On the trail: Sweet home Chicago (Basin)
DURANGO, Colo. – Sixteen-or-so years ago, I wrote a story for an outdoor magazine about the Chicago Basin in the San Juan Mountains. I had learned that mountain goats were invading backpackers’ camps and pawing at the soil in a search for salt, which they found wherever human visitors had peed on the ground.
It was an amusing little story that ran under the headline, “Looking out for number one.” Problem was, I had never been to the place. And writing the story piqued my curiosity; it was a popular destination for a reason.
Fast forward to summer 2009, when I decided to use a mandatory furlough week for a cheap vacation. I drove to Durango, hopped on the historic, narrow-gauge Durango-Silverton railway and jumped off at a backcountry stop called Needleton. There on the banks of the Animas River is the Needle Creek trailhead, gateway to the Chicago Basin and other delights of the Weminuche Wilderness.
I spent three nights and four days up there. Part of the attraction to the basin is a cluster of three fourteeners – Eolus, Sunlight and Windom, which I managed to climb between thunderstorms and daylong downpours – but those high peaks are just punctuation marks amid the jagged, steep topography of the Needle Mountains.
The entire region is pocked with mining ruins and abandoned shafts bored into the cliffs. From the summits and ridges, there is no sign of modern-day civilization anywhere; the Weminuche is Colorado’s biggest wilderness at more than 480,000 acres. I saw deer, marmots, pikas, hawks, an owl, lots of songbirds and, yes, mountain goats, although none invaded my campsite. I even knocked off Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” ( brilliant, hilarious) in my tent while it rained. And it adds a certain charm to arrive and depart on an historic train.
Everyone has “life lists,” and the Chicago Basin was a quintessential Colorado experience that I’d put off for years. It was every bit as good as I’d hoped – it helped that six backpackers jumped off the train with me, while more than 30 left the wilderness that day – and I’ll be back to climb more wild peaks and perhaps fish and swim some of those turquoise lakes.
Footnote: As instructed, I peed on rocks and stumps during my stay, in order not to leave salt-laden soil for the goats.
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