OverviewStretching in an eight mile arc from the Animas River canyon to Vallecito Creek, the Grenadier Range lies at the heart of the San Juan Mountains. The range features solid quartzite bedrock, which in many places rises as intact slab to form entire peaks. The topographic relief in this range is extreme and compact: any route into or through it will be challenging and strenuous. At the same time, it is entirely possible to pass a full week here without seeing a single person.
The purpose of this page is to share knowledge on the Grenadier Range. I have made four extensive backpacking trips to this area so far, and on the fourth one I completed a west to east traverse from the Animas River to the Guardian. This page will focus on routes through the range and observations about the peaks. I would particularly like to solicit comments from people who have been in the Trinity Creek Basin, as this is the last area of the range that I have not yet seen.
As always, please do your best to learn about and practice leave no trace ethics. For climbers and mountaineers especially, this means being conscious of what is happening with social trails that cross the tundra, and watching out for routes that induce scarring and erosion on the slopes. Unwittingly, even the most pristine areas can be loved to death. Please tread lightly.
Getting ThereAny trip into the Grendadier Range will involve a backpacking trip of at least one night.
From the west, your first objective is to reach the Elk Park trailhead on the Colorado Trail. This trailhead lies in the bottom of the Animas River canyon, and it is also serviced by Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. You can either pick up the morning train in Durango, or you can pick up the afternoon train returning from Silverton.
Alternatively, you can descend from Molas Pass at highway 550 to reach Elk Park. This segment of the Colorado Trail descends 2,000 feet over two and a half miles, with a seemingly endless series of switchbacks on the final stretch into the canyon. While this isn't too bad packing in, after exhausting yourself in the Grenadiers for a few days, it is generally not a pleasant experience on the way out.
Once at Elk Park, take the Colorado Trail east up Elk Creek for three miles until you reach a series of beaver ponds that lie on the south side of the trail. Contour south along the east edge of the water, picking your way around the base of a large boulder field. When you reach the south side of the ponds, you will find a good camping area and a social trail that continues south and before descending into Elk Creek. Cross the creek and continue in a southerly direction until you reach Vestal Basin.
The social trail into Vestal Basin is very steep. Be careful of two areas where the trail threads apart; you generally want to stay to the left and aim for constant elevation gain. About two-thirds up to Vestal Basin there is an area where the trail makes a direct climb up a scree slope. It is tedious and eroded, but there is no way around it. Once past this spot, the trail will start to even out and then you will start to contour in a more easterly direction and into Vestal Basin. The trail starts to descend a little bit before encountering a small boulder area. Follow the cairns through the boulders and then continue on a modest grade uphill. Not far from this point the basin opens up and you will be able to find several good camping spots. If you take the morning train from Durango and you keep a brisk pace, you will reach the campsites in Vestal Basin just before dark. If you take the afternoon train from Silverton or if you get a late start from Molas Pass you will probably have to camp on the south side of the beaver ponds. There are no suitable camp areas along the social trail into Vestal Basin.
From the east, your objective is a 14 mile backpack up Vallecito Creek (pronounced "Vai-eh-ceeto") to the confluence of either Leviathan Creek or Trinity Creek. If you take this route, the Guardian watches over your approach the whole time--hence it's name. The trail up Vallecito Creek is a long, but pleasant grade for a backpacking trip. There are several fine places for camping in the middle sections, but I remember the upper section becoming confined with steep slopes and marshes. At the upper end there is one excellent campsite near the confluence of Rock Creek and Vallecito Creek.
I have read reports of a social trail that extends up Leviathan Creek, but I have not been able to spot it. This side of the Grenadiers is true wilderness and I would rely more on using game trails or traveling off-trail entirely. Otherwise you can either continue up the established trails to Rock Creek and the Mount Oso group, or you can head over Hunchback Pass toward Howardsville. Hunchback Pass would be a fine northern alternative to entering from Vallecito Creek.
Once inside the range
You have many alternatives from the campsites in Vestal Basin. From this area most people aim to climb either one of the Trinity Peaks, Vestal Peak, or Arrow Peak. Vestal Peak is probably the most popular because of its utterly spectacular Wham Ridge. Electric Peak is probably the least climbed in this area because it is relatively lower, and it also involves some backtracking and re-descent to the west.
By most local measures, a crowd in this area means that there are one or two other groups camped nearby. If for some reason you need more space, or if you are looking for a base camp that is closer to the Trinity Peaks, continue east on the Vestal social trail past the first group of campsites. You will quickly enter a treed area and the trail starts to wind up through some modest cliff areas and rock outcrops. There are additional campsites about half way up through the rock outcrop, and another site once you reach the top of the outcrop at the next hanging valley.
