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Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin, CO

no permit
28 4 0
Guide 4 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List CO > Southwest
4.5 of 5 by 2
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Difficulty 1.5 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance One Way 6.85 miles
Trailhead Elevation 8,228 feet
Elevation Gain 2,976 feet
Accumulated Gain 3,064 feet
Avg Time One Way 3 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 17.06
Interest Seasonal Waterfall, Perennial Waterfall, Seasonal Creek & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
Inaugural Calculation on Button Tap!
13  2016-09-05
Durango & Silverton NG Railroad
36  2016-09-03
Chicago Basin from Purgatory TH
15  2016-09-03 chumley
40  2014-09-01
Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road - CT #25
Author chumley
author avatar Guides 74
Routes 667
Photos 13,162
Trips 1,416 map ( 10,534 miles )
Age 46 Male Gender
Location Tempe, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Aug, Jul, Jun, Sep → Any
Seasons   Early Summer to Early Autumn
Sun  5:52am - 6:19pm
Official Route
1 Alternative
Friendly Confines
by chumley

Likely In-Season!
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.

The Hike:
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.

The Fourteeners:
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).
North Eolus

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 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.

Water Sources:
There are numerous creeks and lakes. All water should be treated as all are a source of giardia.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your hike to support this local community.

2016-09-08 chumley

    One-Way Notice
    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.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    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...
    Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Durango & Silverton NG Railroad
    To access the Needle Creek Trail to Chicago Basin, we opted for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad rather than the 12 mile hike from Purgatory.

    Departing from Durango at 8:30a was a little early since we were driving from Arizona, so we opted for the 2:30p departure from Silverton. This doesn't work for everybody since you have to start hiking so late in the day. But Silverton has benefits such as free parking. Plus it's a fun little historic mountain town to spend some time in.

    The train ride from Silverton to Needleton is about an hour and didn't disappoint. We had seats in the closed passenger cars, but I'd recommend the open air car in all but the most miserable of weather. It was raining for part of the trip and it was still nice in the open air car (it has a roof). If it's not too busy you can always wander from car to car if you need and there's a bar car with snacks, booze, and Ska beer! :)

    Apparently weekends are not the busiest times, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are busiest. So keep that in mind.

    The full trip from Durango to Silverton might be a little much ... I think it takes 3.5 hours, but using it as a means to get to a cool backpacking destination is highly recommended. The Animas River valley/canyon is spectacular.
    Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Chicago Basin is an outstanding backpacking location ... if not a little bit overcrowded. Despite our arrival on Saturday evening on Labor Day weekend, we were happy to find a pretty good campspot out of the way of the numerous others. In fact, despite there being well over 100 people in the basin, it was actually surprising how peaceful it was. There was quite a bit of room for everybody to spread out.

    The hike up after the train dropped us off in Needleton was steady but not difficult. The grade was moderate with only a couple of short steeper sections. The trail was almost always along the creek, so the sound of flowing water was plentiful. We reached the basin just before sunset, got camp set up and dinner finished before staying up for a couple hours. I'm pretty sure we were the only camp in the basin with party lights. :y: They're a near necessity here since there is a permanent fire ban.

    In the morning we stayed in our tents and waited out some rain before heading out on various day hikes (described in a separate triplog).

    That night the skies cleared and it got really cold. OK, it wasn't that cold (mid to upper 30s) but without a fire and a steady breeze, plus the air and ground raw with moisture from the earlier rain, it just felt cold. We all retired to the warmth of our sleeping bags fairly early.

    Monday morning we hit the trail at 8, leaving plenty of time to get to the train before 11:15. For a Labor Day departure, we were not alone! :o Nonetheless, the hike downhill was pleasant and it was great to hop on the train back to Silverton.

