If the Mobil Travel Guides rated wilderness, Chicago Basin would certainly garner five stars. It is nestled high in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, one of the most rugged and seductive alpine regions to be found in the 48 contiguous states.
At 11,000 feet above sea level, its long, terraced valley is filled with grassy meadows, frequently ablaze with wildflowers. Wide swaths of spruce and fir yield habitat for abundant wildlife. Towering over all are the rocky crags and soaring spires of the aptly named Needle Mountains. Tucked well within the boundaries of the Weminuche (WEM-in-ooch) Wilderness Area, no motor vehicles are permitted in its protected lands. The way for the photographer to experience this Shangri-La is through backpacking.
While there are several trailheads providing access into Chicago Basin, most people choose to ride the century-old Denver & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton, the closest access point. Trains run from May through October, but the best time to backpack is from early July, when some of the winter’s snow still lingers, through mid-September, when the aspen leaves shine golden in the autumn sun. Wildflowers are at their prime in late July or early August.
The trip starts in Durango, Colorado. While hotel reservations are suggested, rail reservations are absolutely necessary and are best obtained months in advance. No pets are allowed on the train.
Riding the train is an adventure in itself. Departing the Durango station with a long whistle blast and lusty hiss of steam, the historic coal-fired engine slowly chugs through town, then up a broad valley toward the waiting mountains. After 18 miles, the tracks enter the contorted defile of the Animas River Canyon, where the route traverses land inaccessible to automobiles. A unique photo opportunity arrives when, at one long curve, passengers can poke cameras out the windows and shoot ahead to the smoke-belching engine or back to the trailing red caboose.
At the old mining camp and rail stop of Needleton, 2½ hours north of Durango, the trail to Chicago Basin begins. The train stops, hikers quickly disembark, gear is unloaded, and soon backpackers ranging from toddlers to Social Security recipients begin the 7-mile trek. They follow a trail that parallels the Animas River downstream until it reaches the angry torrents of Needle Creek, where it turns upward, following the remains of an old wagon road.
Under a small footbridge 2 miles up the canyon, New York Creek cascades down in a series of photogenic waterfalls. A short spur trail on its west side leads to some mining-camp ruins. The best-preserved edifice is a two-hole outhouse, perhaps showing which structures the early miners thought were the most important.
Beyond New York Creek, the trail advances deeper into nature’s wild domain. A violent flood in 1971 ripped out much of the century-old road, so a replacement path has been rerouted higher and away from Needle Creek. Across the canyon, the potency of winter’s avalanches is unambiguously displayed. Broken trees, like enormous spilled toothpicks, litter the distant canyon bottom.
In the Rocky Mountains, afternoon thunderstorms are the norm. Good-quality rain wear is essential, as are quick-drying clothes. Heavy cotton jeans should be left at home – they take too long to dry. The steady uphill trudge dictates light packs. Photo gear should be limited to one or two bodies, a few lenses, a light tripod and, of course, lots of memory cards.
After 5 miles of steady uphill hiking, the trail emerges from the trees at the lower end of Chicago Basin. Needle Creek streams unaggressively through meadows carpeted with wildflowers. Beyond, stands of deep-green conifers shelter the open glades from the dark, talus-covered peaks that enclose this valley. The great campsites found here tempt the weary, but the best are found higher up the basin.
At the end of one long meadow, the trail splits. A climbers’ path forks north, ascending steeply toward the trio of 14,000-foot peaks that border the basin. The main route follows the creek, then branches southeast, gently rising in the direction of Columbine Pass. It soon passes the remains of a dilapidated log cabin. At an accompanying mine, twisted tracks that once guided ore carts still emanate from the tunnel’s mouth. High on a terrace below the cirque of Columbine Pass, several tree-sheltered campsites beckon. For the photographer, these spots are ideal.
The Forest Service suggests groups be kept under 10. Campsites should be situated away from trails and streams, and campfires are not allowed. All cooking must be done on backpacking stoves. Because of the threat of giardia, all drinking water must be filtered, purified or boiled.
After camp is established, it’s time to grab the camera and enjoy the fascinating opportunities that abound here. In late July, after a good snowfall year, the wildflowers in Chicago Basin can be simply fantastic. Meadows, both above and below timberline, burst with color. The magnificent Colorado blue columbines beckon, but their long stems make them dance in the lightest breeze. Patience is necessary. Several varieties of paintbrush offer variations on the theme of red. Other flowers growing in profusion include kings and queens crown, bistort, mountain bluebells, sky pilot, larkspur, elephant head and enough varieties of yellow, white and lavender composites to keep anyone busy trying to identify them all.
