The San Juan National Forest reopened on Thursday at 3pm and Chloe and I hit the road 24 hours later with Chicago Basin from the Purgatory TH as the goal. We arrived at the trailhead parking lot at 1am Colorado time and despite being exhausted, I couldn't fall asleep. Between being cold, the anticipation of waking up a few hours later, and Chloe growling at another hiker who pulled up next to us at 4am, I barely got any sleep. Luckily I had an iced coffee ready to go for the morning! After repacking by bag four times (it has never been so full!), Chloe and I hit the trail just before 6:30am.
The Purgatory Flats trail is a misnomer; it is not flat at all! There was a steep decline right off the bat that I knew would kick my butt on the way out (it did). The next few miles are rolling hills along Purgatory Creek (very scenic and peaceful) until the first bridge crossing at the Animas River Trail junction. After crossing the railroad tracks and scoffing at the lazy way most people approach the basin ;) we continued on the Animas River Trail, which was quite possibly my favorite section of trail the entire trip. This portion is mostly flat, allowing you to properly gawk at the gorgeous Animas River right next to the trail. I still had those fresh hiking legs, so Chloe and I averaged 3 mph until the Needle Creek junction 10 miles in. We took a snack and water filter break at the Needle Creek bridge, then headed out on our climb up to the basin. After a few minutes on the Needle Creek trail, we passed the cutest wilderness sign I've ever seen - but this was just the beginning of photo ops on this trail. The countless waterfalls along the trail made the next 7 miles of steady - and at times very steep - climbing much more bearable. However, I think our speedy start eventually caught up to me and the last 2-3 miles to the basin were pretty tough.
I've had Chicago Basin on my list for a few years, but was always deterred by its popularity. But when backpacking alone, I really don't mind having a few camping neighbors. When I talked with a ranger on Friday, he warned me that I would have a hard time finding a campsite because there would be 30-40 people camping in the basin this weekend. However, when Chloe and I reached the basin, I was shocked to see no one... no one at all!! We passed a few amazing campsites, but I was weary about camping completely by myself, so we continued on towards the meadow in hopes of finding a few people. We passed one tent (never saw its owner), and I decided to claim a spot somewhat nearby. I hung my food bag and backpack and grabbed a day bag to continue exploring and searching for a better campsite. There were two herds of mountain goats (each about 15 goats, with babies) that had laid claim to this entire area and kept blocking the trail every time Chloe and I needed to pass to filter water or check out campsites. Yeah, mountain goats are cool to see, but not when you have a dog that's whining and pulling towards them. A few of the larger goats were getting pretty aggressive with us, and actually cornered us back in our campsite a few times. After seeing one of the herds surround the lone tent we saw on the way in, I decided we definitely needed to find a new campsite, as the goats were unlikely to leave us alone the rest of the night. (I later learned from some other hikers that goats are attracted to human urine, so you shouldn't pee right outside your tent. They also said that goats hate coyote urine, so these guys actually brought some out with them...)
After exploring around and checking out a couple waterfalls, I finally heard some voices and was excited to run into three guys who were coming down from summitting a couple of the 14ers. In addition to imparting the coyote urine knowledge on me, they told me that the train from Silverton hadn't started running again yet (it apparently will start back up on the 30th), hence the lack of backpackers in the basin. I ended up relocating my campsite closer to them, about 1/4 of a mile away from their spot. It ended up being possibly the MOST AMAZING campsite I've ever had. The view of the peaks was incredible, and I couldn't take my eyes off them for the rest of the night. I had a little more difficulty hanging my food bag at this site than I did at the first one. All the trees in the area were skinny pines with really short branches. I enlisted one of the coyote urine guys to help me, and he basically just tried to convince me not to hang it. I ended up finding a decent spot later on and was pretty impressed with my food hanging abilities (first time I'd ever done it!). Chloe and I turned in around 8:30pm and again, despite being exhausted, I did not get nearly enough sleep. I really wasn't concerned about bears (or any other animals), but little Chloe woke me up several times throughout the night - shaking uncontrollably, wedging herself into the back corner of the tent, acting more terrified than I have ever seen her. She was on high alert most of the night, which obviously freaked me out. We were camped next to a creek, so I couldn't hear anything above the sound of the water, but Chloe must have. I'm assuming it was just deer, sheep, or goats, but I guess I'll never know! The nighttime temps were perfect. I was worried about being cold, camped over 11k feet, but it was very pleasant.
We woke up fairly early and enjoyed a lazy morning of breakfast, coffee, and strolls along the creek before packing up. I had originally planned on hiking about 10-12 miles out on Sunday and saving the last bit for Monday morning. However, after two sleepless nights, I really didn't feel like camping alone and dealing with Chloe's freakouts for another night. I figured the hike out might take all day - but what else did we have to do? Within the first mile, I realized I was totally beat and the entire hike out would be a struggle. I had bouts of energy for a few miles at a time and despite being exhausted, I still reveled in the absolute beauty of this area. We were super lucky with wildlife on this trip, and saw a moose and four bighorn sheep on our hike out! (More perks of not seeing a single soul in 17+ miles). The last couple miles out were really tough for me; I seriously can't remember being more exhausted on a hike or backpack. That last mile climbing out of Purgatory Flats was even steeper than I remembered and my back was killing me. Back at the car, I let Chloe cool off in the lake while I packed up and changed into Chacos, and then we were off for celebratory beer at Animas Brewery!
Mileage/AEG: This is based on my watch, which is sometimes over and sometimes under. I low-balled both the mileage and AEG quite a bit just to make sure I wasn't overstating what we did.
Final Thoughts: Although I had specifically selected this trip in order to have plenty of people to camp near to ease my nerves about bears, murderers. etc., I'm actually super happy we had the basin largely to ourselves. I'll never forget the views from our campsite, and the feeling of accomplishment in being completely self-sufficient and crushing nearly 40 miles at elevation in two days. I may never get the opportunity to have Chicago Basin to myself again and I'm very thankful that I was able to share this amazing experience with my badass trail dog.
*For anyone that actually read this entire trip log, sorry for its excessive length; this is what happens when you write trip logs while watching the Bachelorette for two hours...