Our trip last year to Mount Whitney really influenced this trip in many ways. Most importantly, the folks we met while camping at Soldier Lake in the Sierras told us of this cool hike they did in Colorado where they rode a steam train to the trailhead around Silverton. (They meant the Chicago Basin).
Around January this year, I did some research and found out what area they were referring to, the Chicago Basin. It looked amazing.
The second major influence last year’s trip had on this trip was to not spend the whole time wearing ourselves out; work some flexibility into the schedule so that we wouldn’t be hiking from dawn until dusk every day. That worked out just fine.
The plan was this: Take the Durango and Silverton Narrow GaugeRailway north halfway to Needleton, get off and hike up to Chicago Basin. Establish a base camp and spend two full days up there doing whatever we wanted. Hike back down to Needleton to take the train north to Silverton. Have a quick bite and take the bus back down to Durango, where we had stashed a duffel bag for showering and changing into clean clothes after our hike. We would take the shuttle back to the airport, catch a flight to Denver and then a plane home to San Diego. It was a good plan.
Thursday morning, long before dawn, the PD and were on our way to San Diego airport, packs full and excited about collecting some new experiences. After a short flight to Phoenix, we boarded a small turboprop to Durango, where we could see that our packs, being loaded onto the plane, had made it with us all the way from San Diego. We were relieved.
We got to Durango without a problem. It’s a tiny little airport. I phoned the hotel to let them know that I had arrived and I needed a shuttle and they let me know it would be an hour wait. Next time I’ll know to book the shuttle in advance. I hit up a local taxi van who said it would be $30 to get to Durango and we climbed on in. A third person climbed in and the driver then said, “OK, $30 per person.” Well, we quickly unloaded our gear and decided to wait for the shuttle.
Our friendly shuttle driver came and took us to town, where we thoroughly enjoyed the dining and ambiance. We also had to pick up a butane canister, since we couldn’t pack one on the planes. We had a great lunch at Ken and Sue’s and then, after walking all over and shopping, we went back to the hotel and napped. After our nap, we treated ourselves with a mighty meal at the Ore House. We were loaded with calories for the trek ahead and we definitely enjoyed our half-day in Durango.
We went back to the room and tackled the task of packing our bags. We had to make the final decision of what clothes and food stayed and what went with us. It was almost 90F in Durango, and we had to consider the wide range of temperatures that could be waiting for us 7,500′ above us in the mountains. I made a last minute decision to leave some food behind, but pretty much brought all of my clothes. If it rained, I was going to be needing them. Staying up far later than we should have, we finally got some good sleep and set the alarm for an early start.
We got up, checked out, checked in our duffle and hiked the two blocks to McDonalds and picked up a last non-freeze-dried meal. Fully decked out in backpacker gear, we didn’t really stick out that much in Durango, but we still got some looks. We then went next door to the train station and picked up our tickets. We stowed our bags in the boxcar near the front of the train and took our seats, which, at three people per bench, ended up being pretty tight. One of us ended up standing most of the time.
I had opted for the open air car, since I had read online that you should do it at least once. We settled in, and, after a short mishap where a fellow traveler kicked over and spilled my entire McDonald’s drink, the train tooted and we got moving. It was nice to get the breeze going as the train wound through the valley, offering us occasional glimpses of deer, ranches, and platoons of people floating down the Animus river. Now and then, some cinders would get into my eyes, but, as long as I didn’t mind my clothes covered in ash, the train ride was pleasant, though, at two and a half hours, a little long.
A memorable moment was when we turned a corner and were presented with an amazing view of the Animus River Gorge. It was truly spectacular. Oohs and ahs could be heard throughout the train as people saw the rushing blue water below us. The train was perched right on the edge, so the drop off was significant.
We chatted with a friendly, well-traveled couple. The woman (you know who you are) was eyeing my cookie the entire trip.