There is a spur trail from the first camp area that heads immediately toward Vestal Peak. This is clearly a beeline approach to the mountain, but it ends up going straight for some of the steepest sections of quartzite and the worst patches of brush. I downclimbed this route and I thought it was very tedious. To access the peaks from the first camp area, I recommend heading east instead, staying on the trail through the second camp areas described above. Once you reach the next hanging valley, cross the creek and aim for the next series of quartzite ledges to the south. These ledges are better contoured and will allow you to get above timberline while avoiding the worst of the brush. Using this approach you should come out on the east flank of Vestal's Wham Ridge. From there you can easily contour west to Arrow, east to the Trinities, or straight ahead for Vestal.
Once at the eastern base of Wham Ridge, take a look at the topography and you will see that there are two options for continuing through this mountain range. First look northeast past the Trinities. You will see that the valley tapers out and there is a pass leading to Trinity Creek and Stormy Gulch below. (I have not taken this route and I would like to include a paragraph here from someone who has!) From what I know, all of the peak ascents out of Trinity Creek will be class 5 or harder. Continuing down Trinity Creek you will gain the upper Vallecito Creek trail and a long exit out of the wilderness area.
Unnamed "Trinity Pass"
Next if you look due south you will see a large valley filled with talus. In the distance there is a long ridge stretching between Vestal and West Trinity Peak. This ridge offers a pass leading over to Tenmile Creek. Carefully study the topo maps for this country. Whereas the traverse over to Trinity Creek will ultimately lead to a quick descent and exit from the range, moving over to the upper Tenmile Creek drainage will deliver you into nearly endless opportunities for sustained, high-alpine routes. To fully experience a traverse of the Grenadiers, you head in this direction.
Travel southeast across the boulder valley until you reach the base of the ridge. You will immediately find that it is a 3rd class scramble (and a full pack certainly doesn't make it all that appealing.) There are truck-sized boulders strewn around loose talus and rotten scree. Each time I have been to this pass I have done my best to find stable material--only to end up on scree and cursing each time. Do your best to gain the ridge while contouring left toward the saddle.
Once on the ridge, there are two possibilities. First, you can descend to Balsam Lake, where there are fabled routes over to Noname Creek and the Needle Mountains. But if your goal is to access the remote peaks of the Grenadiers, gently descend south from the Trinity Pass and begin to contour in an easterly direction. After a few minutes you will come around the mountainside and be rewarded with one of the most stunning landscapes in all of Colorado.
The last time I was here there was a network of cairns to help guide your traverse along the southern flanks of the Trinity Peaks. Your goal is to contour 1 mile east into a high valley where two small ponds lie at 12,200', immediately west of Storm King Peak. Gently descend and contour across the talus until you begin to approach some thin sections of trees. At this point you will also see that there are a series of rock faces below Middle and East Trinity that block a direct traverse into the high valley.
Although sparse, the tree sections are tricky. When you reach the first one, you will be tempted to stay high so as to traverse above the trees and the rock faces all together. Do not do this because as you near the high valley, you will find yourself in a pickle as the route pinches out above the rock faces. Instead as you approach the trees, set your eyes on the lowest and farthest section of the rock faces. From the upper section of the first patch of trees, imagine a straight traverse over and down to the very bottom of the last rock face. Each time you head into the trees be careful of slick tundra on steep pitches. However there are a few stable talus and rock gullies between the trees that will help you quickly loose elevation. In this sense you should be able to mostly contour straight through each section of trees, and then loose your elevation by downclimbing through the small rock gullies. Each time you come out of the trees, locate the last and lowest section of rock face. You should come right down to the bottom of the last rock face. From here you only need to regain about 100 feet of elevation as you continue your traverse into the high valley below Storm King Peak. There are suitable campsites on a rocky knoll between the two small ponds. From this campsite you can access Peaks 7, 8, and 9, as well as Storm King Peak, Mount Silex, and the Guardian. It is also possible to reach this area and one of these peaks as a day hike from the Vestal camps, but when I tried that one year to access Storm King Peak, it easily became a 12 hour day with very little time for rest or photography.
Unnamed "Storm King Pass" and Lake Silex Basin
Two guidebooks on the area advise gaining the passes immediately below Storm King Peak and then above Lake Silex, in order to climb Mount Silex and the Guardian. One says to contour high above the lake, while the other recommends to drop down to the lake. In either case you would ultimately finish at the second pass below the southwest ridge of Mount Silex.
It is definitely worthwhile to hike up to the "Storm King Pass" from the two small ponds. This is the best approach to summit Storm King Peak, and the view from this pass is beyond description. But practically speaking, I have attempted the high traverse across the Lake Silex Basin on two separate trips, and both times I simply did not like it. As you first descend east from the pass below Storm King Peak, the normally purple quartzite becomes a beautiful dark maroon. A stable descent on large boulders seems easy at first, but the terrain quickly spills into masses of scree that have been wasting away the millennia below the north face of Peak 9. In my mind this area is sketchy, and at best, it is a fully unpleasant and torturous route.
