The Chicago Basin in the San Juan Mountains is one of the first recommendations hikers receive when searching for backcountry destinations in the sprawling mountain wilderness of southwestern Colorado. Receiving around 100,000 visitors per year, the basin is one of the most popular destinations in the Weminuche Wilderness.
Access to the Chicago Basin is tricky and expensive. The Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is the only motorized access route to the Needle Creek trailhead, which requires a short hike in from Needleton, a stop along the railroad’s route about 20 miles south of Silverton along the Animas River. Unless hikers are willing to extend their trip by several days to accommodate the additional mileage, visiting the Chicago Basin requires a round-trip ticket on the railroad. That said, the ambiance of the ride and the historic nature of the experience justifies the expense, and traveling by rail to Needleton is well worth the price of a ticket—and anticipating backcountry travelers, the railroad offers specially priced tickets to backpackers.
Once in the basin, the hike ascends six miles to backcountry campsites along Needle Creek. Given its popularity, campsites are abundant. Depending on train schedules, make the effort to ascend the basin as far as possible. The best campsite sits in a copse of fir a short distance from the junction of the Twin Lakes and Columbine Pass trails. Nevertheless, campers will find comfortable campsites all along Needle Creek.
Flora and fauna in the Chicago Basin are abundant, and hikers here will find beautiful wildflowers throughout the year, although the spring bloom is especially magnificent. Deer regularly travel the basin at sunrise and sunset. The basin is famous for its semi-domesticated mountain goats, who travel throughout the basin as if private landowners, and if left to their own devices, will harass campers for food. In such circumstances, campers are advised to bang a rock on a hollow log, which distresses the goats and scares them off—“mama bear” them, as it were.
Use the Chicago Basin as a basecamp, and access a number of trails: three fourteeners are accessible as day hikes, and the ambitious can tackle all three in one day—Mt. Eolus, Windom Peak, and Sunlight Peak. Columbine Pass ascends the eastern reach of the canyon to Columbine Lake. Some may decide to exit the basin via the Vallecito Trail, which travels southeast to the Vallecito Reservoir.
Whatever the case, the Chicago Basin is a must-see destination in the San Juan Mountains—beautiful, remote, and rugged
Note: Given its heavy visitation, please be vigilant about Leave No Trace ethics. Pack out all trash and human waste, and avoid behaviors that will further habituate local wildlife to human presence.