Here are our top tips on preparing for a successful and safe loop from Elk Park to Needleton in the mountains of Colorado!
Are you planning a backpacking adventure in the Weminuche Wilderness of southern Colorado?
We hiked from the Elk Park train stop to Needleton, which includes about 43 miles of hiking in the San Juan mountains.
For details on the hike itself, see my post about the various trail segments.
Here’s what we learned while preparing for the Elk Park to Needleton hike, plus a few things I wish I’d known ahead of time!
Hiking at High Altitudes
The altitude on this backpacking loop varies from around 8,000 to nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
For comparison, where we live is around 800 feet above sea level.
It's going to take some time to adapt.
That's why, if you come from a lower elevation like us, I recommend easing yourself into it while you're preparing for the Elk Park to Needleton hike!
There are national and state parks nearby where you can push your limits on some shorter trails first.
It's also a good idea to drink lots of water (more so than at sea level).
The altitude will affect water filters and food cook time, which is usually explained on the packaging.
Preparing for Elk Park to Needleton: How to Get There
There is no road access to either the Elk Park or Needleton trail access points.
To reach this trail on foot, some hikers make a longer loop from the Molas Trail (about four miles). Or some come at it from the opposite (Needleton) end, via Purgatory Flats Trail and the Animas River Trail (about 10 miles).
But we opted to take the train!
The Durango-Silverton train offers a backpacker service from May to October, where they drop you off and pick you up at train stops which more or less correspond to the trailheads.
You have to make the backpacker train reservations by phone, not online.
Expect to pay for the train tickets, a baggage fee (for your backpack, which goes in the boxcar train), and an overnight parking fee.
If you’re doing the whole Elk Park to Needleton loop, take the Durango-Silverton diesel train north from Durango to Elk Park. Then on the way back, you’ll catch the southbound train at Needleton and ride back to Durango.
On the train, make sure to talk to the train staff! Our brakeman Sam was a wealth of knowledge about any kind of train-related questions we had.
Staying Found on the Trail
Before you head out into the wilderness, make sure you know where you’re going! Especially since you're unlikely to have cell phone service (which we'll discuss more below).
I always recommend carrying a waterproof paper trail map on a hike (because even if you have a digital map, sometimes technology fails). We brought along this Weminuche Wilderness National Geographic map.
My husband had an offline map downloaded in his Google Maps app, although we found it to be unreliable in the Vallecito Creek area.
Our most reliable digital map was from Garmin, within the Garmin Explore app on my phone.
I used a Garmin InReach Mini 2 to track our location, and any time we came to an unmarked trail junction, we knew which way to go. It worked perfectly.
Will I Have Cell Service?
Cell service is highly unlikely. You’ll be hiking in a wilderness area. Prepare to not have a cell signal.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
Since cell service is unlikely, the Garmin InReach Mini 2 became our lifeline.
This satellite powered device is able to track your location on a digital map, share your location with friends/family, send basic text messages, and (most importantly) it has an emergency SOS button to get help.
Thankfully, we never needed to press the SOS button, but I was thrilled with the functionality of the map and messaging features.
A Garmin InReach is one of the pricier emergency options, but there are also less expensive satellite emergency locator beacons (with less functionality).
Note that these satellite device options typically require that you have an active subscription to use the features.
Another option (which you should probably do anyway!) is to leave an itinerary with a responsible person back home, as well as a time and date when they should call for help if they don’t hear from you.
Finally, with any backpacking trip, you should look for an emergency "out". At what point along your route could you hike out and call it quits (or hike out for help)?
On the Elk Park to Needleton loop, the emergency outs are limited. If needed, when you reach the Vallecito and Johnson Creek trail junction, you could hike about 10 miles to the Vallecito Reservoir, a popular lake area.
What Weather Should I Expect on the Elk Park to Needleton Loop?
Any and all kinds of weather! When we visited in September, the days were hot and the nights were cold.
It was extra sunny during the day, and there were thunderstorms most evenings. Some hikers we met said that it sleeted on them one evening (when it had only rained on us).
I was happy we brought along puffer jackets and rain coats. We also brought along these touch-screen activewear gloves, Buffs to help protect us from sun (or keep our ears warm), silk thermals for a base layer, and a balaclava to keep warm at night.
Also, because I sunburn easily, I brought UV protective shirts (the BALEAF women’s UPF50 quick-dry shirt).
What Kind of Wildlife Should I Expect?
In summer, you may want to bring along a bug net to fit over your hat to protect yourself from mosquitoes, gnats and black flies.
Also, this area of the Weminuche has quite the rodent population. Expect to see (or at least hear) marmots and pikas, as well as lots of chipmunks.
Keep a close eye on your belongings: these feisty critters can chew threw packs quickly.
One night while we slept inside our River Country trekking pole tent, something chewed the cork handle off one of the poles (presumably because of salt residue from sweat). We heard later that there was a porcupine in the area chewing on things, so it could’ve been the culprit.
It was one of our Black Diamond Alpine carbon trekking poles, which was extra sad.
We also saw lots of mule deer.
When you’re in the Chicago Basin, watch for mountain goats! (We didn’t see any, but we heard they were plentiful.)
Learn more about the wildlife in the area.
Do I Need Hiking Boots?
Yes, either hiking boots or hiking shoes are a very good idea on these trails.
You’ll encounter very rocky terrain (skip the zero drop / barefoot style boots on these trails — your feet will be too sore!). There are also sections with loose pebbles where you’ll want good traction.
Swampy, muddy areas where your foot sinks ankle deep in mud are also likely, as well as multiple creek crossings. A hiking boot is preferable.
What Hiking Gear Should I Bring on the Elk Park to Needleton Loop?
I recommend bringing a trekking pole to help support and steady yourself on the trail. This will be especially helpful during creek crossings and on downhill areas with loose pebbles.
Also, bring a way to filter water. We used a Sawyer Squeeze water filter. It filtered a little more slowly than usual because we were at high elevation, but still worked well.
Looking for a slightly larger backpacking pack that will still fit a short torso? We’ve also been testing this Deuter Aircontact Ultra 45 + 5 pack and the Osprey Eja 58 pack – I preferred the Eja because it was slightly more comfortable and was a little larger.
There's also a Deuter backpacking pack that's a standard size, if you're taller than I am!
See this list of my favorite freeze-dried meals if you're curious about what they're like. They can be a lifesaver on a long hike.
Food takes longer to cook at high altitudes. Our dehydrated meals said they were tested at 5,000-foot elevation, and to double the cook time for every additional 5,000 feet.
Was the extra research and time spent preparing for the Elk Park to Needleton trip worth it?
It was one of our favorite hikes ever.
It also didn't hurt that we pampered ourselves a little afterwards with a leisurely day at Pagosa Springs.
I hope your backpacking trip is just as epic as ours was.