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This is likely a great time to hike this trail!  Check out "Prefered" months below, keep in mind this is an estimate.

Needle / Johnson Creek Trail #504, CO

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Guide 5 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List CO > Southwest
5 of 5 by 2
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Difficulty 5 of 5
Distance One Way 16.5 miles
Trailhead Elevation 8,239 feet
Elevation Gain 4,469 feet
Accumulated Gain 4,539 feet
Kokopelli Seeds 31.63
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
Inaugural Calculation on Button Tap!
13  2016-09-05
Durango & Silverton NG Railroad
36  2016-09-03
Chicago Basin from Purgatory TH
15  2016-09-03
Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin
40  2014-09-01
Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road - CT #25
Author HAZ_Hikebot
author avatar Guides 16,882
Routes 16,052
Photos 24
Trips 1 map ( 6 miles )
Age 22 Male Gender
Location TrailDEX, HAZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Jul, Aug, Jun, Sep
Sun  5:58am - 6:08pm
Official Route
2 Alternative

Likely In-Season!
The Needle Creek Trail follows the creek until it reaches the lower end of Chicago Basin, about 5 miles up the trail. There are no camping spots until you reach Chicago Basin. There is a permanent fire ban for Needle Creek and all of its headwaters. At 6.5 miles you begin the steep climb to Columbine Pass. There are switchbacks for the next 2 miles and an ascent of 1,500 feet. From the top of Columbine Pass you descend 680 feet in 0.4 mile to Columbine Lake. From the lake the hike is easy to moderate terrain to the junction of the Vallecito Creek Trail at mile 17.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

This is a difficult hike. It would be insane to attempt this entire hike without prior experience hiking.

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2018-07-14 HAZ_Hikebot
  • FS PDF - 1
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One-Way Notice
This hike is listed as One-Way.

When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

Most recent Triplog Reviews
Needle / Johnson Creek Trail #504
rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
Day 1: Little Molas Lake to Elk Creek Trail, about 11 miles. See the narrow gauge railroad train making its 11:30 stop in Elk Park. Crossing the Animas river, it wasn't as big as I thought, but the trail is great. Most people are out there trying to bag Vestal Peak. Once you get past the ponds the population thins significantly.

Day 2: Elk Creek Trail over the Continental Divide to Beartown, going back up and over Hunchback Pass, and down into Vallecito Creek, about 16 miles. Passed a cool miner cabin and many mines, and the continental divide is reasonably easy to bag. Pretty quiet for the rest of the day. Vallecito would be nice except there is too much horse crap all over it.

Day 3: Vallecito Creek to Johnson Creek and up and over Columbine Pass to Chicago Basin, about 12 miles. Johnson Creek Trail is very nice all the way to Columbine Lake. I saw a herd of mountain goats in the distance past the lake. The worst part of this trip was Columbine pass. The trail is bad getting to the pass, and terrifying for about 150 yards on the other side. The trail is pitched about 20 degrees sideways and 15 degrees down. You are trying to place your feet on tiny scree pellets hoping your feet don't start sliding and you die falling into the gully to your left where you won't stop for at least 1000 feet. Once past this the trail gets better. It was quite crowded in Chicago Basin.

Day 4: Woke up to mountain goats in my camp. Took many photos, then climbed up to Twin Lakes and decided to climb Mt Windom, my first mountain peak over 14k. The toughest part is to control your pace and breathing, with the thin air. You want to go fast but the body will quickly break down on you if you go too fast. The trail gives out about 500 ft above twin lakes, but there are many cairned paths to choose from. It is a hike until you get to a large saddle, then the last 600 ft is class 2+ climbing over boulders all the way to the peak. After 300 ft of climbing there is a narrow saddle to cross, past this is where the physical effort really increases. The last 300 ft seemed to take 3 times as long as expected. Snow and lack of desire ended up with me deciding to not scale any more peaks. Rained at night for many hours.

Day 5: Down Needle Creek, along the Animas River and up Purgatory, about 13 miles This hike was relatively straightforward and the scenery was great. Heard a couple of trains pass by. Saw only one of them. It didn't seem hard but I was perhaps the most sore after this day.

