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Wildflowers on the Continental Divide Trail

Wildflowers on the Continental Divide Trail

This year’s annual backpacking trip took us back to an area J and I had backpacked in several years ago: the Ute Creek portion of the Weminuche Wilderness.  This wilderness area stretches from Silverton, Colorado over to Del Norte, and is the largest wilderness area in Colorado.  In fact, it’s almost as large as Rhode Island!  Within it you can find 14ers to climb, large rivers to cross or fish in, and vast amounts of wildlife and solitude.  This is why we continue to return.

Our route for this trip began off of Hwy 149 between Lake City, Colorado and Creede, Colorado on what I like to call the “eastern” side of the Weminuche.  There are 3 trail heads that start near the Rio Grande Reservoir out this way, and we’ve been up and down them all.  This time we chose to take my dad on a 5 day / 4 night route in the Ute Creek area.  This area is comprised of the main Ute Creek trail and its branches: East Ute, Middle Ute, and West Ute.  We hiked a lollipop of the Ute Creek, Middle Ute, and West Ute Creek Trails.  Our route was around 28 miles.

Day #1 – Ute Creek Trail:

We spent the night at Thirty Mile Campground. This campground is a great one for dayhiking, fishing, or just enjoying some solitude.  The sites are big and can be reserved.

In the morning we drove past the reservoir to the parking area for the Ute Creek trail.  Here you have to ford the headwaters of the Rio Grande River.  There were notes in the register claiming the “trail was destroyed” or “washed out.” It wasn’t at all… there’s just no bridge across the river. The trail picks up on the far side. In early July the river is passable, though the water can be a bit pushy and was at least thigh-high this year. I don’t recommend trying it without trekking poles!  I recommend just keeping your water shoes on until you’re on the far side.  Who wants to hike 50 yards and then have to take off their hiking boots?

Crossing the headwaters of the Rio Grande

Crossing the headwaters of the Rio Grande

After crossing, drying our feet, and putting on hiking boots, we set off up the Ute Creek trail. Since J and I had traveled this path before, we knew a great place to camp… if we could make it that far! Our packs were heavier than normal this time around (not enough attention to detail I suppose), and the 7.2 miles to an overlook site just past Black Lake seemed daunting.

Still, we pushed on, and were glad we did! The views were as awesome as ever!  Camping in this spot is wonderful since there are many places to put tents and plenty of places to sit.  PS: it’s best to get water at the creek near Black Lake before you reach the campsite.

Overlook spot from our site at the junctions of Middle Ute and West Ute Creek trails

Overlook spot from our site at the junctions of Middle Ute and West Ute Creek trails

bigagnes-in-meadow

This site has plenty of tent sites, from overlook sites under trees to meadow spots.

 

So far we’d had only one brief rainshower.  This time of year in the Weminuche can be unstable–one small shower a day is a blessing!

We celebrated our first wilderness night with drinks, cocktail hour snacks, and a great dinner, and woke in the morning to frost on our pack covers and blue skies overhead.

Day #2 – Middle Ute Creek:

We lingered in camp on the morning of Day 2, but were off and hiking again by 10:30.  From what we remembered, our day wasn’t going to be that long. We thought we’d be in camp by 2 pm.  Some crazy memory had us thinking that there were some decent campsites at the junction of the Middle Ute Creek trail and the CDT.  So we hiked past one site we had used before (that was buggy) and continued through the rain to the junction.  We did find one site that turned out to be pretty nice.  Finding a level tent spot was a little tough, but our tent is small, so we managed just fine.

This site is just uphill after you turn right onto the CDT from the Middle Ute Creek trail.  Water is easily accessible right at the junction too.

Views of the Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window from the Middle Ute Creek trail

Views of the Rio Grande Pyramid and The Window from the Middle Ute Creek trail

This site had a great view of an old mine across the valley.  While we didn’t see much wildlife, the views of wildflowers and meadows all around us were spectacular! As on the day before, the skies cleared by the time camp was set up, and we had a great evening.  We planned an earlier start for the next day since we knew we’d be at our highest elevations with clouds always looming overhead. We didn’t track this day’s mileage, but I think it was right around 6.

Campsite above the junction of the CDT and Middle Ute Creek trails

Campsite above the junction of the CDT and Middle Ute Creek trails

Day #3 – CDT to West Ute Lake:

Aside from having to hike uphill to find a bathroom spot, I really loved this little site. Still, it was time to press on, and we managed to get going down the trail by 9:45 or 10.  The CDT is so manageable here.  It has nice switchbacks that are wide and not very steep, and it takes you through beautiful meadows.  It’s well-marked for the most part.

We encountered a group around 11:30 or so near the overlook of West Ute Lake.  They’d hiked down from Beartown and were doing a high loop over the next few days.  We shared a few thoughts, etc., and then moved on.  Today’s hike would be nice, with our summit above the lake and then finally some downhill!

