OverviewThe Ruby Creek trail is one of the most strenuous backpack approaches in the San Juan Mountains. It is also one of the least traveled and most difficult trails to follow, giving out completely in some areas.
Although this trail requires a high level of routefinding experience, the reward is reaching Ruby Lake and a seldom visited area. This is your primary access to Animas Mountain, Monitor Peak, Turret Peak, and Pigeon Peak. I backpacked this trail in the summer of 2010 and basecamped at an excellent site near Ruby Lake. Recently I came across the reworked Pigeon Peak page, and so I am adding this as a child to help people interested in reaching this area.
Since it has been a while since I was in this area, please send me a message if you have any updated info and I would be happy to include it here.
Many thanks to some recent beta that sp members have sent to me. I have built two maps illustrating a tracked GPS route and I am including additional comments about the route at the end of the page. I would also like to solicit some pictures of the "trail" or at least the most confusing spots, if any members have any. Comments from members tell me that this trail is harder to follow than I remembered.
Getting ThereThe Ruby Creek trail will involve a backpacking trip with at least one overnight.
The hardest part of the Ruby Creek trail is finding it. From the Needleton Trailhead (serviced by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, see green dot on map below) cross the bridge above the Animas River. Once on the east bank of the river, immediately leave the Needle Creek trail and turn left to follow a social trail that heads north on top of the river bank. I understand this social trail may be near some areas of private property, so please be respectful of those lands.
Continue north, crossing Pigeon Creek. Within a quarter mile, the social trail begins to thread and give out into several "pockets" of grassy meadows. Now leave the river trail and head east, walking gradually uphill through the meadows. Find your way to the farthest back of the most eastern meadow. In the southeastern corner of the most eastern meadow is where you find the Ruby Creek trail. On a large aspen tree next to the trail there is a bark-carving, which to me, looked like a woman in a dress wearing a hat.
Ruby Lake from near the excellent campsite.
The trail begins heading southeast, but quickly makes a sharp switchback to head in a more northeasterly direction. Within ten minutes of leaving the meadows, you should be on a tough slog upward and out of the Animas Canyon. The trail crosses to the north side of an unnamed creek at 9,500'. At this point two trails leave the creek. Take the right-hand trail, which looks completely awful, and climb steeply on poor footing. The trail climbs to the crest of the ridge between the unnamed creek and Ruby Creek at 10,340'. From the ridge crest, the trail traverses east with some ups and downs until it finally makes a gentle descent and meets Ruby Creek in an avalanche-cleared area at 10,400'. Find a crossing here to the north side of the creek and continue east to Ruby Lake.
The trail segment between the unnamed creek at 9,500' and the intersection of Ruby Creek is the hardest to follow. In 2010 I remember it giving out completely in many areas. Several times I had to ask myself "if I were a trail where would I go?"
In particular, the trail encounters a rock face segment on its way from the ridge crest to the intersection at Ruby Creek. And like many other small trails in this situation, there is a route underneath the rock face and a route above it. Complicating things were several misleading cairns and survey tapes that people had left behind, ultimately pointing to everywhere and nowhere all at once. Pay more attention to the topography than to the cairns and survey tape. When the trail meets the rock face, you can choose either to descend left, or to scramble a class 3 pitch to the right. I remember preferring the short scramble up to the right, which led me around the top of the rock face and back to an identifiable trail segment. Yet on the way out, I somehow came in underneath the rock face, and then had to climb up from underneath it to rejoin my route. I found in both cases that I preferred the higher route above the rock face, and the lower route beneath it was much more slippery, muddy, and tedious.
After the area described above, carefully follow the trail (as much as it can be found) while it contours the hillside and approaches Ruby Creek. You will hear the creek getting closer and closer, but you will see that it is still far below you. While you should be able to follow an identifiable trail segment to its intersection with the creek, if you lose this trail, remember that the creek should "come up to you," and that crossing to the north side of the creek should be very easy. Also noteworthy is that the trail meets Ruby Creek in a small but relatively cleared area. Above all, remember to contour into the cleared area, and do not be tempted to make an early and steep descent to cross in a lower section of the creek.
From the cleared area, in 2010, I could not identify any continuing trail segment. Cross here to the north side of the creek, and you will find that the vegetation is more clear underneath the trees. If you need, you can continue a little farther east before crossing to the north side of the creek. Once on the north side, simply bushwack eastward through the trees, keeping the creek to your right. After about 20 minutes you should regain an identifiable trail. Suddenly this pops right out at an excellent camp site (see yellow dot on map) which is on the west side of a small pond, just a few minutes west from Ruby Lake.
From this campsite, the trail continues around the north side of the lake. However it becomes harder and harder to follow. From Ruby Lake consider the rest of the basin to be off-trail.
Thanks and credits to Kiefer Thomas for providing the GPS track data, which I have overlaid onto these maps. This is the actual route that he and a friend took, with the exception that I have added an extra segment to mark where I crossed the creek at the cleared area below Ruby Lake (about 1/4 of a mile earlier than he did.) If you would like to add a specific comment about this route, please send me your info and identify what trail segment (i.e. first, second, third or last quarter) and the elevation of the location where your comment applies. This way I can post your comment and the reader can find the exact location on the map.