Rocky Mountain Rails to Trails


One of the most unique mountain backpacking treks in the U.S. starts aboard a coal-powered steam locomotive and ends among a herd of mountain goats grazing at 14,000 feet. This trip isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re down for busting a sweat and can swallow any niggling fears of heights, you’re in for an unforgettable experience.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad departs each morning from the southwestern Colorado city of Durango, on the edge of the San Juan Mountains. You’ll load all your camping and hiking gear onto the 100-year-old train and ride in an open-air car as you ramble up a steep, winding track that, at times, practically clings to the cliffside high above the Animas River. While most passengers ride to the route’s end at Silverton, an old mining town turned tourist trap, you’ll go only halfway, to the Needleton stop, where you’ll literally jump off the train in the middle of the woods.

Next, you’ll hoof it six miles up the well-maintained but steadily rising Needle Creek Trail – with all your gear on your back, it’ll take at least three hours – into Chicago Basin at 11,200 feet. Here, at just 600 feet below the tree line, the scape spreads out into a gorgeous valley dotted with thick pine patches and framed by jagged peaks. Locate one of the several campsites in the basin, or, since this is National Forest land, you can set up anywhere at least 100 feet from water and not in an open meadow. There’ll likely be other groups in the area, but there’s ample space to spread out and feel fairly remote. Just be ready for a few mountain goats to waltz into your camp. They love human scent and are fearless but completely nonthreatening.

Chicago Basin offers a bevy of hiking options, including access to four 14,000-foot peaks: Windom Peak, Sunlight Peak, Mount Eolus, and North Eolus, though the latter isn’t technically its own peak because it’s too close to Eolus. As far as 14ers go, none of these are easy, with super-steep faces, not much protective cover, loose boulders, and scree along the ascents. If you’re in it to summit, start early, like 5 a.m., to allow ample time to reach one of the tops by late morning. Violent afternoon storms are almost a given, especially in early fall, so you want to be off the exposed mountainside and back into lower elevations by noon.

Take the trail that winds up out of Chicago Basin, past waterfalls and through woods toward Twin Lakes Basin. Near the lakes, smaller trails will branch off to the various summits. They’re maintained only by other hikers and climbers and not always clear-cut, so be sure you’ve done your trails research and have a map along. From here it’s just you, the goats, and a date with the sky ahead. If you’re not a skilled hiker or hell-bent on summiting, the trek to Twin Lakes alone gives you a great workout and amazing mountain views, and there’s plenty of ground to cover within the basin as well.

After a few days in the woods – and perhaps bagging all four peaks if you really got after it – pack up camp and trudge back downhill to catch the afternoon train back to town. Bonus: This locomotive serves cold beer.

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