My dad on the CDT

My dad on the CDT

Just as we reached the lake overlook, the wind picked up and the clouds began to roll in.  We took a few pictures and then made our way as quickly as we dared down the rock strewn path to West Ute Lake and beyond it to the woods. It’s important to note that even though we’d been hot at the start of our hike, when the wind picked up we were all grateful for easy access to long-sleeved shirts.  It gets cold FAST.

There is one big camp site down the West Ute Lake trail just past the left hand CDT turn off.  It would be a great place for a large group, and actually would be a nice place to lay over for a day or so as there are several day-hike options in the area.

View of the Needles range just above West Ute Lake

View of the Needles range just above West Ute Lake

The rain picked up as we entered the woods.  I don’t really mind if it rains while I’m already hiking. I had a great new rain coat and waterproof boots, so all was well!

From this point J and I knew we were only a mile or so from a great camp.  We found it easily enough, just over the hill from a group of horse packers with hilarious donkeys.  To get there, pass the Starvation Gap junction and a tributary stream, then you’ll start seeing acceptable sites on the left hand side.  When you start going downhill again, you’ve gone too far.  There are NO other site options for at least 3 miles.

Again the rain stopped, and though it was cloudy we had a great time just lounging in the meadow across from our camp.

This was the only night our dinner got interrupted by rain.  A storm moved in quickly from the northeast (which is very odd) with much wind. Fortunately, we had boiling water in all of our food, and were just waiting for it to rehydrate.  We grabbed the food and the three of us squeezed in our Big Agnes tent for dinner.  It’s not the smartest move if you’re concerned about bears, but we were careful not to drop anything and we aired the tent out pretty well afterwards.

Rainy hike view of horsepackers camped just before our own site.

Rainy hike view of horsepackers camped just before our own site.

It rained for about an hour, and we got worried that this was going to be like our Squaw Creek trip from a few years ago.  Fortunately, it stopped and we could see blue sky and a sunset down valley.  Yay for blue sky!

We left our tent fly open for as long as we could stand it to get the food smells out.  With 2 donkeys with cowbells just over the hill I wasn’t too worried about bears.  And sure enough, in the middle of the night the wandering donkeys came by: clang clang clang!

Today was our short day: 4.8 miles.

Hiking out with a planned river stop to wash clothes.

Hiking out with a planned river stop to wash clothes.

Day #4: West Ute Lake back to Ute Creek:

Day #4 was the boggiest and easiest of our trip.  It was almost all downhill, and most of it was very easy hiking.  We hiked down the West Ute Creek valley and back up to our Day #1 camp.  We continued past that, back down the Ute Creek trail to a meadow that is about 3.5 miles from the Rio Grande River and the trailhead.  In total, we hiked about 7 miles that day.

The meadow is a great camping spot because the river is close by and the river bank provides shade if you get there early and the sun is blazing across the meadow.  There are great places for soaking in ice cold creek water, and there is an excellent kitchen spot on the upper end of the meadow.

Teamwork is required even to adjust packs when backpacking.

Teamwork is required even to adjust packs when backpacking.

 

Trekking poles help with balance through talus sections of the trail.

Trekking poles help with balance through talus sections of the trail.

One note: make sure to filter and treat your water well here.  Though the river itself is fast and flowing, there are beaver dams upstream.

The rain held off until dessert time this evening. It was brief but welcome: that meadow can be hot!

Camping in a meadow 3.5 miles from the Ute Creek trail head.

Camping in a meadow 3.5 miles from the Ute Creek trail head.

Day #5: The hike out:

We got going by 9:45 this morning and headed back down the trail to our car.  We knew we had about 3.5 miles to go, and were prepared with the last of our snacks and fresh water.  The Ute Creek trail is deceptive, though: with about a mile to go you start to see the reservoir.  The hike isn’t bad, though, with just a few short uphills and mostly flat wooded terrain.

At the creek crossing, J and I just dove in with our boots on.  We knew they’d have plenty of time to dry at home.  Dad changed into his sandals since he’d have to wear his hiking boots on the flight home, just over 24 hours from now.

End of the line: Crossing the Rio Grande to get back to the car.

End of the line: Crossing the Rio Grande to get back to the car.

As we changed clothes, bathed with wet wipes, and celebrated with beer, the rain started up again!  It’s just that time of year in the Weminuche.  We thought about the large group of teens and adults that we’d just passed on the far side of the river.  We hoped they had pack covers and rain jackets.  The right gear in the Weminuche makes all the difference!

As we pulled out of the grassy parking area and looked down over the river, I had a moment where I wanted to shout, “Turn around!” It’s always like that. Even though backpacking can be hard and the weather is unpredictable, it’s still one of the most peaceful ways to spend a vacation.

Finishing our hike with a stop at the wilderness sign

Finishing our hike with a stop at the wilderness sign

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