The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind [Trip Report]

 In Colorado, Hikes

 

After 11 years in Colorado, I’ve gotten a little bored with the landscape. (Is that a terrible thing to admit?) Gone are the days of nearly running my car off I-70 as I gaze in awe at the snowcaps. I figured I’d somehow blown my childlike wonder circuit. That is, until I headed west to climb the Chicago Basin 14ers (Sunlight Peak, Windom Peak, and Mount Eolus).

I’ve known about the Chicago Basin 14ers since my first year in Colorado. The idea of riding a train deep into the backcountry to climb them thrilled me. But actually getting down to the far corner of Colorado for four days and wrangling all the choo-choo logistics takes work.

So it only took me 18 years to make it happen.

And honestly, it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Because right when I was exhausted with training and wondering if I’d ever like hiking again, the Chicago Basin 14ers totally blew me away.

And there were even goats! Really cute goats.

It’s easiest to tell the story in pics, so here’s my rather massive Chicago Basin 14ers trip report. Enjoy, share with friends, and please comment or shoot me an email if you have questions or tips to add.

The Chicago Basin 14ers at a Glance

Note: From the train, the backpack into Chicago Basin is about 6 mi. one way with 2,800′ elevation gain.

WINDOM PEAK

  • Elevation: 14,082′
  • Round trip distance: 5 mi. (from Chicago Basin)
  • Elevation gain: 3,000′
  • Difficulty: Class 2+
  • Date tried: August 26, 2017

SUNLIGHT PEAK

  • Elevation: 14,059′
  • Round trip distance: 5 mi. (from Chicago Basin)
  • Elevation gain: 3,000′
  • Difficulty: Class 4
  • Date climbed: August 26, 2017

MOUNT EOLUS

  • Elevation: 14,083′
  • Round trip distance: 5 mi. (from Chicago Basin)
  • Elevation gain: 3,000′
  • Difficulty: Class 3
  • Date climbed: August 27, 2017

Not Quite Ready for Class 3?

Here are 9 easy Colorado 14er trips to build your skills and confidence.

Day 1: Silverton to Chicago Basin

To get to the trailhead from Silverton, you’ll need to ride the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to the Needleton stop.

Note that not all trains stop at Needleton. Also, backpacker tickets can’t be reserved online. You’ll actually need to call the railroad to book. See the railroad’s wilderness access page for timetables and other useful info.

Here are some things we learned about this train that you may or may not want to know

  • It derails. Yes, it actually derailed twice in the same day in 2017!  (But no one was injured.)
  • Also, rock slides can wreck the tracks and halt service for up to a week. But never fear, the last time this happened in 2015, they sent a train from Durango to pick up the stranded hikers.
  • Don’t expect solitude. In July and August, the train sometimes drops off 50 hikers at a time.

The good news is, there’s beer on the train! So bring your wallet.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Steam engine

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Durango-Silverton Railroad train

Backpacking Into Chicago Basin

After you jump from the moving train at Needleton (just kidding), head over the suspension bridge and up the Needle Creek Trail.

After half a mile, you’ll come to the trailhead sign. Be sure to pick up your free poop bag from the canister! Using a bag instead of a cat hole helps to preserve the beauty of this heavily trafficked area. You can even fill out a survey card to let the Forest Service know what a good pooper you are.

And yes, there are bad poopers. Click here and scroll down to see some examples. (Ew.)

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Suspension bridge beside the train tracks

The Needle Creek Trail is an old stagecoach road, so it’s graded very nicely. As you approach Chicago Basin, the scenery gradually opens up, and the rugged San Juan Mountains tower over you!

You can’t see all the Chicago Basin 14ers yet. But the notched mountain in the center of this photo is Windom Peak.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Alpenglow over Chicago Basin trail

Don’t camp just anywhere!

After about 6 mi. and 2,800′ of elevation gain, it’s time to choose your camp site. But be careful! We actually met someone who was ticketed by the ranger for camping too close to the creek.

Some tips on choosing a site:

  • Camp at least 100 feet from water sources.
  • Stick to established sites.
  • When possible, pitch your tent out of view.
  • Shade is your friend. It gets hot in the afternoon!
The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Looking across Chicago Basin

Day 2: Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak

The Chicago Basin 14ers are grouped in pairs:

  • Sunlight Peak and Windom Peak to the east
  • Mount Eolus and North Eolus (a “bonus” 14er) to the west

We tackled these in separate days, starting with the Sunlight Peak group.

The Twin Lakes approach

On Day 2, we left camp at 3 a.m. The trail up to Twin Lakes was easy to follow with a headlamp. The exception: you’ll need to scramble across a few disorienting rock slabs near the start. (Look for cairns.)

The photos below were taken on our descent in the afternoon. We were amazed by all the beauty we’d missed while hiking in the dark!

