Bag Three 13,000-Foot Summits on this Weekend Route Outside Durango
Explore a secret wonderland in the West Needle Mountains.
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- Distance: 16.9 miles
- Time: 3-4 days
- Elevation gain: 5,660 feet
Despite their impressive appearance from Molas Pass between Durango and Silverton, most hikers pass by the twisted, slabby West Needle Mountains on their way to somewhere else. Too bad, because one of Colorado’s best peakbagging weekends is a climb of their high points, the three Twilight Peaks—North, Central, and South, each a hair over 13,000 feet. It’s not just the summits that make this trip special, either; from the basecamp next to an unnamed Lake at 11,700 feet to views of the Animas River Gorge’s sheer cliffs, there isn’t a moment on this trip that disappoints.
Another advantage of this trip: You can make it as epic or as relaxing as you want. Got a Monday morning meeting to rush back to and willing to suffer a bit? Tackle all three peaks and the hike out in one day. Prefer to take your time? Spend your first day after arriving at base camp wandering up mellow South Twilight Peak, the next day on North Twilight and Twilight, and a further day on the return to the trailhead. Whichever schedule you choose, you’ll definitely want to block out your next weekend and pack your gear for this 16.9 lollipop loop over three Rocky Mountain peaks.
From the Andrew Lake Trailhead, hike 5.5 miles in to Crater Lake. This part of the route is a fairly popular trail with only moderate elevation gain, so you’ll probably be sharing the path. Leave the crowds behind once you reach the lake and continue a quarter mile southeast, climbing across metamorphic slabs to the obvious pass above Crater Lake. once you cross the pass, drop several hundred feet in elevation, then turn southwest and traverse beneath the cliff-hung face of North Twilight Peak. Pitch camp here at an unnamed lake perched at 11,700 feet and surrounded by craggy summits. To the south, you’ll have views across the yawning gulf of the Animas River gorge.
The Twilight climbs are rugged but technically straightforward class 2- 3 scrambles. For North Twilight, head back to the pond at the pass above Crater Lake, then head uphill to the south. Jump onto a northeast-trending ridge around mile 3 (from Andrew Lake). From the summit, descend to a saddle between North Twilight and Twilight, then follow the north ridge of Twilight Peak until reach a notch. Contour around it on a faint use-path, then descend into the couloir until you reach the secondary notch that leads to the summit. South Twilight is the easiest of the three climbs; it only takes about 15 minutes to cross the saddle from Twilight to South Twilight. Allow a full day for any two of the peaks; aggressive parties might be able to bag all three in a day. —Steve Howe
Pack for Scrambling
You can scramble wearing your normal backpacking gear, but if you’re looking for extra security, consider changing out your shoes for approach shoes, which the feature sticky rubber and to-the-toe lacing of climbing shoes for extra purchase on vertical rock. The La Sportiva TX Guide, which is like a hybrid trail runner/approach shoe, is a good place to start. Nervous climbers, or those prone to going off-route, might also consider bringing a light rope and helmets in they stray.