Unnamed "Leviathan Creek Pass"
Returning to the campsite at the two small ponds, a far better route is to continue in a southerly direction and gain the pass below Peaks 7 and 8 to a tributary stream of Leviathan Creek. Pass the small pond at the summit and descend southeast below Peak 7 to the larger lake below Peak 9. Take note of the unusual geologic fault in this area, but be careful not to fall into it! Once at the large lake, do not continue a descent along its outlet stream. Instead, cross the stream at the lake outlet and head due east over the hills and tundra into a second small drainage that runs along the base of Peak 9. Follow this small drainage southeast, along the point where gentle grassy slopes meet the talus piles at the bottom of the mountain. Peak 9 can be accessed from this area. The south face of Peak 9 is not the most dramatic, but there are some excellent class 3 and 4 routefinding possibilities here that will lead you to the summit.
Southern route to Mount Silex, the Guardian, and exit through Leviathan Creek
As you gently descend along the base of Peak 9, what looks like a ramp on the topo map suddenly sharpens its drop into Leviathan Creek. At this point leave the tundra and start contouring across the talus to access Mount Silex and the Guardian. You may find a faint trail and a few cairns in this area, which probably mark a route up the long southeast ridge of Peak 9. But if you are heading to Mount Silex and the Guardian, do not take these routes because you will get pinched out by significant exposure on the east side of the ridge.
Instead, continue a gentle descent southeast though the talus and come around below the long ridge of Peak 9. You will come into an unnamed basin that forms a south-facing saddle between Mount Silex and the Guardian. From here there are straightforward class 3 scrambles up to each peak. You can also backtrack to gain the southwest ridge of Mount Silex for a more challenging ascent to that summit.
From the low point in this basin, you can either retrace your paths back to the Animas River, or you can look for the elusive Leviathan Creek social trail and exit the Grenadier Range. From treeline at the bottom of this basin, it is 1.5 miles and a 1,800' descent to the Vallecito Creek Trail. I elected to return through Vestal Basin.
The Guardian offers a rare opportunity to survey large expanses within the central San Juans. If you make it across the Grenadiers to the summit of this mountain, take note of the backcountry possibilities leading into the Needle Mountains, and also to the Mount Oso group east of Vallecito Creek.
Red TapeThe entire range is located within the Weminuche Wilderness. There are particular rules to traveling in a wilderness area, and some apply to specific areas such as nearby Chicago Basin or Emerald Lake. Namely you should be careful that group sizes are strictly limited. It is a good idea to call up the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango to inquire about current conditions and pertinent rules before you begin your trip.
Rocks and geologyFor some, one of the best things about mountaineering is to look at the rock types and to think about the geologic processes that formed the current landscape. The San Juans are not a dull place to think about geology.
It is well understood that the current shape of the Grenadiers was created about 30 million years ago by Tertiary volcanic activity occurring in the greater San Juan region. However the rock type of the Grenadiers is of a much older origin than the heat sources that created the San Juans.
The Grenadiers are "composed of hard quartzites of the Uncompahgre Formation. Vestal, Arrow, and Garfield Peaks were hewn from these quartzites, perhaps the hardest of all naturally occurring rocks." This quartzite was present long before the intrusion of the Eolus granite which composes the Needle Mountains. As the magma that formed the Eolus granite pushed upward, it heated the overlying layers to near melting point, and then forged them through a metamorphic process that created the beautiful "ramps" we see in the range today. (See Origin of the Landscapes, below.)
These "overlying rocks mark the beginning of vigorous uplift in the central and eastern San Juans that culminated in some of the most violent volcanic activity ever recorded on the planet."
With a sharp eye you can bring up Google Earth, and you will see how super-heated material rose upward to spread open the preexisting rock. These quartzite formations, with their melted, warped characteristics, surround the intrusive Needle Mountains in at least three directions. Evidence of this process can be seen by looking inward to the heat source from the Snowdon Peak area, from along the entire length of the Grenadiers, and even southeastward through the Mount Oso group. If you have the chance to use Google Earth, it is also worthwhile to check out the Silverton and La Garita calderas.
There is a lesser-known metamorphic layer underneath the quartzite, and which is equally beautiful but more puzzling. It can be found in the eastern Grenadiers and also I have found it in areas far below Snowdon Peak. I can only imagine that this particular rock type was actually liquified, but not quite recycled back to igneous rock. I would be happy if someone from the SP community could help me identify it!
Finally, glaciation removed entire mountains of material and has brought us to what we see today. In the lower Pine River valley you will find beautifully rounded and polished riverstones that are the exact same rock type as what you see up on Vestal Peak. In the Animas River valley there are massive boulders lodged high above the valley in moraines and terraces, and which are basically the detritus that has come down from the areas of Eolus granite.
External linksSan Juan National Forest
San Juan Public Lands Center
Origin of the landscape
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