“An easy approach into the alpine heaven that is Chicago Basin.”
— Tyler Prince
Fall Colors · Lake · River/Creek · Views · Waterfall · Wildflowers · Wildlife
Access to this trail is by train: the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (durangotrain.com/ride-us
). While this provides a unique 14er experience, it is only an option 5/2-10/31. See the site for specifics. While Chicago Basin is technically closer to Silverton, the train starts in Durango each morning, so it is faster to ride from there.
The land manager requests dogs be leashed, although the railroad prohibits them outright. Also, campfires are prohibited in the basin.
With low grades, good distance, and an excellent trail with few rocks or roots, this might be one of the coolest runs in the state. Take the train in, run up into stunning Chicago Basin, and enjoy some cold beers on the ride back into town.
From downtown Durango, follow signs to the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. There is a large gravel parking lot just south of town; it's pay-to-park but safe and cheap. To permit ample time to run into Chicago Basin, take the 8:00 AM train from Durango to Silverton. Your pack will be placed in a boxcar and unloaded by train staff when you get off, so it might be worth having a daypack for water and valuables. This trail begins at the Needleton stop, 30 miles (2.5 hrs) north of Durango.
The train ride itself is a lot of fun. Sit inside or on covered open-air cars, making trips as needed onto the bar car for Durango's famous "Modus Hoperandi" IPA or for any other beverages that might strike your fancy. Enjoy the scenic ride along the blue-green Animas River and past many stunning cliffs and waterfalls. Start your run at the suspension footbridge at the Needleton stop (it's worth noting that this isn't a town, just a train stop in the middle of nowhere).
Cross over the Animas on the bridge. If you brought extra beer for the train ride back (you did, didn't you, you genius) stash it under some rocks in the shallow river. Gain a smooth, flat trail, and run about 0.8 miles to a junction. Stay left here. The trail to the right is the Purgatory/Animas River Approach, taken by poor saps who didn't get to enjoy the awesome train ride you just took. Continue on and pass a trail register. From here the grade cranks up, but is never too steep. In 2 miles or so, cross a small bridge with a waterfall to your left (New York Creek). From here, it's 3 more miles on similar terrain into Chicago Basin. Once you enter the basin, you'll know: wildflowers are everywhere, Needle Creek is to your right, and epic, jagged mountains are in front of you.
There are many trail offshoots here. What you need to know: you'll be running up steep terrain toward Twin Lakes to summit the 13ers/14ers in the area. Camp along Needle Creek for access to water. Camping higher up may save you ground if you elect to make your summits in different trips, but it will be harder to find a campsite, and it will be increasingly crowded during high-traffic weekends (Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day).
At 6.5 miles you begin the steep climb to Columbine Pass. There are switchbacks for the next 2 miles and an ascent of 1,500 feet. From the top of Columbine Pass you descend 680 feet in 0.4 mile to Columbine Lake. From the lake the hike is easy to moderate terrain to the junction of the Vallecito Creek Trail at mile 17.
Flora & Fauna
Chicago Basin is one of the most stunning alpine settings in the state. You'll run along fields of wildflowers, passing waterfalls and creeks frequently. In the basin, marmots, pika, and mountain goats are everywhere.