We were looking for some long days of hiking/running on the trail. So we headed down to Silverton and made plans for a couple of day trips into the northwest corner of the Weminuche Wilderness. It’s such a cool place, and the difficulty of access and remote location keep it from getting crowded. Our goal for the first day was to explore the Elk Creek and Vestal Basin area from Molas Pass, followed by a night in Silverton. The following morning our plan was to head up to a group of peaks south of Cunningham Gulch and check out a couple of trails around there.
Molas Pass to Vestal Basin
The first day began at Molas Pass, south of Silverton. We aimed to run down to the Animas River and follow the Elk Creek Trail up to Vestal Creek and go high in that basin.
We have been to the area twice before as part of larger backpacking missions but never as a fast-pack/trail run. In the summer of 2002, Christy and I did the five peak linkup known as the Arrow-Vestal-Trinity Traverse (which we highly recommend). Our second adventure through Vestal Basin was part of our Weminuche Traverse which we completed back in the spring of 2014. On that trip, we camped in Vestal Creek for the final night of a five day ski traverse through the Needles and Grenadier mountains. We skied the south side of Vestal Peak as part of our Centennial Ski Project.
Unlike those trips this was the first time we were in the area without enormous backpacks. We could move light and fast, which was required to cover the 20 round trip miles up into Vestal Basin and back in a day.
After a night in Silverton, we made our way up to Cunningham Gulch the following morning. On a prior backpacking trip through the Highland Mary Lakes region we saw some nearby 13ers and trails that piqued our curiosity. That was where we were headed.
Spencer Basin, Mount Rhoda, and the Whitehead Trail
From near the Highland Mary Lakes trailhead we headed south up old mine roads into Spencer Basin, eventually leaving the roads and climbing up onto the high ridge above. We were able to linkup up several 13,000 foot summits along one long ridge, eventually descending down to a grassy, San Juan-esque valley and the Whitehead Trail. We contoured through basins and over passes along that trail to the Highland Mary Lakes, and then back down to where our day began, completing one circuitous 12 mile loop.