Chicago Basin is a remote alpine oasis in the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. The basin is a popular spot for climbers and backpackers and is home to three Colorado Fourteeners (mountains over 14,000 feet). The access point to Chicago Basin is somewhat unusual, but that’s what makes this trip so special. There aren’t any roads to the trailhead so you have two options. You can walk seven miles to the trailhead via the Purgatory trail, Or you can take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Wanting to make sure we had a one of a kind experience, we chose the latter.
From Durango, you board the old-school steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Once the conductor loads your pack onto the boxcar, and you board the train, you feel like your stepping back in time. The majority of the passengers on the train are just along for the scenic ride. We rode in with roughly twenty other backpackers. While the train offers many different types of train cars and classes of service, we chose a seat in an open-air gondola car. This afforded us some amazing and unobstructed views as we departed Durango along the Animas River and into the beautifully rugged San Juan Mountains. Pro Tip: bring some cash or card to purchase snacks or a drink from the snack car. You may not want it on the way in, but you’ll definitely want something on the way out after spending a few nights in the backcountry.
We brought along our books to pass the two and a half hours that it takes for the train to arrive at the Needleton creek stop, but we were too distracted to read. The train has a knowledgeable guide on board who points out noteworthy landmarks and photo opportunities. As you approach Needleton Creek, a conductor comes through the cars and gathers the backpackers and readies them to depart the train. The Needleton Creek stop is little more than a flat spot next to the river where backpackers can get their bags and hit the trail. It’s quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
From the Needleton Creek trailhead, you cross the Animas River on a suspension bridge and hike along Needle Creek for roughly six miles. You quickly enter the Weminuche Wilderness (where you will need to fill out a free permit) and forget about the world behind you. If we’re being honest, this approach leaves a little to be desired. It’s mostly socked in by trees and after a while, everything starts to look the same. This didn’t stop us from enjoying our hike in the woods, but it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. It’s not until you reach the actual basin itself, that the true beauty of the Needle Mountains (a subrange of the San Juan Mountains) reveals it’s self. The approach is straightforward and after about five miles you will start to see camping on both sides of the trail. Chicago Basin sees a lot of traffic in the summer months and as a result, it is important to select a campsite wisely. Always use pre-formed campsites and make sure to camp at least 100 feet from any water source. We found a wonderful spot near the junction for Colombine pass at roughly 11,300 feet above sea level. This is about as high up as you can legally camp. Camping is prohibited in the actual basin. Just remember, if you’ve hit the switchbacks, you’ve gone too far.
A few important things to note about camping in the Needle Creek Watershed: Fires are prohibited. There is a lot of beetle kill in the area. Avoid camping under or near dead timber. If you have to pee, it’s wise to pick a spot away from your camp and always away from water! The entire area has a healthy population of mountain goats who visited our camp every night. They need the salt from your urine and they’re not afraid to get it. The best way to avoid confrontation is to use the restroom away from your camp. Speaking of using the restroom, the forest service is asking all backpackers to pack out their waste. Please help keep this area pristine and pack out your waste and toilet paper along with the rest of your trash. Always Leave No Trace! We ended up packing out some thoughtless hikers poop bags after they decided that they had had enough of carrying their own weight and left their trash on the side of the trail. If you can’t pack out your own trash – you have no business in the wilderness. Hang everything at night and while you are away from camp. The critters in the area are not afraid of humans and they will chew on anything they get to sink their teeth into. We had a marmot come into camp while we were relaxing and start chewing on our hiking boots. This may seem like overkill, but it’s common in this area. Trust us. Hang. Everything.
Twin Lakes is a popular destination for folks who aren’t up for summiting the areas 14er’s. When we were there in early August the lakes were still half-frozen and each mountain had at least some snow to cross before you could make it to the summit. Our goal was to summit all three Chicago Basin fourteeners in two days. While these aren’t the hardest fourteeners to climb in Colorado, they are not for the inexperienced.
On the morning after our approach, we left camp at roughly 4:45 in the morning. We wanted to grind out as much elevation as possible before the sun came up. We decided to climb Sunlight Peak first. This turned out to be the most fun of the three mountains to climb. This is a class 3 climb, with a handful of somewhat exposed class 4 moves near the summit. The rock is wonderfully steady granite that made for a fun climb. Some consider the summit block on Sunlight to be the most exposed of all of the Colorado 14ers. On flat ground, it would simply be a 2.5-foot hop, but making this class 4 move at 14,000 ft surrounded by huge drops on all sides is not for the faint of heart.
Once we summited Sunlight we turned our sights across the valley to Windom Peak. Windom is supposed to be the easiest of the three peaks but due to difficult rout finding it was more challenging than we had anticipated. From Sunlight we were able to glissade down to the valley that separates these two mountains. Due to snow cover, we never did find the actual trail so we just worked our way up to the Windom saddle and headed for the summit. This route is considered to be a difficult class 2 climb but after climbing it we consider the rout a class 3. No doubt we got off the actual route and that made things more difficult. Once we found the summit the rest was easy – Glissade down to Twin Lakes and head for camp. We returned to camp around 1:00 PM without the threat of severe weather.
The next morning we set out for Mt Eolus – another class 3 climb with a significant risk of exposure and difficult route finding. This climb actually turned out to be the spiciest of the three mountains. We had a GPS route as well as a thorough description from Gerry Roach’s Colorado 14ers guide book and route finding was still rather difficult. On this mountain, getting off route can mean instantly increasing the difficulty and exposure of your climb. If you find yourself making moves that are significantly harder that you have been making, you are off route and you should turn around. All of that being said, this was a fun climb and definitely the most exposed of the three mountains. From afar the mountain looks daunting but as you get closer, you’ll be amazed that there is, in fact, a path to the summit.
Chicago Basin has notoriously bad weather and we were determined to the summit before the predicted afternoon thunderstorms. If you plan on climbing these mountains it’s best to check 14ers.com for the latest trip and conditions reports. Each mountain has a unique set of challenges and risk of exposure. For that reason, we recommend not attempting to climb unless you have a helmet. There was still quite a bit of lingering snow in early August and for this, we also used Micro Spikes and an ice axe.The return train comes at the same time every day and you have to flag it down if you want to be picked up. It’s a surreal experience hearing the steam engine blast its whistle from several miles down the valley. Backpackers line the train tracks and get ready for the scenic ride back to Durango.
There is one way for this tour to be a reality– our sponsors! Sending a thank you shout out to all of our awesome sponsors that make this tour happen: Sea to Summit, Mountain House, Lowe Alpine, Leki, Big Agnes, Stio, Roofnest, and Franklin County, VA. For more info on our sponsors, check out the post, “Live Outside and Play is Back!”