Chicago Basin – deep in the rugged heart of the San Juan Mountains, it’s a place that’s legendary among mountaineers. Aside from the stunning beauty of the “American Alps,” the basin is unique because most climbers ride the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and get dropped off in the wilderness to start their ascent. Trek for six miles and climb 2,800 feet just to reach the basin, so plan to spend more than one day. You can also bag 14ers Eolus and Sunlight while here, though Windom is the easiest of the three.
In the summer of 2009, my then-girlfriend and I set out on an epic 36-mile backpack loop, getting dropped off by the train at a place called Elk Park and hiking over three mountain passes in four days into Chicago Basin. By the time we reached Windom Peak on our second-to-last day, we were acclimated to the altitude and in great shape so we reached the top at breakneck speed. I pulled out the ring I had been carrying at the summit and asked her to marry me. Maybe it was the lack of real food or the altitude, but she said yes. Note to other guys: Propose at 14,000 feet. What’s she going to say, “No, leave me up here?”
- Backpacking is not just a recommendation for this hike, it’s mandatory. Buy a train ticket and load your backpack to set up a base camp in Chicago Basin. You won’t have solitude and campfires aren’t allowed, but it’s so beautiful is this valley, you won’t mind.
- Mountain goats have become a serious nuisance. They’ll lick your urine for salt and chew backpacks for the sweat. Be goat safe – pee away from your camp and hang packs high.
- Board the train in Silverton instead of Durango. Not only will you save $30 ($74 versus $95 plus they waive the $10 per-backpack fee), but the train ride is only one-third of the distance and parking is free in Silverton.
Recommended season(s): Summer to early fall