The train finally stopped at Needleton, which is just a signpost along the train tracks next to the river. There is no town, but there are a few cabins sprinkled here and there among the trees. This is where we got off. I stood up, handed my cookie over to the woman traveling beside me, joined about 20 other hikers, and got our packs from the box car. We got our trekking poles out, prepared our Camelbaks, crossed the bridge over the Animus River, turned right and started hiking along the trail that led to the Needle Creek Trail.
The weight of the pack was the first thing that I noticed; I am typically a day packer. But after a while, the weight seemed sort of normal, but the elevation, now at 8,160′, was getting to me. The trail was great and well-marked. It was lined on either side by tiny wild strawberries, which were delicious, and most of the first section is in shade with Needle Creek rushing to our right. It was beautiful and easily one of the best trails I’ve hiked on in a while. We occasionally met some folks on the trail, many of whom had the advantage of being from Colorado, so the effect of the altitude wasn’t as pronounced for them. I, however, was sucking air.
Certain sections of the trail were steep, but overall the gain over the next 7 miles (3,000′) wasn’t bad. But getting to 11,000′ took my breath away. The PD did fairly well, but I just couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I took regular breaks to get my heart rate back to normal. As the trail turned north, the valley widened, the trees fell away and the Chicago Basin opened up before us, a sea of green overseen by granite ridges. It was amazing. I had a sense of the Sierra Nevada, but this was somehow different, more lush.
We gave ourselves 15 more minutes of hiking before we knew we had to stop and find a camp site. After passing some other campers and having our first meet and greet with a family of mountain goats, we hiked off trail a bit into the trees and found a perfect spot, raised on a rock overlooking the meadows and mountains to the southeast. Needle Creek wasn’t too far away, either.
Dusk was approaching and it felt good to get the packs off. It took us 5 hours to get there, a lot longer than I had anticipated, but the wait was worth it. We quickly set up our tent and cooked dinner. It wasn’t long before a whole herd of mountain goats came along to see what we were up to. Their behavior explained all of the game trails that criss-crossed the meadows and forest, as well as the white wool that was caught in the branches of almost every bush and low tree branch.
I took my new camping water bucket down to the river and, experiencing dizziness and shortness of breath upon return, was reminded again that we were at 11,000′ and things are different here. The flies and mosquitoes were pretty numerous, but weren’t a big problem, since we had the same bottle of DEET we had gotten from our friends at Soldier Lake last year. We had dinner, figured out how to relieve ourselves with all the goats around (they go absolutely crazy over the salt in human urine), and went to sleep early, listening to the distant waterfall up the valley.
We slowly got up, still easily losing our breaths, and decided to make an attempt to summit Windom Peak. We filtered some water (I took three liters). And we started up the trail that leads to Twin Lakes. Once again, we were surrounded by lush greenery and gushing streams. The trail is well-marked, but very steep. We passed some more campsites until we reached the camping limit sign, and the trees fell away behind us.
Elevation gain again played an important part of the day. While yesterday we had gained 3,000′ in about 6.5 to 7 miles, we were now going to gain that amount in 2.5 miles. And this was while traveling from 11,000 to 14,000 feet.
We made it to Twin Lakes and stopped for a quick break. While a perfect spot for using as a base camp for bagging the surrounding fourteeners, I could see why it was outlawed. It was so beautiful there, it needed to be protected from overuse. A bunch of marmots came out to say hello. They were the largest that I’ve seen, about the size of a cat. After a quick snack, we start climbing again. The occasional giant cairn led the way up and up.
The green grass gave way to snowfields and giant fields of scree. We followed more cairns to the ridgeline to Windom Peak and stopped for a breather. One more big push and we would get to the top of Windom Peak, a height a mere 423′ less than Mount Whitney. With a fist bump and a chant of “Eyes on the prize!” I felt a surge of energy. I was suddenly pumped up, scrambling over rocks with more vigor than I had anticipated. After about half an hour, I looked behind me and the PD was far below. I took the time to stow my trekking poles in my pack and have a snack. When he caught up, he was obviously a victim of the altitude. He was nauseous and careful not to overexert himself. But he was well enough to continue.
