis Loop has been crazy to say the least! Somehow we made it to Wolf Creek Pass without being crushed by a blowdown, attacked by a moose, or blown off a ridge. You think I’m over exaggerating? Read on.
We started our trek on June 2 from the Haflin Trail just outside Durango. After the chaos of packing up our life (again) it was nice to hit the trail. The first day was pretty straightforward, if a bit dry on Missionary Ridge. The steep climb up Haflin offered great views of the Hermosa Cliffs, and Missionary Ridge had great views of the La Plata mountains. Some cloud cover kept things from getting too hot since a fire burned through the area in the early 2000s.
I was pleasantly surprised to actually find the Young’s Canyon Trail; however, it was pretty evident that it is rarely used. We made it down to Lemon Reservoir and had a great, private campsite to start our trip. The dogs felt great and enjoyed playing with their toy to end the day.
The next day we found out why hardly anyone ever hikes the Young’s Canyon Trail—it ends at the Florida River with no way to get to the parking area except by ford. Where the trail ends is deep enough to swim, and immediately above is very fast due to the snow run off. We were able to walk a bit upstream to a wide, relatively shallow area.
We spent a good portion of the day after that walking up the innumerable switchbacks to the Endlich Mesa trailhead. There were lots of nice meadows and good water, but 10 miles is a long time to walk up hill.
While the REGULAR Endlich Mesa Trail is a bit more popular, the Lower Endlich Mesa Trail is much less used. We enjoyed nice views south toward Lemon Reservoir and the Southern Ute Reservation. Unfortunately, our trail quickly dissolved into a use trail, then vanished altogether in a veritable maze of blowdowns!
We spent the next several hours climbing over huge blowdowns, route finding, and fighting new growth from whatever fire had burned through the area in the past.
After camping in the lovely Freeman Park, we had an easy walk out to the Vallecito road via a dirt road.
Rather than walk to Pagosa Springs on low-elevation trails and roads, I had decided when caching my food to climb up to the CDT early via the Vallecito Trail. I’m just going to say now that I cursed myself for that decision almost every day for the past six days. Fortunately, it all worked out. “Embrace the brutality” indeed!
I am super happy that my cache was where I left it, so other than being eaten alive by mosquitoes, resupplying went smoothly. The beginning of the Vallecito Trail is probably where I have seen the most number of people, which is not surprising since it is a popular trail.
I was reminded that one of the bridges was out, a big concern since the river was roaring. After a nice lunch, we made it to the scene of the crime. I was really hoping my GDT fording experiences would help me out, but it was way too deep and fast to safely cross alone let alone with the dogs.
The solution? After eating a snack, thinking, and discussing with some weekend backpackers, we all decided to bushwhack up to the next bridge. Bleh.
That significantly slashed our miles, so we camped not long after crossing the next bridge.
Vallecito to Rincon La Vaca
Let the snow begin.
The day started off pretty easy with super nice trail, moderate fords, and beautiful meadows. The dogs were super jazzed, too.
As expected, we finally ran into snow on the top of the Rock Creek Trail. It was a long day after that.
After bushwhacking through willows to get up to the CDT, I looked down at all the snow around Twin Lakes and thought, “Nope.” We ended up descending some, then climbing the ridge where it was less snowy, but a bit scramble-y. Was it any faster? I have no idea,, but we got around a lot of snow.
Now, the problem with going off trail is finding the trail again. Ended up wasting a lot of time and energy assuming I knew where the CDT was only to find out I was way off. Luckily, once we got headed up to the next pass I didn’t have anymore route finding problems.
Sadly, we still had TONS of snow. I can’t explain the amount of snowfields all over the place. Just take my word that it was an exhausting day.
We did see one person, a NOBO CDT hiker.
The Day Mother Nature Was Angry
Waking up to rain when you have to hike is depressing. Knowing that Wolf Creek Pass is still 55+ miles away through the snow is also depressing. Hearing thunder at 8 a.m.? Now that’s just scary!
I took one look at the weather when I got up and immediately considered a zero. I hated to put off the inevitable, but sometimes hiking in bad weather just is a no-go. The deciding factor was seeing a flash, then immediately hearing a rumble while zipping up the fly. The hail that came after was pretty convincing too.
