Backpacking the Chicago Basin in Colorado

Take an iconic step back in time with a train ride to your trailhead departure and entry in to the Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado.

Disconnecting from the real world with my son is one of my favorite things to do. On this particular trip we were joined by 6 other boys ages 12-16 + 2 adults on a mountaineering adventure. If you don’t have experience in the backcountry, don’t make this your first trip.

How do I get to the Chicago Basin?

You’ll board the Durango to Silverton train, it’s a national treasure, unique, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to step back in time.

Durango Train to Backpacking Hiking

This train has been in continuous operation since 1882! Your backpacking trip to the Chicago Basin in the San Juan mountains isn’t an option without the train (unless you want to hike a really long way and extend your trip an extra 5+ days).

Inside of the Silverton to Durango Train

You’ll want to plan ahead and purchase your tickets to secure an opportunity to enter the wilderness area.

Scenic Train Durango

The morning of your departure you’ll handoff your pack to a conductor and board the train. The trip from Durango to the Needleton stop is about 2.5 hours (the train is very slow). We arrived at about 11am on July 30th, 2019 at Needleton. All of the packs are unloaded and the train departs leaving you (and about 30 other people) all alone.

Getting off the train to backpack to camp.

It’s about a half mile walk to the Needle Creek Trailhead where the majestic and challenging hike begins.

The start of the hike.

There’s no cell service, no amenities, just miles of incredible scenic views, the sounds of rushing water, and the excitement in what lies ahead.

Taking a rest on our way to camp.

From the trailhead to camp: 6 miles. The elevation gain to camp is over 4,000 vertical feet, get those lungs ready cause you’re over 10,000ft above sea level. The trail is well maintained and the hike is along a beautiful mountain stream with lots of great places to rest and and enjoy views and sounds.

Plan on late afternoon to early evening before you get to camp. You won’t find good camping spots until you’ve hiked about 6 miles. In fact, don’t try to camp near the water (it’s not allowed) and you won’t find a good spot early on (you wouldn’t want to anyway) – the magic is just ahead…

Camp and games

Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness

This area tops my list for the most beautiful places on earth. #1. The cascading waterfalls, wildlife, avalanche remnants, and lofty peaks are breathtaking. The trails are incredible and there are a lot less people here than any other backpacking wilderness area I’ve been to. It’s said that over 10,000 folks visit the Chicago Basin each year. We saw people but it wasn’t even close to being a problem or aggravating (like some hikes can be).

Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness

Wildlife

Get up close to some amazing (you won’t see these at home) animals. Avoid feeding animals (you’ll have the chance to get that close). The animals in the Chicago Basin (in my opinion) are safe, you really don’t need to worry about bears (like you would in other backcountry camping spots).

Marmots

Marmot in Colorado
Oops… wrong focus.

Marmots are very common. Expect to have close encounters and plan where you store specific items. They are known to chew up gear and we experienced this firsthand. On one of our 14er ascents we left the poles behind… when we returned we caught a Marmot in the act of carrying away one of the hiking poles. Dirty little guy. When you leave camp just hang your poles and gear on a high branch, they don’t climb, you’re good.

Rocky Mountain Goats

Rocky Mountain Goats are also very common. You’ll get close to the goats. Here’s the thing with the goats, they like your pee. That’s right, they’re going to mop up after you go. You’ve been warned.

Goats in the Rocky Mountains

These Rocky Mountain Goats will join you in camp and on your hike.

Rocky Mountain Goats

I’ve also read that snowshoe hares are common but I didn’t notice any. Also: bears are possible but unlikely. We didn’t see any bears or any signs there had been bears. We did see Mule Deer but they were afar off, no good pictures and there wasn’t that many.

Cascading Waterfalls

Cascading Waterfalls at Chicago Basin in Colorado

There are no shortages of water features in the Chicago Basin. Water is everywhere and it’s amazing.

Cascading Waterfalls

Depending on when you go, you’ll probably get wet… either from the ground or sky. Worth it.

