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December 2007

Backpacker Adventure Guide: Weminuche Wilderness

Try a stunning new hike–or two thrilling classics–in the Colorado Rockies' top spot for big backpacking adventures.

From Sunlight Lake, we’re back on plan A, popping across high passes near the range crest, and rounding Leviathan Peak with timberline far below our boots. This is what we came for: secret alpine valleys, peaks like broken gray tusks, and cliff-bound passes narrow as axe chops. Toward dusk, we throw down beneath Storm King Peak, bivvying on a small bench just short of our next pass. The perch comes with an expansive view of the stony Grenadier Range, with Vestal, Arrow and Electric, its towering fortresses of 2 billion-year-old quartzite, spaced like turrets on a castle wall.

Endless boulders take us down to rockbound Lake Silex, then we wrap north again across tundra passes toward Trinity Creek. Descending sun-warmed cliff bands to the stream, we’re stymied by a steep gully filled with rock-hard ice, but a narrow game trail traverses left, so we take it. There we run into a large Outward Bound group out of Silverton. They’re in high drama mode, several students struggling with the exposed ledges.

We yak briefly with the instructors, then continue up wide-open tundra, listing the beautiful but bureaucratically named mountains we pass: Peak Seven, Peak Six, Peak Five, then 4-3-2-1. On cue, rain overtakes us at the last saddle before our descent to Elk Creek, an excellent excuse to boogie down toward the deep gorge and an intersection with the Colorado Trail.

Here in the comparative lowlands at 10,300 feet, horseflies and hikers both swarm, so after a short mile of bustling track, we diverge onto ladder-steep elk paths, climbing north through ravines that spiral up to the Highland Mary Plateau. Several calf-stretching hours later, as dusk sets in, we stumble onto an old hunter’s camp perched on a tiny bench.

Spent Winchester cartridges surround a small fire circle and an ancient, humongous wood pile, all of it overlooking the vast gulf of Elk Creek and the bulky form of Peak Two, now bathed in the last rays of alpenglow. Mike and I would normally avoid combusting this cache of cellulose, but it’s been a tough day, and our cheery little campfire goes well with the whiskey we pass back and forth, cowboy-style.

On the Highland Mary Plateau, we strike a motherlode of wildflowers. Horizon to horizon, the meadows are blanketed in scarlet paintbrush, brilliant purple asters, white marsh marigolds, and clusters of pale blue columbine. We rollercoaster over broad gray passes and flowered basins, crossing north out of the Weminuche Wilderness and scrambling down clattery slate ridges to the abandoned mine shafts of Spencer Basin.

Some chunks of rusted iron and a few shallow, collapsed tunnels stand out from the thin tundra, and there are old hints of half-roads switchbacking up thru the wildflowers. All are faint reminders of the brief but intense silver boom that raged here after the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which authorized the government to purchase $2 to $4 million in silver annually to mint coinage.

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