Located in the heart of the Needle Mountains—deep in the Weminuche Wilderness—lies Chicago Basin. This beautiful valley makes up the headwaters of Needle Creek and is fed by numerous creeks and streams cascading from the peaks and ridges above.
Chicago Basin is a high-use area, not just for it's dramatic beauty, but for its easy access to four mountain peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. Needle Creek Trail #504 from Needleton is the easiest and most common access to the basin. Backpackers will board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG) and ride along the Animas River to Needleton, just north of where Needle Creek flows in.
Adjacent to the rail stop, a suspension bridge crosses the Animas, giving hikers dry and safe passage to the east side of the river. Signs will remind you that this is private property and you will see a few cabins through the trees. Please respect the residents here and stay on the trail. There are no facilities at the Needleton train stop, so it's good to plan ahead. It's a high use area, and posted signs ask that bathroom use should be avoided for at least half a mile from the stop. Be respectful and plan ahead!
The first 0.75 mile of trail is generally flat and heads south on an old double-track road. The junction of the Animas River Trail is signed, indicating 7 miles downstream to the Purgatory Trail (it's really only 5 miles, but whose counting?) Just a few yards later the trail veers east and you reach the official start of the Needle Creek Trail. There is an informational sign indicating the special regulations in Chicago Basin, a very detailed sign-in register, and free wag bags for users to carry their own waste out of the basin, followed by the sign indicating entrance into the Weminuche Wilderness.
Half a mile later, the drainage narrows, and the trail begins a steeper ascent. The climb generally parallels the north side of Needle Creek, sometimes at creek level, sometimes about a hundred feet higher on the adjacent hillside. At the 2.6 mile mark, a footbridge provides a dry crossing of New York Creek, one of many tributaries to Needle Creek.
There are no camping options along the trail due to the steep terrain until about 5 miles in. Beginning at the 5.5 mile mark, campsites are numerous along the final mile and a half to the east end of Chicago Basin. The largest and best campsites are generally found in the lower portion of Chicago Basin, with smaller but more numerous sites in the upper portion.
6.8 miles from Needleton the trail reaches a signed junction where #504 continues toward Columbine Pass, while another trail leads up to Twin Lakes Basin and the access to the fourteener peaks. There are a couple of campsites beyond this sign on both trails.
Chicago Basin Regulations:
Please note that Chicago Basin is a high use area and subsequently has some specific regulations. Chicago Basin receives over 10,000 user days in just 3-4 months per year. Please consider your impact and follow these special rules.
1. No campfires. Ever. All cooking must be done with a stove. This restriction is in place for the entire Needle Creek watershed and all its tributaries from the surrounding peaks to the Animas River.
2. No camping within 100 feet of any river, creek or other natural water source. There are sites that have been established that are in violation of this. Some have been posted as illegal, but most have not. Do not camp somewhere just because it has been done before. Rangers patrolling the area WILL make you move your camp!
3. Pack out toilet paper. This is required. It is requested that you also pack out all your waste. Due to high visitation, there are simply too many places people dig catholes and it is not uncommon to dig up a surprise from somebody who has been there before. Please consider using the free wag bags available at the trailhead to minimize impact on this area.
4. Waste burial and wash water must be more than 100 feet from a water source or hiking trail.
5. Group size limit is 15 persons.
6. Mountain Goats frequent Chicago Basin and are particularly keen to extract salts from the urine of human visitors. Please urinate on rock surfaces to minimize the impact of goats damaging grasses and plants while on their quest for salt.
7. No Camping in Twin Lakes Basin. Despite the closer access to the surrounding peaks, camping is prohibited above 11,500 feet.
Please note that in 2014 a permit/registration system was scheduled to be implemented to limit the number of visitors to Chicago Basin. The implementation of this system was delayed indefinitely due to budget cuts that would prevent successful management of the new requirements. It would not be unreasonable to expect a permit/registration system in the future.
Each of these requires climbing 1.25 miles and 1,300 feet above Chicago Basin on a well maintained trail to the picturesque Twin Lakes Basin before continuing to your chosen peak(s).
Riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad:
The D&SNG is a historic train that serves sightseeing tourists and backpackers alike. Pricing and schedules vary from year to year, but additional train capacity is available during the busiest summer months. You'll have to make reservations ahead of time by contacting the railroad at www.durangotrain.com. You may ride the train from Durango to Needleton, a trip that takes about 2.5 hours, or begin in Silverton, reaching Needleton in about an hour. Not all trains stop at Needleton, and those that do may still require you to notify the conductor of your intention to disembark. Instructions will be given so you know how to flag down the train for your return trip.
The highest visitation to Chicago Basin is from July 4th through Labor Day. Before and after these dates, snow is common at the higher elevations. Summer is prime season for mountain thunderstorms which can happen at any time. The high elevations of the Needle Mountains can result in quickly changing conditions, dangerous lightning, wind, hail, and snow any month of the year. Be aware and prepare for swiftly changing conditions.
There are numerous creeks and lakes. All water should be treated as all are a source of giardia.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.