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South Sunlight Lake (Glenn Randall)
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train (Glenn Randall)
With all due respect to Alaska’s bush planes, there’s no more romantic–or scenic–way to reach a trailhead in all of North America than to take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to Chicago Basin in the heart of Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Combine that approach with a five-day exploration of the peaks that line this verdant valley, and you have a life-list adventure in the state’s largest wilderness at 488,210 acres.
The two-hour ride in a vintage locomotive rumbles 13 miles from Silverton through the twisting Animas River gorge to Needle Creek trailhead, a backcountry whistlestop used exclusively by train-
hopping backpackers ($75; durangotrain.com). Get ready to bust a lung: A six-mile, 3,000-foot climb deposits you at treeline in upper Chicago Basin, where an idyllic basecamp sits at the foot of the three most remote Fourteeners in the state. Ambitious hikers routinely summit Windom Peak (14,082 feet), Sunlight Peak (14,059), and Mt. Eolus (14,083) in one giant 7.6-mile, 5,500-foot-gain day.
Instead, spread the effort over two or three days for maximum enjoyment. From your campsite at 11,000 feet in Chicago Basin (no permit required), ascend a social trail north about one mile to Twin Lakes at 12,500 feet. (Camping is not allowed here, but foot-soaking is.) For Windom (which has the best view by a hair) and Sunlight, head east, stay south of the waterfall, and climb to the obvious saddle. For Eolus, go west and follow cairns through fractured rock up to one of the most attention-demanding ridgelines in the Rockies. Descend the Needle Creek Trail at the end of your visit to flag down the train.
13,704-foot Glacier Point is an hour-long sidetrip (northeast) from Mt. Eolus, with a money vista of the entire Needle Range.
Make Chicago Basin your starting point for an extra week (or month!) in the massive Weminuche, which contains 80 of the Continental Divide Trail’s highest miles. Connect to the CDT by crossing Columbine Pass into the Vallecito Creek drainage.
A giant slice of chocolate-peanut butter pie at Mad Mamas’ Pies in Silverton. (970) 387-5877