Day 6: Up Purgatory, along unnamed trails and the highway, then up Cascade Creek and Engine Creek, about 11 miles. This was a lot of elevation gain but it is spread out except for a portion of Engine Creek that is steep. Took a side trip to see the falls along the cascade creek trail. Found a perfect campsite along the Engine Creek Trail with a picnic table, miles from anywhere. Nice way to finish off the camping.

Day 7: Up Engine Creek and Engineer Mountain Trail to the Colorado Trail, which I follow all the way back to Little Molas Lake, about 12 miles. Once gaining the elevation a bit of rain rolled through but it cleared up. Saw a bunch of marmots, and a ton of sheep at the end.

Most people do about half this loop using the train to get in to Elk Creek and Take out at Needleton. Given the cost and the reviews I've heard, I was glad to take the 2 extra days and do the extra miles to do this as a loop rather than take the train. I packed enough food for 9 days expecting the possibility of thunderstorms. Several days it almost turned bad but the weather stayed just good enough that I was able to stay on schedule. Lightning was the biggest concern, as I might not have be able to go over treeline, so best to plan for a few extra days. However, the pack is quite heavy with all that food. The first few days were a drag with the big pack.

I would recommend this loop to anyone, but halving it by using the train appears to be the more popular option you may also want to check out.
Needle / Johnson Creek Trail #504
rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
Trip Stats: 12 participants 4 adults 8 youth/sons (12-16)

Drove from Phx area Wednesday PM arriving between 2 AM - 4 AM @ Vallecito Campground. Slept in Cars in Parking lot. Got up early to leave one and park others at Durango Railroad.

Caught the 8:45 train to Silverton & dropped off @ Needleton Station about 11:30. Animas was very muddy today from the night's rains. Began the hike up into Chicago Basin.

The group did great except for me. I had difficulty acclimatizing and after 4 miles had to stop and literally take a nap. :zzz: Flies were unbearable so the nap didn't last long. Fortunately not long after one from our party came back down to help me out :stretch: He took my pack and I walked slowly up feeling the effects of the altitude as I arrived in camp I hurled and nearly passed out as I laid down. I quickly got some gatorade in me and some food and even more water. And I then went to bed. Lots of greenery, lots of running creeks really nice area to hike into, but I prefer the ruggedness & emptiness of Johnson Creek with it exposed cliff edges and majestic waterfalls.

Day 2: Plan was to hike Windom Peak then backpack over Columbine Pass and down to the confluence of Vallecito & Johnson Creeks. I chose to pass on the peak based on my previous day horrors. I didn't even know if I could make Columbine Pass based on my previous days performance so my Son and I took our time as the rest of the group went to Twin Lakes & Windom. It took us about to 9:30 to get going. Took it nice and easy but got feeling better the farther we went and was to the top of the pass by 11:15. Views were amazing and I felt very satisfied as I now had hit a new elevation hiking best for myself of 12,750 after the previous days disaster. My only complaint is my camera stopped working ](*,) We ate a quick lunch and made our way down to Columbine Lake and beyond. The Wildflowers were out in force and we saw the Mountain Goats, Marmot, Rabbits, Pika. A little storm hit as we approached the first tree line campsites and so we popped up our tent to wait out the storm. Got back going about an hour later and meandered down Johnson Creek taking in all the view points and enjoying the hike DOWNHILL :DANCE: . We arrived about 5:30 to the confluence and made camp. About an hour & 1/2 later the rest of our group surprisingly arrived. :wlift: Only 3 had chosen to climb Windom while the others waited @Twin Lakes.

Day 3: Up and going about 8:30 and arrived at the trailhead about 12:15. Only 2 groups encountered from Chicago to Vallecito Creek Confluence. Ended up catching up to a group at Bridge 1 that were doing the same route but had left Tuesday not Thursday and then ran into the day hiker crowd from Vallecito TH.

Had Lunch @ Serious Texas BBQ :y:

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