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Hikers rest beside Twin Lakes

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Descending from Twin Lakes

Climbing Sunlight Peak

As much as I’ve been dying to climb the Chicago Basin 14ers, I’ve always been a little nervous about this one! Because in terms of exposure, 14ers.com rates it right up there at the top.

However, if you skip the infamous Sunlight Leap near the summit, the exposure is pretty manageable. Nothing we did felt over Class 3.

There’s a good trail most of the way up Sunlight Peak. If you lose the way in the rocks at Twin Lakes Basin, try walking along the right shore of the lake. Shine your headlamp around looking for cairns.

The trail leads you up a headwall and into a second basin full of massive, Toyota-tundra-sized cairns. One of these marks the junction with the Windom Peak “Trail.” (Don’t worry, you won’t follow it by accident.)

Next, the trail winds up a gully. As the terrain steepens, the trail peters out, and you’ll have to route find. Cheat to the left side of the gully to join the summit ridge.

While we were suffering on gully scree, the first morning sunlight hit Sunlight Peak and its neighboring Chicago Basin 14ers.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

First light, with Windom Peak in the background

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Approaching the summit ridge of Sunlight Peak

From the top of the gully, you have two choices. You can scramble the ridge (Class 3–4). Or you can skirt just below it to the left on some loose rock and scree. Parts of the lower route are marked by small cairns, but don’t depend on them.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Climbing around some Class 4

Once you’ve passed the short section of class 4, regain the summit ridge. From here, it’s a fun Class 3 scramble to the top.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Scrambling through an arch

The infamous Sunlight Leap

Our crew stopped just shy of Sunlight Peak’s true summit. We figured the geological marker, which is just below the Leap, counts as the top! (Clearly the surveyors didn’t feel like leaping either.)

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Sunlight Peak summit (pretty much)

One brave soul from our party climbed up to the Leap but didn’t jump. She did however stick her camera in the crack and snap a picture of the thousand-foot drop!

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Topping out near the Leap

While we were chilling by the marker, some monkey boys came along and leaped across that bottomless chasm like a crack in the sidewalk! (I literally couldn’t watch.)

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Yahoos on the true summit

When we turned around to descend, the sun had fully risen, and the rock around us was glowing. This photo of the summit ridge gives you an idea how steep and rugged these Chicago Basin 14ers really are!

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Descending the summit ridge, with Windom Peak in the background

And I promised you goats! While we were taking a break, a herd of 13 (including 2 kids) came over the ridge and watched us hike down they gully. Then they got bored and came zooming past us. Show offs.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

People watching

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Trail hogs

Climbing (most of) Windom Peak

Windom Peak is technically a Class 2, but don’t let that fool you. It’s got plenty of loose rock and route finding challenges, particularly as you descend from the saddle to rejoin the main trail. Don’t assume you’re going to be able to run down this sucker if bad weather moves in! I also recommend keeping your helmet on.

To climb Windom Peak after Sunshine Peak, descend Sunshine via the gully. On the way down, keep your eye on the saddle that separates Windom Peak from Peak 18.

When you see a clear path, leave the trail and bushwhack across the drainage. Ascend Windom’s steep lower flanks, aiming for the saddle.

From the saddle, the trail is pretty straightforward. We followed cairns up the ridge to the notch. (At this point, it was getting late and clouds were building. So we opted for a turnaround.)

Descending Windom Peak was tricky

We headed for a large cairn at the far end of the saddle and then dropped onto a very steep, rocky slope. About halfway down, we lost the cairns. I freaked, worried that we were going to cliff out.

But if this happens, look to your left. You should see cairns leading you in a downward traverse. There’s no trail to speak of, just loose talus. But if you follow this route, you’ll pop out near one of the giant cairns that mark the Sunshine Peak trail.

Day 3: Climbing Mount Eolus

The next day, we left at 3 a.m. again and headed west for Mount Eolus. We really hoped it wouldn’t live up to it’s name! (In Greek mythology, Aeolus was the keeper of the winds.)

The Mount Eolus Trail is excellent, but it can be tricky to find in the dark. From Twin Lakes, head left, crossing a drainage on stepping stones. The trail begins below the slabby, southeast facing slopes at the far side of the basin.

Follow the trail to The Ramp, a series of ledges that lead you onto the mountain’s upper reaches. The Ramp isn’t long, and you should be able to spot two large cairns at the top, even in the dark.

Near the top of The Ramp, we were treated to a sunrise over Sunlight Peak!

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Sunrise over Sunlight Peak (from the flanks of Mount Eolus)

Soon after The Ramp, you’ll reach Class 3 terrain. Put on your helmet and follow the cairns to make a switchbacking ascent to a small notch.

