Summit 3 Peaks in the Chicago Basin

Needleton Trailhead

Gorgeous backcountry campsites with alpine views. Three challenging 14ers. Options to loop this into much longer backpacking trips throughout the largest wilderness in the state. Wildlife. You get to ride on a train!

I tell people all the time that if they only do one hike in Colorado, this is it. You get a little taste of everything: Colorado history, wildlife, beautiful campsite views, 14ers, and the largest wilderness in the state.

This itinerary assumes you’re hitching a ride on the train from Silverton. It’s possible to do this hike in from the Purgatory Trailhead, but trust me, the ~$70 round trip train ticket from Silverton is well worth it (this is coming from someone who has done both). There’s also the option to come in from Durango, but the train ride is longer and the ticket is pricier.

After a soothing sixty minute ride on the historic narrow gauge train from Silverton, you get dropped off at the Needleton Trailhead. The next several hours will be the hardest of the trip, as the combination of a fully loaded pack and 3,000-ish feet of elevation gain stand in stark contrast to the ambling of train. But there’s plenty of water on the way up, so save some weight and stop frequently to filter instead of lugging extra H2O. The entrance to Chicago Basin is obvious after six miles, but don’t stop there. The best campsites are (lamentably) on the far end of the basin, just as you start to flirt with treeline. Pick a spot with a gorgeous view of the stars, but please respect the “no camping beyond this point” sign you’ll find on the way up to Twin Lakes.

I hope you packed extra vacation days, as Chicago Basin is the kind of place you’ll want to stay for a while. The siren’s call of three 14ers, Eolus, Windom, and Sunlight, will certainly tempt you. They’re just a couple of miles one-way from camp, but the final 3,000 feet of elevation gain makes for a steep admission cost. Summits aside, I’d also recommend saving time to lounge by Twin Lakes, hike up and over Columbine Pass, and spend an afternoon staring down the curious goats who will inevitably invade your camp. They’re mostly interested in your urine, and I should warn you that they will attempt to drink straight from the fountain if you let them.

Tips: If 14ers are on your to-do list, get up early. As in “I’m going to depart camp at 0500” early. Summer thunderstorms are notorious in the Rockies, but they typically roll in midday. Whatever you decide, keep one eye on the weather and another on the talus. There’s not much protection once you leave Chicago Basin! Fall is also a lovely time to go, but the weather can become fickle. We’ve had a day of gorgeous sunshine followed by torrential downpours, snow, and hail… and back to sunshine on day three. It’s all fun, as long as you’re prepared for it!

Pack List

  • Outerwear: Waterproof jacket, Insulation jacket, Gaiters (optional), Gloves
  • Base Layers: Long johns, Hiking top, Hiking pants, Underwear, Socks, Sock liner
  • Accessories: Beanie, Hat, Neck gaiter (optional), Camp gloves (optional)
  • Footwear: Waterproof boots, camp footwear
  • Backpacking Gear: Backpack, Daypack (optional), Helmet (optional), Sleeping bag, Sleeping pad, Tent, Headlamp, Water containers, Water filters, Lighter
  • Cook/Dishware: Stove, Utensils, Bowl, Cup
  • Additional: Watch, First aid kit, Medications, Sunscreen, Chapstick, Bug Repellant, Compass, GPS, Map
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Activities Camping, Backpacking, Hiking
Skill Level Intermediate
Season Summer, Autumn
Features
Scenic
Wildflowers
Wildlife

Reviews

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Overall rating: 

Chicago Basin

Hiked in via the Animas River trail since the train wasn’t running due to the wildfire threat. It made finishing this trek that much more rewarding although the train ride would have been fun! We managed to summit all 4 (Sunlight, Windom, Eolus, N Eolus) 14ers and we had each one to ourselves as not many people wanted to hike their way in. Definitely a must-do in Colorado!

Go in a storm for smaller crowds

A beautiful place and unique experience. The train ride was slow but it's a steam engine going through the mountains, so you can't exactly complain. The basin was stunning if not that remote feeling, but I went during a couple weeks of big storms so it wasn't too busy. The mountains all have different challenging aspects but doable during breaks in the weather.

Train To 14ers

This was a great adventure. We took the train on a Thursday to Needleton, backpacked up too Chicago Basin that night, and allowed for climbing peaks on Friday and Saturday. Fortunately, good weather allowed us to summit all 3 peaks in one day-Friday- it can be done if you start hiking early! The train allows you to ride back whatever day you want, so we hiked down the next day instead of waiting until Sunday like our tickets were for. The train back was awesome. They serve beer- which has never been more well deserved! We loved camping in the basin, the creek water was right nearby for filtering and was delicious. We did not encounter goats or bugs in early September but we heard they can be bad in this area.


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