After a quick rest we ascended again, passing a couple on the way down. Looking ahead, I could see the rock scrambling would get steeper and offer more exposure than I was used to. Shrugging off feelings of vertigo, I continued up the left side of the mountain, encountering a false summit that I had assumed was there. Scrambling more I found myself within sight of the summit. To my surprise, there was a marmot chilling at the top. He was getting quite the view. I had to scramble down a little bit to get to the summit block, but once there, the view blew me away.
Having been hailed on my two times upon the top of Mount Whitney, it was really nice to have a clear view in all directions with some dramatic clouds added in for good measure. Soaking it up, I kept an ear out for the PD, who came within earshot before long. He was pretty tired, so he relaxed on a rock across the way.
Knowing that getting to the top was only half-way and being warned about afternoon thunderstorms, we decided to start the way down. The scrambling downward wasn’t as precarious as I thought it would be and soon we were on the ridge just below the summit. Another surprise was a mountain goat only a couple of hundred feet below the summit.
The PD still wasn’t feeling well, so we took a little break before continuing the precariously steep descent down some scree. Once we reached the bottom of the little valley, the way was much easier. I was pretty pumped and felt great. I even started jogging a little bit on the trail on the way down. The PD took it much easier, so from time to time, I would stop and wait for him. The scenery was so gorgeous, it was hard to stop taking pictures.
I encountered a mother mountain goat and her kid. I sat on a rock while they watched me warily until I could see them relax. She scratched her head on a trail post while the PD came down the trail (see the video below). It was a nice quiet moment on the trail near Twin Lakes. I then shot off down the trail again, knowing that the only way for the PD to feel better would be to descend. Before long, I was at the upper campsites, so I decided to wait for the PD, who I could see on the trail far above me.
As I was pulling my Camelbak bladder out of my daypack to confirm that I had, in fact, run out of water, a felt a nudge on my shoulder. I was startled as I looked into the face of an adult mountain goat, staring at me. I got to my feet and shooed it away, shouting, “Too close, OK?” Before long, another mother and her kid came by. This time the kid knelt down in a bed of grass right next to me.
I enjoyed the moment, a little worried about the lack of water, but was feeling good. Our campsite wasn’t too far away, but I was a little thirsty. After a while, a zombie-like PD came down the trail, realizing that he lost his sunglasses. I handed him my phone, which has the GPS track and told him to continue, and I ran up the trail and found his sunglasses and came back down to return them to him.
I got back to the campsite and waited for him by the trail, so that he wouldn’t pass it by. Suddenly, my eyes started burning like crazy. I could open them for only a second at a time and then they would burn and tear up. Whether it was from sunscreen, sweat, or exposure, I don’t know, but they didn’t feel better until I was able to pour water over my eyes.
The PD came down the trail, had some water and immediately retreated to the tent. I went down to the river to get some water and started filtering for dinner that night and breakfast tomorrow, occasionally checking on him. He felt better after a while, and we both called into question the idea of tackling any more fourteeners tomorrow. Another freeze-dried, but delicious meal later and we were feeling better. After washing up, we headed to bed for another early night of rest.
We woke up late, waiting for the sun to hit our tent. We had decided that we weren’t going to be doing any major hiking today. One of the major points of the trip was to leave it open, so we could decide what we wanted to do once we got here. Had we been hiking point to point, like the Whitney Trip last year, we would have no choice but to hoist on our packs and continue down the trail. However, since we had a nice comfortable base camp, we could choose to not spend the entire day lugging ourselves up a mountain and actually enjoy the Chicago Basin.
And that is what we did.
We had another relaxing breakfast and refilled our Camelbaks. We went for a liesurely stroll up the valley, crossing the creek to see what was on the other side. We found a wealth of campsites to the south of the creek and hiked on that side for a while. We crossed back over and hung out near the Columbine Pass trail, chatting with some hikers. We bushwhacked a little bit and found a slice of heaven in the middle of the Chicago Basin.
A log crossed the creek and there was a nice comfortable rock for me to sit. We removed our shoes and soaked our feet in the near freezing water. We chatted and snacked. We had smiles on our faces and there was a vibe to the basin that we couldn’t feel when we were gasping for breath on the trail.