    One of two rangers I spoke with (rangers who actually hike and spend time in the wilderness! :o ) said he counted 62 tents in the basin on Sunday morning and from his count at the train stop it was girl power weekend with the ladies outnumbering the gents. : queen :

    I'd love to come back here again sometime. There are so many worthy destinations that are accessible from Chicago Basin! :)
    Needle Creek Trail #504 to Chicago Basin
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    Day 1: Little Molas Lake to Elk Creek Trail, about 11 miles. See the narrow gauge railroad train making its 11:30 stop in Elk Park. Crossing the Animas river, it wasn't as big as I thought, but the trail is great. Most people are out there trying to bag Vestal Peak. Once you get past the ponds the population thins significantly.

    Day 2: Elk Creek Trail over the Continental Divide to Beartown, going back up and over Hunchback Pass, and down into Vallecito Creek, about 16 miles. Passed a cool miner cabin and many mines, and the continental divide is reasonably easy to bag. Pretty quiet for the rest of the day. Vallecito would be nice except there is too much horse crap all over it.

    Day 3: Vallecito Creek to Johnson Creek and up and over Columbine Pass to Chicago Basin, about 12 miles. Johnson Creek Trail is very nice all the way to Columbine Lake. I saw a herd of mountain goats in the distance past the lake. The worst part of this trip was Columbine pass. The trail is bad getting to the pass, and terrifying for about 150 yards on the other side. The trail is pitched about 20 degrees sideways and 15 degrees down. You are trying to place your feet on tiny scree pellets hoping your feet don't start sliding and you die falling into the gully to your left where you won't stop for at least 1000 feet. Once past this the trail gets better. It was quite crowded in Chicago Basin.

    Day 4: Woke up to mountain goats in my camp. Took many photos, then climbed up to Twin Lakes and decided to climb Mt Windom, my first mountain peak over 14k. The toughest part is to control your pace and breathing, with the thin air. You want to go fast but the body will quickly break down on you if you go too fast. The trail gives out about 500 ft above twin lakes, but there are many cairned paths to choose from. It is a hike until you get to a large saddle, then the last 600 ft is class 2+ climbing over boulders all the way to the peak. After 300 ft of climbing there is a narrow saddle to cross, past this is where the physical effort really increases. The last 300 ft seemed to take 3 times as long as expected. Snow and lack of desire ended up with me deciding to not scale any more peaks. Rained at night for many hours.

    Day 5: Down Needle Creek, along the Animas River and up Purgatory, about 13 miles This hike was relatively straightforward and the scenery was great. Heard a couple of trains pass by. Saw only one of them. It didn't seem hard but I was perhaps the most sore after this day.

    Day 6: Up Purgatory, along unnamed trails and the highway, then up Cascade Creek and Engine Creek, about 11 miles. This was a lot of elevation gain but it is spread out except for a portion of Engine Creek that is steep. Took a side trip to see the falls along the cascade creek trail. Found a perfect campsite along the Engine Creek Trail with a picnic table, miles from anywhere. Nice way to finish off the camping.

    Day 7: Up Engine Creek and Engineer Mountain Trail to the Colorado Trail, which I follow all the way back to Little Molas Lake, about 12 miles. Once gaining the elevation a bit of rain rolled through but it cleared up. Saw a bunch of marmots, and a ton of sheep at the end.

    Most people do about half this loop using the train to get in to Elk Creek and Take out at Needleton. Given the cost and the reviews I've heard, I was glad to take the 2 extra days and do the extra miles to do this as a loop rather than take the train. I packed enough food for 9 days expecting the possibility of thunderstorms. Several days it almost turned bad but the weather stayed just good enough that I was able to stay on schedule. Lightning was the biggest concern, as I might not have be able to go over treeline, so best to plan for a few extra days. However, the pack is quite heavy with all that food. The first few days were a drag with the big pack.

    I would recommend this loop to anyone, but halving it by using the train appears to be the more popular option you may also want to check out.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    Connector trail - Not Applicable

    To hike
    Reach Needleton by taking the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Needleton (info in description) or by hiking 9.5 miles on the Purgatory and Animas River Trails.
    page created by chumley on Sep 08 2016 6:22 pm
    3 pack - loud whistle
    go prepared
    help comment issue

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