I’m too sexy for this peak (or, The Catwalk)

Our next objective was to cross Mount Eolus’s infamous Catwalk. But as we approached this exposed ridge, we met some goats coming at us from the other direction. They hung around for about ten minutes shaking their little tushes on The Catwalk, then disappeared over a cliff.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Goats coming at us on The Catwalk

Finally it was our turn. Think of the Catwalk as a rocky sidewalk in the sky with thousands of feet of exposure on each side. Seriously, even Dr. Seuss could not dream this thing up!

Crossing the Catwalk wasn’t difficult, but we took our time. From here, we could see the summit cone of Mount Eolus. And it looked completely vertical! (Gulp.)

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Starting The Catwalk

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

The Catwalk with Mount Eolus in the background

The Mount Eolus summit maze

When you exit The Catwalk, you’ll realize the Mount Eolus summit cone isn’t so scary. It’s basically a series of ledges you have to hop up.

But make no mistake, this part can be a real route finding challenge. (Later I learned some friends had been on North Eolus watching us go around and around in search of the trail. So embarrassing!)

Some route finding tips for Mount Eolus:

  • Traverse to just below the summit and make your way straight up.
  • When you exit The Catwalk, look for cairns leading slightly upward and over a rocky ledge.
  • There are plenty of cairns on the route. They’re quite small. You may have to climb up and look around to spot the next one.
  • The right side of the mountain is Class 4 terrain. (We tried it.) So only follow cairns in that direction if that appeals to you!

Finally, we made our way through the Mount Eolus maze and emerged onto a truly jaw-dropping summit.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Summit of Mount Eolus

Route finding on the descent was much easier. Just retrace your steps, following cairns to The Catwalk.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Descending the ledges of Mount Eolus, with Sunlight Peak in the background

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

The Catwalk, with North Eolus in the background

We didn’t hit North Eolus. But if you want to, it’s an easy Class 3 scramble with about 200′ of elevation gain.

Day 4: Back to Civilization

One thing I loved about climbing the Chicago Basin 14ers was feeling incredibly deep in the wilderness.

When we left Silverton, Trump was mouthing off about fire and fury and very fine white supremacists. So being cut off from the world felt pretty dope.

But the Chicago Basin 14ers also filled me with the same awe I remember from my first days in Colorado.

As we hiked before dawn, there wasn’t an ounce of light pollution, and the stars were brilliant. We even saw a few fiery meteors (thankfully not attached to North Korean ICBMs).

Après Hike

Back in Silverton, we ate a celebratory lunch at Handlebars Food and Saloon. I totally recommend this place if you’re not freaked out by taxidermy.

Pretty much every meal I’ve ever eaten in Silverton has tasted like airplane food. But this burger was clearly homemade and had fresh lettuce on it. I liked it, even though I had to eat it under a stuffed beaver wearing a bandana.

So that’s my scoop on the Chicago Basin 14ers! I’m totally excited to go back in 2018 for Windom Peak and North Eolus.

If you have tips, questions or suggestions, comment below, email me, or hit me up on Facebook! Happy hiking.

The Stunning Chicago Basin 14ers Will Blow Your Mind

Like the idea of riding a train into the wilderness, backpacking into the high country, and summiting four 14ers? Then you'll love backpacking Chicago Basin! Here's how to make it happen.
Showing 11 comments
  • Noreen
    Reply

    Wonderful Trip Report! Sarah I hope I get to climb with you next year!

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Aw! You too! I will be looking for big hikes in October and early November. Any chance we can join forces?

  • Diane
    Reply

    Amazing pictures! And what a wonderful adventure!!! Well done!!! xoxoxo

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Why thank you! Appreciate you reading.

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Why thank you! Totally appreciate you reading.

  • Kamala Marshall
    Reply

    AWESOME trip report Sarah!! That catwalk looks like so much fun 🙂

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Thanks! I think you’d totally dig it.

  • Les Petits Pas de Juls
    Reply

    You absolutely rock, Sarah! What a stunning climb! I remember my first 14ers back in 2013 (Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln & Bross) – 4 in 1 day as they’re mostly saddles once you got to the summit of the first one. Loved every second and felt like I could conquer the world!

    https://lespetitspasdejuls.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/4-in-1-day-or-how-i-summited-my-first-14ers/

    It hasn’t happened again yet but I hope to be back for more some day!
    Chicago Basin sure looks very tempting!
    Enjoy the climbs!

    Cheers!
    Jul’

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Wow! Nothing like starting big, eh? And what a fun post. I tried reading the Spanish translation since I just got back from Bolivia, and had to conclude I’m pretty much monolingual.

  • Lynelle Lahey
    Reply

    I’d like to do Chicago Basin. All my climbing friends have already accomplished that area so I would like to join your posse.

    • El Jefe
      Reply

      Cool! When I lead this next year, I’ll probably do it as a CMC trip. You should totally join! The gear deals alone are worth the membership fee.

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