Located north of Durango, the Needle Mountains are a subrange of the San Juan Mountains. These mountains are known by mountaineers for their ruggedness, technical difficulty, and mind-blowing vistas.
Unlike the rest of the San Juan Mountains, which are volcanic in origin, the Needle Mountains were created by uplifting Precambrian rocks. These mountains are mainly comprised of 1.5 billion-year-old pink granite, making for spectacular views at sunset or sunrise.
The subrange is quite large, with 728 square miles to explore. This area is protected as part of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest.
For visitors looking for a leisurely camping experience, the closest developed campground to the Needle Mountains is Molas Lake Park & Campground. The campground is located just off U.S. Highway 550. The park has various amenities like a camp store, fishing areas, RV hookups, and more. Reservations for this campsite are required.
For intrepid explorers, there are numerous opportunities to backpack in the Needle Mountains. Local backpackers have identified and hiked a 50.5-mile south-to-north route that snakes through old mining ruins and jagged 14ers.
In this region, the best route for OHVing or Off-roading is the 5.8-mile Old Lime Creek Road. With various spots for dispersed camping and boondocking along the path, visitors can score sweeping views of the West Needle Mountains and the Needle Mountains.
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the Needle Mountains is a full winter adventure that requires time, expertise, and constant vigilance. Most winter athletes utilize the Needle Creek trail to access the subrange, which is also a long trek through avalanche terrain.
If you are unsure of your ability level, it is highly recommended that you contract with a guide service like San Juan Mountain Guides.
Please educate yourself on avalanche safety and best practices, and remember that mountain slopes are not the only place where avalanches can occur.
The closest and safest cross-country ski & snowshoe trail is the 2.5-mile out-and-back Andrews Lake trail. With a commanding view of the Needle Mountains and Grenadier Range, winter athletes will surely enjoy a winter trek with snow-capped mountains to keep them company.
There are nine 13ers and three 14ers in the Needle Mountains Range. The best way to access this mountain range is to hike the 8.9-mile Elk Creek Trail, accessed from the 4-mile Molas Trail. Molas Trail is located near the Molas Lake Park & Campground.
Alternatively, visitors looking to add some spice to their trip can ride the Durango & Narrow Gauge Railroad to Elk Park train stop. This undoubtedly saves peak baggers both time and sore legs.
Stop in Durango to pick up food and drink for your trip.
The sun is much stronger at higher altitudes, so apply and reapply sunscreen liberally every two hours.
If you plan on going into the backcountry, leave an itinerary of your trip with someone you trust. Also, bring a satellite-capable communication device if you can afford it.
Bring plenty of water and food with you.
If you plan on bagging peaks, get an early start to beat the afternoon storms.
The Molas Lake Park & Campground has an ADA-compliant campsite available for reservation.
Know and obey the fire restrictions before heading out.
Purchase a CORSAR card before going out into the backcountry.
Do not disperse camp within 100 feet of any water source.
Please pack out all trash and waste, including your pet's waste.
Protect fragile alpine environments and stay on marked trails.
Follow Leave No Trace (LNT) principles.
Do not pick the wildflowers.
Do not engage with or feed the wildlife.
Dogs must be leashed or otherwise physically restrained. Do not leave pets unattended.
Store your food in a designated bear cache, vault, or hang.