When the locomotive rounds a corner on the high, exposed cliff above the Animas River, you can see the black steam engine chugging ahead into the mountains, as it’s done for the past 100 years. The majority of passengers on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad are bound for the old mining town of Silverton, where they'll stop for lunch and a photo-op before taking the train back to Durango.
Between 20 and 30 passengers, however, will not make it there. The train will leave them on the side of the tracks, deep within the Weminuche Wilderness. From there, they will hike six-miles up (and we mean up) to the fabled Chicago Basin.
Sitting at 11,200 feet beneath an amphitheater wall of 14,000-foot mountains, this bucket list destination attracts upwards of 5,000 hikers and mountaineers in a season. The steep spires, coated in snow through much of the summer, are nothing short of postcard material. For peak-baggers, this is one excursion not to miss: Mt. Eolus, Sunlight Peak, North Eolus, and Windom Peak rise easily above 14,000 feet and can be achieved in a four- or five-day trip.
In other words, taking the train to Chicago Basin is a must-do for any Durango-area adventurer. And, as the summer crowds wind down a bit, now is an ideal time to start planning a trip.
Some three hours after leaving Durango, the train stops near the Needle Creek trailhead. Backpacks, ice tools, and helmets are tossed from the coal car and hikers hurriedly dig through the pile to find their gear. The conductor waves goodbye and the wheel cranks slowly pump up and down, gaining speed, pushing the locomotive forward. It blows its horn, a deafening noise in the wilderness, and it’s gone. The six-mile hike into Chicago Basin is a steady, relentless uphill trudge. Following the cascading whitewater of Needle Creek, the trail leads hikers deeper and deeper into the Weminuche. For most, it takes four to five hours to reach the basin, putting you there around supper time. With upwards of 75 campers in the basin on a peak weekend, it can be a race against the other hikers to find a campsite for the night.
Chicago Basin is an unusually populous area within the Weminuche Wilderness, in large part because of the train access and cluster of climbs in the area. With so many other campers, it feels less like camping in the backcountry and more like a state park. Even the lanky, white mountain goats live here in mass. Strolling into your campsite in search of salt (generally found in your urine), the goats make no beans about following you to the bathroom. Because of the population density, the forest service passes out human waste bags to pack everything out. As the sun sinks, snow glistens atop the surrounding 14ers. Though Windom, the least difficult of the four peaks, is rated a Class II climb, most climbers have been using ice tools and crampons, even in July, thanks to an unusually wet summer that has left a thick coat of snow and ice in the San Juans. The other climbs range from Class III to IV.
Most hikers opt for a true alpine start — as early as 1 am — to tackle the surrounding 14ers. However, for a more relaxed excursion, you can access a multitude of trails within the Weminuche, a 500,000-acre wilderness area you could spend a lifetime exploring. From Chicago Basin, you can hike over Columbine Pass to the Vallecito Campground, a popular 3-4 day trip.
If you want a quintessential Durango experience, try ticking Chicago Basin off your list — as well as a few 14ers while you're there. Be sure to book your train ticket well in advance and plan on enjoying a well-deserved pint on the ride back to Durango.