The largest wilderness in Colorado, the Weminuche wilderness contains a significant part of the San Juan Mountains near the towns of Durango, Silverton, and Pagosa Springs Colorado. The area is known for its difficult and rugged terrain that ranges from the deep Animas river gorge to the tops of jagged peaks in the Needle Range that lie immediately to the east.
The Continental Divide, the spine of North America, traverses the San Juan mountains here forming a formidable barrier and a focus for storms that leave their mark in the form of deep winter snows and heavy summer monsoons. Some regard the area within the Weminuche to be the most rugged terrain in Colorado. The central part of this wilderness is known to be the point farthest from any road in Colorado.
The Weminuche wilderness (pronounced ‘why-meh-nuke-ee’) consists of an area uplifted during a period of volcanic activity eons ago. Recent ice-ages have left there mark on the landscape as well. The glaciers left sharp turrets and jagged peaks separated by lake studded alpine valleys. The western portion contains the Needle Mountain range and is extremely rugged with tall granite peaks and deep ravines and river gorges. The area’s three fourteeners (Eolus, Sunlight, and Windom peaks) are all located here. The eastern end of the Weminuche stretches nearly to the Rio Grande headwaters near the town of Creede. Here the Continental Divide snakes along from the east toward the west with large areas above treeline and immense views.
The towns of Durango, Silverton, and Pagosa Springs serve as the best jumping-off points for a trip into the Weminuche. The Durango-Silverton narrow guage railroad is a popular option for hikers and sight-seers desiring to visit the western end of the area.
A pleasant time to visit the Weminuche wilderness is mid-July to early September. Winter snow can last until early July. During the summer monsoon season, stormy weather will affect your backcountry experience July through early September. Whenever visiting the Colorado high country, always be prepared for rain or even snow. See the Colorado Backpacking Guide for more information about Colorado backcountry safety and trip planning.
There are countless hiking and backpacking options in the Weminuche. I’ve selected a few popular options to show here.
Highland Mary Lakes
Majestic views of the Grenadier range are yours on this loop hike in the western Weminuche near the town of Silverton. The trail ascends above treeline to several high altitude lakes. The hike is miles in length and can be done as an overnight trip.
Directions: From Silverton, head east on State Hwy 110 (County Rd. 2) Right onto County Rd 4. CR Rd. 4 follows the Cunningham Creek valley up to its upper end. The hike begins from the trailhead at the end County Rd. 4.
Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is an excellent way to experience the Weminuche Wilderness. This 100 mile section of the CDT trail begins at the Wolf Creek Pass trailhead east of Pagosa Springs on Hwy 160 and winds its way west following the spine of the Rockies to Stony Pass where 4WD road access is available to the town of Silverton. This trail is best hiked in mid July or in September to avoid the August monsoon.
There is a plethora of hikes and backpacking trips to be enjoyed in the Weminuche Wilderness, in fact, too many to be mentioned here. Instead of listing some of the trails and their details here, I’m including the maps and books you can use to plan your trip below.
When hiking in the backcountry, maps are a required piece of navigation gear. Personally, I like to use National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series of topographic trail maps because of their durability, accuracy and ease of use. You’ll find the map I use to explore the Weminuche linked below.
Donna Ikenberry’s book is an excellent resource for hiking and backpacking trip planners. Although printed in black and white, the maps and detailed trail descriptions are worth the money you spend on this paperback. Also included are elevation maps, and guides to finding the trailheads.