Backpacking the West Elk Wilderness


Nov 22, 2016
The West Elk Wilderness is one of Colorado's least visited Wilderness areas. It's just west of Gunnison and Crested Butte.
With over 175,000 acres and 200+ miles of trails it's a great destination for solitude for the experienced backcountry traveler. Earlier this month I hiked a 51 mile loop through much of the eastern half of the Wilderness .

The area is remote and has a wild feel. There is plenty of great scenery and you will see very few if any people. The trails are often tough to follow and the trails are easy to lose. In fact I lost the trail altogether at one point and had to bushwhack up a 1400 vertical foot slope. My navigation was on and I was fine. I recommend the place if you have solid backcountry experience and confident on your map skills. Beginners may be overwhelmed. Signs are often missing at junctions and they don't include trail names or numbers. They are vague and many trail junctions aren't marked.

Click the link for the thorough trip report and 150 or so photos from my trip.

Here are a few photos to get an idea of the area.

West Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 017.jpgWest Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 049.jpgWest Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 058.jpgWest Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 074.jpgWest Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 088.jpgWest Elk Wilderness Backpack  July 1-2,2018 131.jpg
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The views look amazing!
Thanks for sharing!
I had a trip planned there for the end of June but I ended up starting on the Collegiate Loop early. Looks a lot prettier than I thought it I wish I'd tried my planned loop, although the lack of signage and good trails would not instill confidence in me.
Great area. One of the first trips I did in CO. The castles are one of the neatest rock formations I've seen - thanks for sharing.
I just checked out the blog post, it looks like you had a great couple of days with a lot of scenery, kind of crazy that there aren't more people.

thanks for the report
I had a trip planned there for the end of June but I ended up starting on the Collegiate Loop early. Looks a lot prettier than I thought it I wish I'd tried my planned loop, although the lack of signage and good trails would not instill confidence in me.
What was your planned route? Maybe I can tell you what trails were easier to follow if you send me your loop if I followed any of the same trails.
This is very close to my route. The Western point of your route where the 3.2 marker is-is the start of the Soap Basin Trail. This is where there is no sign leading to confusion. There is no sign at the next 3.2 mi section with a obvious trail that isn't actually a trail and finding the actual trail was tough. Then the 2.2 mi at the south part leading to South Baldy is the Sun Park Trail. The trail disappears in a rocky area. The higher reaches of this trail also disappear. From then you drop into Beaver Creek and this trail is rarely visible. The next part after the 6.6mi at the southern end disappears in a canyon and the trail climbing out I never found. Check out my link- it's pretty thorugh in discription and VERY close to your purple route.
Thanks a ton for sharing those pics @tomcat32! You really made my day! Took me back 20 years to my time in college exploring West Elk Wilderness and the Black Canyon of Gunnison. Now I'm itching to get back there!
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