Day 1: Highland Mary Lakes

Elk Park to Highland Mary Lakes
(10 miles, +4,000/-500 feet).

When Ultrashuffle and I finished our High Sierra Trail yo-yo last year we immediately started talking about the next trip.  I love the Sierra and proposed a sequel, but Ultrashuffle was really drawn to the idea of a hike in Colorado.  So we decided to take on one of its iconic hikes, the Weminuche Loop from Elk Park to Needleton.

One of the neatest features of this hike is the train.  The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a steam-engine-pulled tourist train that will drop off and pick up backpackers in the middle of nowhere.  Perfect!

We arrived a day early in Durango to acclimatize (we both live at sea level) and then this morning caught the first town trolley down to the train station.  Soon we were blazing into the wilderness at 15 miles per hour with lovely views of the Animas River all along the way.

All aboard!
Animas River
Steam from the engine makes a rainbow
Flattening out
Pigeon Peak
A bend in the Animas

After about 3 hours we got off the train at Elk Park and started our hike up Elk Creek.  The sky was a crystal clear blue and the aspens were spectacular, ranging from green to golden orange in their autumnal splendor.

Here we go!
Upward aspens 
Ultrashuffle and orange
Hill below Snowdon Peak

Around noon we passed the first of many spectacular streams where we could collect water.

Yummy water
Hiking along Elk Creek
Slowly gaining elevation
Time for more water

About 1:30pm we came upon an unnamed tarn that reflected the glorious beauty of the woods and mountains that surrounded it.

What’s this?
Peak Two reflection
Left to right: Peak Two, Peak Three, Vestal Peak, Arrow Peak

From the tarn we continued climbing.

Through a rock field
Below Peak Three
Wonderful wildflowers

When we reached the outlet for Verde Lake, we decided to go off trail and head north.  At first there was no trail, and then we found animal trails to follow, but eventually we found an unmaintained man-made trail that turned out to be quite nice.

A nice class 2 scramble up the steep slope

Before hitting the unmaintained trail, we saw some spectacular waterfalls that had probably not been seen by anyone for a very long time.

Wow again!

As we ascended, the trail got easier to follow and there were fewer blowdowns and bushes to dodge.  And the aspens!

That’s gold in them thar hills
Peak Two (upper left) is not looking so tall any more!

Even though we took a day to acclimatize, the elevation was really starting to hit us as we neared Verde Lake.  It’s above tree line (which is about 12,000 feet around here), and the wind was really picking up, causing us to worry about finding a place to camp.

By 6pm we arrived at the lake, and sure enough it was blustery and unsuitable for camping.

Verde Lake

So we climbed a saddle between Verde Lake and the Highland Mary Lakes and then descended a bit until we could find a gully where we could sleep for the night.

Highland Mary Lakes
Hiding from the wind in the willows

Ultrashuffle fired up his stove and we warmed up with some chicken pasta.  Yum!

Let’s get this baby going!


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