The combination of ragged peaks, lush meadows, emerald forests, translucent lakes and azure skies makes Chicago Basin a place for superb landscapes. Without leaving camp, one can shoot storm clouds enveloping the high summits. When the storms clear, the naked mountains reflect the ruddy glow of the setting sun.
From camp, two long hikes lead to incomparable landscape possibilities. The first requires hiking over Columbine Pass, departing camp at the first hint of dawn. The steep trail is well-maintained and easy to follow. The last of the trees are quickly skirted, and the slopes come alive with wildflowers. From the pass, the early-morning light can be caught sneaking up Johnson Creek and slowly streaming down the slopes of Mount Eolus.
The trail descends a short distance from the pass to the alpine tundra surrounding Columbine Lake. On the gentle slopes above, the remains of the 1890s mining activity that brought fortune-seekers to this area are clearly visible. Fortunately, the mineral deposits consisted of tiny amounts of gold and silver mixed with tons of worthless rock. Claims could only be worked in the summer, and the low-grade ore was never profitable to mine. When the miners departed, they left a legacy of abandoned tunnels, decaying shacks and derelict equipment, all providing interesting contrasts to the surrounding natural world.
From Columbine Lake, a short walk over a small saddle at the base of Hope Mountain leads to the nearly circular Hazel Lake and its much smaller, downstream companion. Looming more than a thousand feet above its shore are the dark, precipitous summits of Jupiter Mountain, and Grizzly and McCauley peaks.
The return to camp is back over Columbine Pass. If the weather cooperates, stay atop the saddle to watch the pinnacles of Organ Mountain and its companions blush with the setting sun. Descending in the late hours, one is treated to similar rust-colored hues reflecting from the jagged peaks along Needle Ridge.
Another all-day photography outing is a hike to Twin Lakes, two crystalline bodies of water nestled at the uppermost end of the basin. From camp, follow the trail back down to Needle Creek. At the junction just downstream, take the climbers’ path as it zigs and zags steeply up the slopes. While nice views can be had looking down the valley, it is the barren peaks and cascading creek that command the most attention. A waterfall along the trail provides an excellent opportunity to photograph its spray in the early-morning light. More falls and cascades follow.
Twin Lakes are tucked at the base of the wall of crags and spires that form the terminus of the Chicago Basin. To the west is the 14,083-foot summit of Mount Eolus, and to the east is Windom Peak, only a foot shorter. Connecting the two, the imposing towers of Twin Thumbs, Peak Eleven, Needle Ridge, Sunlight Spire and the summit of the third fourteener, Sunlight Peak (14,059), jut skyward like the teeth of a ripsaw.
Those who are ambitious can climb Windom Peak for fantastic views of mountains in all directions. Another excellent vantage point is from the unmarked pass beside Twin Thumbs. Those lacking such ambition can fill a memory card just in the rocky basin surrounding the lakes.
Next to the shore, the grass grows full, providing habitat for the local mountain goat herd. Accustomed to people, these animals seem to have lost their fear of humans. Sit quietly, and the goats will descend, offering excellent opportunities for great portraits with shorter lenses.
Back at camp, more goats can frequently be seen feasting on the nearby vegetation. In addition, Rocky Mountain mule deer are numerous in the Chicago Basin area, and those who are lucky may spot elk or black bears. After capturing images of the large mammals, try photographing smaller creatures like the ever-present ground squirrels, chipmunks, marmots, pika, pine martins, ptarmigan or the overly friendly Clark’s nutcrackers that always seem to be around camp looking for a handout.
At some point, memory cards will be filled, the food devoured and the vacation time expended. It is then time to depart. With gravity assisting, the descent back to Needleton goes quickly. The afternoon train will eventually arrive. Even though it may be bursting with tourists returning from Silverton, riding this transportation of a bygone era will help to ease re-entry into the modern world. All too soon, it will be back to the car, check into the hotel, savor a long, hot shower and devour some spicy Mexican food.
The days and nights passed in the high country will quickly become a memory – but a memory well preserved through the resplendent images shot in the place called Chicago Basin.
If You Go
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge: Reservations (970-247-2733, durangotrain.com) for the railroad are best obtained well in advance. Be sure to request the backpacker train since not all departures stop at the wilderness trailheads. No pets are allowed onboard.
Backpacking: Permits are not needed for private trips, but the Forest Service requests that groups be kept to 10 or fewer. Campfires are prohibited, so all cooking must be done on backpacking stoves. Mountain bikes and motorized equipment are prohibited. For information, contact the San Juan National Forest’s Public Lands Center in Durango (970-247-4874, www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan).
Accommodations: For a list of lodging options, check with the Durango Area Tourism Office and Visitor Center (800-463-8726, durango.org). Because this is a popular summer tourist destination, advance reservations are strongly suggested.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.