Black Smoke and Wildflowers – Durango and Silverton Railroad to the San Juans

Last week I bit the bullet and did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. I embarked on a unique journey into the backcountry in search of some summer wildflowers using the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (DSNGRR) as my approach to the wilderness, a highly recommended mode of backcountry travel for those that have never tried it.

A little background, the DSNGRR was completed between the towns of Durango, CO and Silverton, CO in 1882 to haul workers up to the mines and gold and silver ore down from the rich mining country high in the San Juan Mountains back. Originally the Silverton Branch, as it was known, was built and operated by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad connecting to the mainline which at that time connected Durango to Denver. In 1980 the last train under the Rio Grande Railroad left Durango and the next year the line between Durango and Silverton was purchased as the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, with a greater emphasis on passengers and the use of the route as a “scenic railway.”

My journey started at the Depot in Durango where I quickly and effortlessly loaded my backpack onto a rail car with the help of the conductor and took my seat for the three hour ride north to Elk Park along the Animas River, deep in the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains. The ride itself is very scenic, carving it’s way along the cliffs high above the Animas River and then dropping down belong side the river for the duration of the trip.

Once at Elk Park it was a quick departure from the train where the conductor handed down my backpack and I was left at the side of the tracks watching the black smoke of the Steam Locomotive pull away around the bend and out of sight. Standing there I couldn’t help but think that this must have been at least partly what it was like back in the 1880’s when workers, miners, explorers, hunters, trappers, etc. were let off the train in the middle of the mountains, maybe making there way out to some lonely mining claim or trapper’s cabin now lost forever in this vast wilderness.

The DSNGRR steams off after dropping me at Elk Park, deep in the San Juan Mountains.

The DSNGRR steams off after dropping me at Elk Park, deep in the San Juan Mountains.

For me the journey had just begun, I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail toward Vestal Basin, my destination for the night.

I guess I should have done a little bit more research on the route up to Vestal Basin from the Elk Creek Trail, my thought was that I had found the drainage on the map and I figured that I would find the “goat trail” along the drainage once I got there as long as I found the right drainage. Well, I was wrong. I arrived at the Beaver Ponds in roughly two hours, not bad time so I figured I was doing good. I stopped and drank some water, enjoying the beautiful peaks all around me. I spent a little time trying to find the best route across Elk Creek and up the drainage that I knew from the map led eventually to the basin beneath Vestal Peak. I figured I would head up the drainage and at some point I was sure I would find the trail that I had read about.

My epic adventure began with several creek crossings leading me into a very thick thicket which was laden with heavy downed timber. It was a nightmare to say the least. On top of that there were swarms, and I do mean swarms, of biting flies that seemed to be attacking me in organized assaults.

I figured it would take me about three hours to get up to the basin from the Beaver Ponds on the Elk Creek Trail, putting me at the basin around 5 ‘o’ clock, plenty of time to eat and scout out a location for sunset. That plan fizzled when the endless deadfall and thickets droned on for as far as I could see. About 5 ‘o’ clock I found myself in a small clearing on the side of the drainage, still unsure where exactly I was at in regards to the basin that I was trying to get to. I knew I was in the right drainage from looking at my GPS but I really had no idea where the “Basin” was at. I came close to calling it a day, throwing my tent up in the desolate opening and figuring it out in the morning. I was truly exhausted and I could barely stand the thought of putting my pack back on and battling more thicket and deadfall in an effort to find the basin in which I had no idea lay how far in front of me.

My Fstop Gear Tilopa Pack, packed to the brim. Notice the swarm of biting flies attacking the pack!

My Fstop Gear Tilopa Pack, packed to the brim. Notice the swarm of biting flies attacking the pack!


An exhausted me, about mid-way along my bushwhacking adventure along Vestal Creek.

An exhausted me, about mid-way along my bushwhacking adventure along Vestal Creek. The bandana is to keep my head from getting attacked by the onslaught of biting flies!

For some reason I got a wild hair and decided to do just that, I threw my pack on and battled my way further up the drainage toward, gaining more elevation, and becoming more and more exhausted. Hoping that I would find another relatively flat place for my tent before night overtook me. Another hour and a half into my adventure I got a view down into the valley from the high spot on the side where I was at and down in the valley I saw fields of wildflowers, a creek, and lo ad behold, a trail. There it was, the fabled Vestal Creek Trail. I was about four hundred feet above the trail battling deadfall and thickets high on the side of the valley.

I quickly readjusted my route and scrambled down a scree field into the basin, arriving on the trail to find a guy gathering water at the stream, he was pretty startled when I stumbled out of the thicket and onto the trail. I told him about my epic journey and his buddies joined him, all looking rather astonished that I had just bushwhacked five miles at a steep grade through the drainage to get there. I’m pretty sure my haggard and exhausted appearance probably added some validity to my story. None the less, they told me that they had only gone a short ways further on the trail but they had spotted some decent campsites a short ways up. I stumbled the couple hundred feet to the woodbine where I found a perfect campsite nestled in the pine trees next to a beautiful mountain stream.

