Sean and I recently returned from another scouting adventure in the Weminuche Wilderness. We noticed a section of trail known as the Sierra Vandera trail that connects the Pine River Trail (Los Pinos) to the Weminuche Valley/Poison Park Trailhead. We already have trips that travel in these areas, but confirming the quality of the Sierra Vandera Trail would potentially allow access to other places near the Piedra Area that could include a 4-day loop from the Poison Park Trailhead.
On September 9th, 2018 Sean and I loaded up our backpacking gear and headed towards Pagosa Springs to access the Poison Park Trailhead. For those of you that have completed the Poison Park to Los Pinos Saddle/Spruce 5-Day, you are familiar with this area. Our goal for our first night was to camp in Elk Park, about a 5 mile hike-in. Bow season had just begun, so we passed quite a few hunters on the trail. We made sure that we were wearing bright colors, including hunter’s orange tape, for safety. I had not yet hiked this section of trail but Sean had on the Poison Park to Los Pinos 5-day as a trip leader. I was so impressed with the beauty from the very beginning as we hiked through the beautiful meadows of Ioca Park and Elk Park. Gorgeous meadows were a theme for this trip appearing along the trail often. We found a great campsite toward the boundary of Elk Park, impacted and comfortable, but the previous occupants had done a poor job of cleaning up after themselves. Looking at it through our collective camp eyes, and our Leave No Trace (LNT) lenses, this was disappointing. We all understand that it is important to cleanup after ourselves not only to keep the areas pristine, but also so new visitors can enjoy the wilderness. So we did a little cleanup ourselves to best experience the campsite, made our kitchen on top of a cool rock, and enjoyed the evening.
We had a short distance to travel on day two. We were headed toward Divide Lakes, remote alpine lakes nestled below Granite Peak. We arrived at the lakes around noon, scouted around a bit, and found a wonderful campsite near the south shore of the lake that was a good distance off the trail. Though the lakes did not carry the same blue hue we’re used to with lakes like Ice Lake or El Dorado, the area had a very serene and quiet beauty that Sean and I found immensely peaceful. Through the afternoon Sean read and I fished. At the end of the day we enjoyed an amazing sunset as the last rays of the sun illuminated a rocky ridge across the lake with the most beautiful alpenglow.
Day three was the day we spent scouting the Sierra Vandera trail. We continued west until an intersection where we turned south on the Pine River Trail. We had studied the map so we would know which terrain features to look for in order to locate the Sierra Vandera Trail. We came to a trail junction and were able to locate a trail sign that said Sierra Vandera, though the orientation of the sign was a bit confusing. After some exploration we were able to locate the correct trail and began our ascent up the Sierra Vandera Trail. It’s always fun to travel new territory and discover the hidden gems that a particular journey holds. This trail did not disappoint, providing us with pretty meadows that contained giant boulders. We made our way to the top of the trail and crossed over a ridge above tree line allowing us to see the surrounding San Juan Mountains. We were so happy we located the trail and that the journey was worth it! However, the most difficult part of the trip was yet to come.
Standing on top of the ridge late on day three, our plan was to locate a number of trails that descended the other side, identify the Falls Creek Trail, and use that trail as our new route. We found the options, determined the one we thought was correct using the maps and some mountain intuition, and began to descend. The trail was solid for a ways, and then began to become intermittent and faint. Since it was getting late, we opted to set up camp and continue scouting the next day.
On day four, we awoke ready for an adventure. We picked up the trail again and it continued to be faint and intermittent. The area had been affected by the pine beetle and there were a number of trees down across the trail. The trail did improve as we descended, but overall, it was very difficult to follow consistently. We eventually made it down and connected back to the trail we hiked in on the first day. With a nice meal in Pagosa Springs as motivation, we quickly hiked the remaining few miles back to the trailhead.
The questions remains, is there going to be a new trip? Probably. There is still a bit of research needed in order to ensure the trip will go smoothly. Sean and I had concerns regarding the integrity of the trail on the final day of the trip. Though we were easily able to navigate it and locate the trail with just the two of us, doing the same can prove much more difficult when you are leading a larger backpacking trip with children. We need to make certain that trip leaders will be able to safely and effectively navigate the terrain with minimal setbacks allowing them to lead and care for their campers in the best ways.
We will keep everyone posted, and let you know when the new Sierra Vandera 4- or 5-day trip will go live!