The weather was not looking ideal for a three-day backpacking trip through the San Juan Mountain high country. NOAA predicted rain on both Friday and Saturday with a substantial chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Of course, our itinerary was just too good to miss on account of a little rain.
I had organized this trip through the Durango Hiking & Backpacking Group on Facebook. The plan was to hike up the Vallecito Creek Trail and into the Weminuche Wilderness. After 9 miles, we would turn off onto the less-frequented Johnson Creek Trail and climb over Columbine Pass at 12,680 ft. We would then descend into the fabled Chicago Basin and take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad back to Durango from the Needleton Flagstop along the Animas River.
It started raining, again, around 7:30 on our first night. Our hike had been relatively uneventful, with little elevation gained along the Vallecito Creek. The bear bag was hung and all our dinner mess cleaned up, so we ran into our tents for the night. I fell asleep around 8:00 to the sound of rain splattering on my rain fly.
We drank our coffee in a small patch of sun the following morning. Throughout the night I’d heard, or perhaps imagined I’d heard, footsteps and voices just on the other side of listening range. I never could account for the voices, but the footsteps were explained when a big, black moose stomped past our tents!
The trail climbed nearly 3,000 ft. through a lush, mossy forest. We stopped to forage huckleberries, salmonberries, and even a few wild strawberries. When at last we broke above treeline, I saw a wild skyline of cold, jagged peaks. Waterfalls poured from crevasses high on the distant ridges and dark clouds hung on the horizon. I expected the roll of thunder at any moment.
When we were just a mile from Columbine Pass when a crack of thunder exploded across the basin. Whether we went up or down we were a long way from shelter. We continued on. As we neared the pass and Columbine Lake, the threat of a thunderstorm was replaced by a downpour of sleet. We reached the top of the pass and looked down into Chicago Basin. A heavy cloud sat comfortably between the distant 14,000 ft. peaks, obscuring the tremendous view.
We hurried down to our camp at 11,600 ft. The sun broke through briefly and we were barely able to dry our tents out before it let loose again. The wind picked up and a heavy, cold slush fell. I sat in my tent, curled up in my sleeping bag, knocking the slush off my fly. This was a bad trip to forget to pack a book!
In the morning, snow covered the mountaintops and high ridges around us. There was a crunchy frost upon the ground. But the sun was out and it was a beautiful hike through Chicago Basin and down to Needleton.