The fact is, I could have dropped my gear and got my camera out since the sun was just setting and perfect light was just then illuminating the valley in a beautiful story. However, I was beat down and exhausted, the only thing I could think about was the Mountain House I had just hauled all the way up here and getting my tent up before dark. My body was ridiculously sore and I couldn’t even imagine trying to shoot images at that point. So for the first time in my life I chose food and setting up camp in place of shooting a beautiful sunset. I did actually manage to snap a few images after dinner as the sun was setting but they really didn’t amount to much of anything. After that it didn’t take long at all for me to hang my food and hit the sack. I was done.

In the words of John Denver, "I've seen it raining fire in the sky."

In the words of John Denver, “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

The next morning I managed to drag myself out of the tent just as the first light of day was starting to touch the peaks around me. It was a gorgeous display of Mother Nature’s beauty and probably the best photo shoot of the trip. A gorgeous field of wildflowers beneath towering peaks above.

Arrow Peak as seen from Lower Vestal Basin.

Arrow Peak as seen from Lower Vestal Basin.

I figured I had kind of wasted the first day of the trip battling downed trees and thickets, but I was determined to make the most of the trip. Especially since I was now in such a beautiful area. I ate some breakfast, brewed some coffee, and packed up my camp, intent on moving up to tree-line to position myself well for some sunset and sunrise photos from the Upper Basin. I made my way pretty quickly from the Lower Basin to the Upper following a somewhat scant trail. Just as tree-line was petering out I found what appeared to be a decent place to camp with a few sparse trees set up on the walls of a small depression. I figured that the sparsely surrounding trees should offer some protection in the case of a thunderstorm.

With that, I headed up into the Upper Basin to scout some sunset and sunrise locations as well as to get a good lay of the land. I spent the afternoon exploring, always keeping a watchful eye on the sky above. Clouds were rolling in and out all afternoon but nothing seemed to be very threatening.

A lone Columbine high in the beautiful desolation of Vestal Basin.

A lone Columbine high in the beautiful desolation of Vestal Basin.

I decided to eat dinner next to a nice little lake high up in the basin. Ok, so in my recent efforts to make my gear lighter and more compact I recently purchased an OliCamp Ion Micro Stove and in my preliminary testing it seemed that the stove was a little bit unreliable in any amount of wind. My solution for this was to build a small lightweight windscreen out of a piece of titanium. I had read the warnings about not using a windscreen with a canister stove, but I didn’t really pay it too much mind. So I fired up the stove with the titanium windscreen around it and sure enough, it worked good, too good. It only took about a minute before the canister started smoking. I quickly turned it off and let it cool down. The paint on the canister had turned black and the seal around the lip of the canister had started melting out. When I touched the melted coolant it cracked and all my gas leaked from the canister. Hmmm, lesson learned I suppose.

A large scree field spilled down the side of Upper Vestal Basin with a small lake surrounded by scree.

A large scree field spilled down the side of Upper Vestal Basin with a small lake surrounded by scree.

With that I finished my dinner and then noticed a large black cloud approaching. I couldn’t see any lightning in the distance or hear any thunder but I figured better safe than sorry so I relocated to the Middle Basin to shoot the evening. I found some nice wildflowers and good waterfall in the Middle Basin so it was still a pretty successful evening. The storm clouds seemed to dissipate and break up right at dark and I figured I was in for a good night’s sleep with an early wake-up in order to shoot the Upper Basin at sunrise.

Sunset and alpenglow on Trinity Peaks as seen from Middle Vestal Basin.

Sunset and alpenglow on Trinity Peaks as seen from Middle Vestal Basin.


A close up shot of Vestal Creek near it's head in Middle Vestal Basin.

A close up shot of Vestal Creek near it’s head in Middle Vestal Basin.

About an hour after dark I was woken up to the deafening booms of almost constant thunders. The valley around me was aglow with lightning. One bolt shot down after the other, illuminating the peaks around me in a terrifying blue and yellow glow. I sat huddled in my tent, wondering if my campsite was indeed a good spot or perhaps I should be down the mountain a little further where there were more trees. After an anxiety ridden hour of huddling in my tent I decided to pack it up and make a quick dash down the mountain in search of better shelter. At this point there was still no rain with the storm so I figured if I hurried I could make it without getting wet.

Of course as soon as I got my tent down the rain unleashed and it was a downpour, I threw on my rain jacket, packed my gear and took off down the mountain via headlamp. It probably took me about 45 minutes to navigate down the slippery goat trail in the rain and the dark. Eventually I found a spot in the trees which made me feel 100% better about sleeping away the lightning-filled night.

I quickly sat up camp and fell asleep to the sound of booming lightning and hail peppering my tent.

I had my alarm set to go off at 0400 in hopes that I could catch a clearing storm in sunrise light, but no such luck. 4am rolled around and the rain was still coming down in sheets so I decided to tuck myself deeper into my sleeping bag and wait out the storm. Finally about 0800 the storm cleared and I crawled out to find a beautiful morning waiting for me.

At this point I was still exhausted from my uphill bushwhack on the way in and the storm last night had frazzled my nerves. I decided to chalk this one up as a learning experience and head out to Elk Park to catch the train back to Durango. I made it to the train stop, caught the train, and bought a nice cold beverage, traveling in style all the way back to the depot in Durango where my wife and daughter picked me up. I felt beaten down and ragged, but smarter and wiser for the experience.

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