We both agreed that this was a great idea.
After a while, we went back to our campsite to grab the stove and some food and had some lunch by a different part of the creek. We watched as a large herd of mountain goats climbed up the steep north side of the basin. We started playing Uno with some tiny cards that the PD had brought with him. Before long, we were out of the shade and were hiking to some other empty campsites nearby, reading by some logs. Some mountain goats came by to say hello.
After a while, the clouds started moving in and we started feeling some sprinkles. We headed back to camp and started getting our gear ready in case of a storm. We also filtered some water and started packing up for the trek down the mountain tomorrow. I realized that I had brought the perfect amount of food, with just a little to spare.
Thunder started rumbling to the south. We spent some time reading in our tents as the rain started. It was time for dinner, so we cooked it inside the tent. We also finally got around to drinking the wine we had brought. All of it.
The rain stopped and the sun drenched the mountains in an orange glow, that was reminiscent of the light in Yosemite.
We had a great time listening to music on our phones and playing uber-competitive trash-talking Uno until it was dark and late. Nearly rupturing ourselves with laughter, it was time to go to sleep.
We woke up early the next morning, as we had a train to catch. Before long, we were saying good bye to our campsite, the basin, and the goats that had kept us company for 3 days. We saw our first deer in the basin. We moved at a fast pace, as we were fairly well acclimated, moving downhill, had lighter packs, and were excited to be heading back to civilization. We passed some hikers on their way up and gave them words of confidence: Chicago Basin is totally beautiful and worth the long hike of gain the first day.
We could hear the early train ahead of us and we sped down the mountain. The trail was as beautiful as I had remembered (from three days before, which felt like a lifetime) and very well-maintained. After a few hours, we could hear the Animus River and we came within sight of the bridge. We congratulated each other. We had done it again.
The train stopped and dropped off way more people than it had when we disembarked. I was surprised. Yesterday, as the PD and I enjoyed the basin, we felt like we had it all to ourselves. And now there were about 50 people going to be competing for a finite number of campsites. I wished them well and counted ourselves lucky to have had the basin as quiet as it was.
We boarded the train and I felt utterly relaxed as I sank into the open bench seat. The breeze blew by as I looked at the tourists around me. I hadn’t done Everest or anything, but I had collected a great experience that relatively few people get to do. Or can do. I felt lucky. I felt happy. And it was pretty much just a long weekend, well-planned.
We got to Silverton with just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat. Carrying our packs across town seemed to be not worth it until we sat down with our burgers and onion rings. We washed up a little in their restroom. I wolfed everything down and was not unusually full.
We carryed our packs back across town, just in time to make the bus heading back to Durango. It started raining, and then hailing, and I felt sorry for those that were going to be trapped on the southbound train for the next 3.5 hours.
We stowed our packs below and were unable to sit together. I chatted about hiking, mountain biking and music with the guy next to me. We had a lot in common. I invited him to come to San Diego when he got a chance. Our pleasant conversation made the otherwise potentially tedious bus ride go by rather quickly. He was from New Mexico. Perhaps this conversation, like the conversation from the Whitney trip, could inform next year’s trip?
We made it back to our hotel, retrieved our duffel, and took a shower downstairs by the pool. We shared beer and cookies on the patio while we waited for the shuttle to take us back to the airport.
We reflected on a great trip. We discussed the harmony we had when we traveled together and the serendipity of meeting at a remote campsite some people who gave us the idea for this trip. We laughed about the persistent goats and our own private jokes from the hike. We appreciated the wisdom of not always exhausting oneself for the sake of a mountain top. We patted ourselves on the back for taking the time to truly gain the sense of a place, to take it in and let it become a part of us, rather than looking upward and wanting to only circle peaks on a map.
We had achieved a balance in our wilderness travel and had the satisfaction of being able to share the experience with each other.
Soon enough, the shuttle came and it was time to say goodbye to Durango and Colorado. We arrived home at about midnight. Adventures are adventures, but home is home.