The mighty San Juan mountain range plays host to a spectacular line of peaks called the Grenadiers. One of the Grenadiers is the aesthetic Vestal Peak at 13,864 ft. The Grenadier's and Vestal Peak have been compared to the Maroon Bells with their dramatic relief and bold look. Although Vestal's appearance alone is worthy of recognition, what sets it apart from most peaks in Colorado is the ultra-classic Wham Ridge. The Wham Ridge (5.4) is considered the standard route to the summit and follows the sweeping north face and northwest ridge to the pointy summit. Although a class 3 route exists on the south side of the mountain, it is generally considered only a descent route for the Wham Ridge. This not a peak to be missed for mountaineers looking for a moderate alpine route in a spectacular setting. You won't be disappointed.
Getting ThereVestal Peak is located in the Grenadier Range of southern Colorado's San Juan mountains. The standard approach begins at the Molas Pass trailhead (Elev 10,620), located about 5.5 miles south of Silverton, Colorado on highway 550. The trail descends east 1700 feet from Molas Pass via 35 switchbacks to Elk Park (Elev 8680). Just before reaching Elk Park, cross the Animas River via a footbridge, then head south for 400 yards (.1 mile) to the Elk Park train stop. Follow the little railroad spur about 100 yards east and pick up the Elk Creek/Colorado Trail. Hike uphill for a short distance to a bench where you will find the offical Elk Creek Trailhead and the Weminuche Wilderness boundary.
The other option is to take the Durango/Silverton narrow gauge train and start your approach from Elk Park. www.durangotrain.com This saves you 6.6 miles round-trip and a steep climb back to Molas Pass once your adventure is over. The disadvantages to taking the train are the cost of the ticket and that you are at the mercy of the train schedule. As of the 2013 season, a round-trip ticket is $85.00 + $10.00 for your pack. That's almost $100 bucks round-trip for a train ticket. However, if you can afford it, the train ride is fun, and it sure is nice once you reach Elk Park and realize you don't have to make that almost 2000 foot climb back up to Molas Pass.
Approach Continued: Once on the Elk Creek trail, hike east for three miles on a well-maintained trail until reaching the Beaver Ponds. Good camping can be found on the north side and the southeast side of the Beaver Ponds. On the east side of the big pond, look for a large monolithic boulder. At the boulder, the trail splits to the south between two large cairns. Turn right (south) and follow the faint trail behind the boulder, then across the rocky east side of the Beaver Ponds. Immediately upon leaving the vicinity of the pond is a very flat camping area...probably the best camping area near the Beaver Ponds.
The faint trail leaves the camping area to the southeast and soon crosses Elk Creek after a steep descent into Elk Creek gorge. In early season, the crossing of Elk Creek can be an adventure, so plan accordingly. After the creek, follow the Vestal Creek trail to the south, then back south east until reaching Vestal Basin. The trail will stay on the left (east side) of Vestal Creek. The Vestal Creek trail is not maintained and has a somewhat bad reputation for being rough, steep, and hard to follow. Although steep and loose in a few places, the trail is fairly evident and easy to follow. There is quite a bit of down-fall, but not enough to inhibit progress. The bad reputation is not really warranted.
After approximately three miles, the trail arrives at Vestal Basin. Head east and look for a little cairn and a trail that splits to the south. This is the trail to begin your climb of Vestal Peak. You will find this trail about 100 yards west of the trees on the east side of the basin meadow. If you reach the trees and the trail starts climbing, you've missed the Vestal Peak trail. At the trail split, go south and do an easy crossing of Vestal Creek. The trail will then climb 800 feet to a bench above Vestal Basin. Once at the top of the bench, head southeast across talus and find Vestal Lake where the Wham Ridge route begins. If climbing Vestal via the class 3 route, head directly south across rough talus and climb to the top of the loose and steep Vestal/Arrow saddle.
Click on the links to the left for the route descriptions to the Wham Ridge and the Southeast Couloir routes.
Red TapeVestal Peak is located in the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. No permits are required to hike, climb, or camp. The wilderness area begins about 200 yards east of Elk Park and includes the Beaver Ponds area and Vestal Basin. No motorized vehicles, including bicyles or chainsaws, are allowed in the wilderness area. Pack animals are permitted. No campfires or wood stoves in Vestal Basin.
Weminuche Wilderness Planner, Guidelines, and Regulations
San Juan National Forest
San Juan Mountains Center [joint FS/BLM office, closed in winter]
P.O. Box 709
1246 Blair St.
Silverton, CO 81433
When To Climb
As with most Colorado high peaks, late June through mid September are best for summer season climbs. September can be a wonderful time to climb. The weather settles as fall high pressure systems move through and provide several continuous days of cool, clear skies. Otherwise, violent afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurance in summer. Regardless of the route, start very early. Storms typically hit early afternoon and can last until after dark. The San Juan monsoon is notorious for also producing several continuous days of abysmal rainy weather. Plan accordingly.
CampingVestal Peak is in the Weminuche Wilderness, so general wilderness rules apply. No camping within 100 feet of lakes, ponds, or streams.
Great camping spots are can be found in Elk Park, the Beaver Ponds (north and southeast), the east side of Vestal Basin meadow, and above Vestal Basin meadow to the east. If camping at Elk Park, recommend avoiding the Animas River as a water source. Instead, get your water from Elk Creek about 100 yards south of the train stop. Look for the bridge.
External LinksJackie and Alan Ellis' Climb of Vestal Peak, July 2010
Matt Payne's Climb of Vestal and Arrow Peaks, July 2010
Guidebooks and MapsGuidebooks:
Colorado's Thirteeners by Gerry Roach
Climbing Colorado's San Juan Mountains by Robert F. Rosebrough (Out of Print)
Colorado's High Thirteeners by Mike Garratt and Bob Martin
USGS 1/24: Storm King
Trails Illustrated:Weminuche Wilderness #140