Climbing the Peaks

The hike up to Mt. Eolus (looking back at the Chicago Basin)

Looking for an incredible climb with incredible views… there’s a lot offered here. The three 14ers available to climb are:

  • Mt. Eolus – 14,083 ft
  • North Eolus – 14,039 ft (Counting this and Mt. Eolus as 1)
  • Sunlight Peak – 14,059 ft
  • Windom Peak – 14.087 ft

To get to the peaks you’ll climb up to the Twin Lakes and from there branch off to which 14er you want to hit (you can do all in the same day).

Twin Lakes

On our first day we opted for Mt. Eolus which was a challenge (mentally, keeping an eye on (2) 12 year old boys).

Mt. Eolus
Mt. Eolus

The scramble up and down was fun and the views were incredible. We had to cross a few snow fields and even got to butt sled down a couple. Woot.

Climbing a 14er.

When we got back to Twin Lakes it was swim swim time.

Twin Lakes Swimming
Twin Lakes Swimming
Let's jump in to a cold lake.
Splash in the cold water.
Swimming in a mountain lake.

Weminuche Wilderness

Where exactly is the Chicago Basin? Located in the Weminuche Wilderness, the Chicago Basin is best accessed via the Durango to Silverton train. The wilderness area is the largest in Colorado at 499,771 acres. The Weminuche was designated by Congress in 1975, and expanded by the Colorado Wilderness Acts of 1980 and 1993.

The Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness is accessible via a stop on the Durango to Silverton train which is about 20 miles south of Silverton, CO and 30 miles from Durango, CO along the Animas River.

Chicago Basin

Backcountry Adventure Checklist

After several years of going in to the backcountry there are a few things I wouldn’t want to go without: flint and steel (no need for matches), plenty of treats, and a gravity water filter. The best advice I can give: travel as light as you possibly can. Traveling light makes the journey more enjoyable. This list is NOT in order of importance.

  • Rugged Backpack (fit to your body size)
  • Food (lightweight – freeze dried is a good option – plan your days – plan for snacks)
  • Very small backpacking stove with heat source (gas) to heat water (for freeze dried food)
  • Utensil to eat freeze dried food out of bag
  • Water Filter / Purification
  • Water bottles / reserves 
  • Headlamp
  • First aid kit
  • Rain gear (not a must have – it’s nice to have if it rains)
  • Hiking Boots
  • Quality Socks
  • Clothing including hiking pants (no jeans) 
  • Shorts (even if it’s cold, you’ll want shorts)
  • Sweatpants for sleeping
  • Warm clothing (for cold nights) – ie beanie + jacket
  • Tent or sleeping hammock
  • Sleeping bag or blanket / pillow
  • Pocket knife
  • Small poo shovel
  • Toilet paper
  • Camp Flip flops 
  • Sunglasses 
  • Flint and steel
  • Extra batteries for headlamp
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Large ziplock bags for trash
  • Insect Repellant

Chicago Basin (highly recommended)

I highly recommend the Chicago Basin for your next adventure. It’s a rugged and extremely beautiful area with an iconic mode of transportation to the trailhead. If you have questions, ask them in the comments!

Last day of camp.
Last day of our backcountry Adventure (waiting for the train)
2 comments
  1. Did this trek in July 1976 with seven others from my ski club. Conditioned ourselves beforehand for months to be in shape for the altitude. The whole adventure was life changing and memorable. Chicago Basin had many hikers. I called it the Colfax Avenue of the Rockies. It rained every afternoon. Should have known. The whole basin was full of gorgeous Columbine. I stayed alone in camp one day, reading when a mule deer came into camp and jumped over me. I screamed so loud my echo rang through the valley it seemed forever. We heard drilling behind us up on the mountain and discovered a camp exploratory drilling for molybdenum. Was surprised to encounter that in a wilderness area. A hobbled mule met us on the trail coming into the basin. Must have been to get supplies to the mining camp.I brought along pens and sketchbook and filled it up. What a difficult but wonderful trip. So glad I did not miss out on the opportunity. It was not my first backpack into the Rockies. But it was the longest, the most difficult and the most memorable. I will be 73 this year, and thank God I did this trek. Just beautiful to be in God’s country.

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