This rain, lightning, hail pattern continued throughout the morning until the wind came up and blew the storms out. You may be thinking: “Good job wind!” No. Just no.
The trouble with crazy wind in Southern Colorado is that we have an obscene amount of dead trees standing due to beetle kill. I watched tree after tree get blown over and was incredibly thankful I chose to walk farther down the trail to camp by live trees the night before. I did decide that sitting like a duck wouldn’t improve our situation long term, so we packed up to put some miles in.
The walk across the meadow ended up being way more intense than it had any right to be. First, we saw a moose, which was cool until it started trotting straight toward us. Turns out we were just in it’s path of least resistance and were able to easily get out of its way.
But it happened a second time! While trying to cross a narrow, but more than hip deep stream, the dogs were on one side while I was on the other. Out of nowhere a moose starts trotting up to the dogs. I straight up panicked and yelled at the dogs to lie down and stay. They listened and the moose stopped 10-20 feet away, looked at us for a minute, then trotted off in another direction. Needless to say my heart was in my throat after that.
The rest of the day consisted of dodging falling trees, a nicer meadow walk, and camping at treeline.
This day actually went pretty well. We got up early so as to be able to walk on the snow easier, which helped a lot. The snow overall seemed less intense minus a section of steep snowfields that probably warranted an ice axe. Luckily, we hit it when it was a bit slushy, but not posthole-y and just went slow. The dogs did great and flew right across it!
We made pretty good time to Squaw Pass and started the hike up the next high point. I was definitely huffing and puffing up that hill! The dogs were just impatient with how slow I am.
It was at about this time that the w-i-n-d started to kick up again. What side of the ridge the trail was on drastically impacted how much we got blown around. On the bright side, we saw a golden eagle and met another hiker.
The day ended down at Trout Lake, where I made a terrible campsite choice. I tried hard to pick a spot that would be protected from the wind. Unfortunately, I didn’t try hard enough. Even with my tent completely guyed out, everything flapped all. Night. Long. It was cold too since we were at over 11,500 feet.
To Piedra Pass
Once again I struggled to get going early thanks to “lovely” weather. The dogs were miserable, I was miserable, and the wind continued to blow. I strongly considered taking the low route through the valleys, but ponied up and hiked back to the pass.
Once back on the CDT, the trail went behind the ridge and was much more protected. An improvement! We did have to wait about 20-30 minutes for the snow to thaw so that I could safely cross the steep snowfields to the knife’s edge.
After some nice basins where it almost felt like spring, we gained the ridge again. Fortunately, much of it was in the trees so relatively protected. In the afternoon we had more basins, with easy snow, and I entertained myself by singing songs from Frozen.
The day ended with more wind and a wrong turn down a trail that doesn’t exist on my maps, but still got us where we needed to go.
The views of the peaks from the pass were lovely and I found a campsite that was relatively protected behind a hill.
I haven’t been very hungry, but decided to have mac and cheese for dinner and the dogs got the leftovers. I did have to use a pen as a spoon because I lost my spork ☹️
Only 20 miles left to Wolf Creek Pass and wouldn’t you know it but we woke up to an inch of fresh snow. I very nearly did a “nope,” but once again the only way out was forward.
I ended up waiting for some of the clouds to burn off before putting on my frozen-solid shoes to pack up camp. I wore practically all my layers until noon.
It felt more like mountaineering than thru-hiking with the snowy peaks and bitter wind. Needless to say I was pretty sour and slow for several hours. The wind trying to rip me off of the ridges didn’t help.
Over time things did finally thaw out and the wind reduced to a slightly safer speed. By the time we dropped down to Archuleta Lake things were starting to feel more like summer and my mood was much improved.
The rest of the walk to the pass was sunny and more what I hoped this hike would be like. We ran into three more NOBO CDT hikers on the way out who said the trail is pretty good south of Wolf Creek.
We finally reached the pass tired, but with gorgeous bluebird skies. I retrieved a few treats from our food cache to celebrate not dying in the Weminuche Wilderness.
The dogs are doing amazing considering the crazy terrain we’ve been hiking! Their paws are a bit beat up, but I’m monitoring closely and applying Musher’s Secret religiously. Neither one have been limping and both seem to be in good spirits!
Note: I’ll add more photos after finishing my hike!
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