Trip Planning for Backpackers
Season of Use: Chicago Basin is situated at 11,200′ elevation (timberline is 11,800′), and is snow-free from late June to mid September most years. The peak period of visitation is July 4th through Labor Day Weekend. During this period it is not unusual for 50 or more people to be dropped off at Needleton on a single day, and for 75-150 people to be camping in the Basin at any one time.
Weather: The San Juan Mountains have a summer monsoon season that generally begins in early July and lasts until late August or early September. Afternoon thunderstorms are almost a daily occurrence in the mountains during this period. At times, it can rain continuously for days. Check the long-term weather forecast before you leave. The closest town is Silverton, which is at 9,300′. Chicago Basin is about 10 degrees cooler than Silverton, and more likely to receive precipitation.
Altitude: Visitors from lower elevations often underestimate the effects of altitude on their health and physical abilities. It is not uncommon for trips into Chicago Basin to be shortened due to lack of acclimatization to thinner air. One thing many people don’t understand is that physical fitness affords no protection against altitude sickness. Visitors to Chicago Basin are urged to become familiar with the symptoms of altitude sickness, as well as its prevention and treatment, prior to their visit. See the Links section for more information.
Maps and Guidebooks: For hiking to and around Chicago Basin, it is highly recommended that you obtain the 7.5-minute USGS topographic maps or the new Apogee maps for the area: Mountain View Crest, Columbine Pass, and Storm King Peak. Not all trails are signed, and a topo map is very useful for general navigation and for day hiking in the area. Another map suitable for trip planning is Trails Illustrated map #140 “Weminuche Wilderness”. Use this link to see a topographic view of the Needle Creek Trail and Chicago Basin area. Maps and guidebooks for the Chicago Basin area are available by phone or mail from the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) Bookstore. In Durango, stop by the SJMA Bookstore, which is open weekdays 8 to 4:30. It is located in the San Juan Public Lands Center at 15 Burnett Court.
Hiking up the Needle Creek Trail: The Needle Creek Trailhead is a ½ mile walk south from the train stop. When you get to the trailhead, be sure to sign the register and read the information posted. The well-maintained Needle Creek Trail climbs steadily up Needle Creek to Chicago Basin. Most people arriving by train (around 11 AM when coming from Durango) hike the 6 miles to the Basin the same day, arriving in late afternoon. There are a number of streamside sites along the first 4 miles of the trail. The ones on the creek side are not legal camps because they are not 100 feet from water. Legal sites along the first 4 miles are limited in number, and are on the left (north) side of the trail. Wilderness rangers frequently patrol the trail, and will ask you to move if they find you camping in an illegal site. Hike approximately 5 miles to where the valley becomes more gentle and wider, and there are better campsites to be found on both sides of the trail.
Camping in Chicago Basin: Because it is a heavy use area, the U.S. Forest Service has instituted special regulations to reduce user impacts. These regulations are necessary to manage the heavy visitor use (about 10,000 visitor use days per year) in Chicago Basin. It is imperative that you abide by these regulations. There are undeveloped campsites scattered throughout Chicago Basin. Some campsites have been closed because they are too close to water, or for other reasons. You may have to spend some time finding a vacant and legal campsite. It is important that you use an existing campsite (at least 100 feet from water) to minimize your impacts in this heavy-use area. It is also requested that you refrain from camping in the open meadows, so your tent does not compromise other visitors’ view. Be advised that U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Rangers patrol the area, and will ask you to move if you are camped too close to water or will cite you if you have a campfire or if you camp in Twin Lakes Basin.
Marmots are common in Chicago Basin, and they have a bad habit of chewing up gear to obtain salt. Hang your gear when you leave camp. Marmots can’t climb trees, so simply hanging your gear from a high branch stub or suspending it will work fine.
Another frequent wildlife encounter is with Rocky Mountain Goats that are abundant in the Chicago Basin area. The goats are obsessed to obtain salt from human urine and will come into your camp, paw the ground, and consume the vegetation and duff everywhere you have urinated. What may start out as amusement watching wildlife at close range can end up being a nuisance. The solution is to urinate well away from camp, on a rock surface if possible, so the goats don’t disturb the vegetation and ground so much. You will enjoy their visit much more if they are not rampaging through your camp!
Another “pest” in Chicago Basin is the snowshoe hare. They can be numerous, inquisitive, bold and destructive.
Although bears are infrequently seen in the Basin, as a matter of principle it’s a good idea to hang your food.
Flies are sometimes a big nuisance, usually while hiking from the train stop to about 10,500 feet, so having fly repellant and/or a headnet along is useful.
Organized Groups: If you are planning a group trip to Chicago Basin, or anywhere in the Weminuche Wilderness, please contact the Alan Peterson at San Juan Mountains Association to obtain special information that may help you educate your group on wilderness camping and ethics before you leave home. A regulation that you should know in advance is: group size is limited to 15 people, including leaders. Planning ahead will help make your trip go well and will help lessen your group’s impacts on the Basin and other visitors.
Livestock: It is important that you follow Leave No Trace Principles for livestock (horses, llamas, goats) when camping in this heavy use area. See the Links section of this website.
Special Problem: Proper Disposal of Human Waste
Evidence of inexperience regarding proper disposal of human waste abounds in Chicago Basin. It’s unbelievable, but some people actually just poop on the ground and leave their toilet paper in a heap on top of it. Others put rocks or sticks on top of their deposit. Some leave their deposits in the crevices of logs. Some bury their poop and TP in a cathole, but don’t dig the hole deep enough to properly cover it. Animals in Chicago Basin dig up catholes and bring the contents to the surface. Can you imagine the impact that all of these issues have on the next visitor? Ugh!! Talk about ruining someone’s wilderness experience! You might not see evidence of this, because volunteers actually go in and clean up.
The normal wilderness Leave No Trace practice for proper disposal of human waste is to bury one’s poop in a 6-8″ deep cathole at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails and to pack out the toilet paper and hygiene products. Many people resist packing out TP, but it’s not that difficult. In fact it’s easier to carry it out than to dig a cat hole deep enough to properly cover it. An easy method is to use a bag-in-bag system. Unused TP gets stored in the larger outer bag, used TP and hygiene product are placed in the second inner bag. Using a colored inner bag such as with dog waste bags, provides less visual impact. Pre-cut squares of paper towel work great as TP. Being tougher than TP, one needs less of it.
However, since Chicago Basin is a heavy use area, it is challenged to naturally dispose of 10,000 human defecations per year. Bottom line, Chicago Basin is a special situation that requires a special effort if there is any hope of maintaining its wilderness quality and continuing its openness to visitors. For that reason, the US Forest Service and the San Juan Mountains Association have initiated a program to encourage visitors to voluntarily use a human waste containment bag. Yes, that means to carry out your poop as well as your TP and hygiene products. The bags are available for free at the trailhead and visitors are strongly encouraged to take one, use it, and fill out a survey card. The bags are actually easy to use – easier than digging a cathole – and one bag per person has sufficient capacity for a multi-day trip. We realize this is a big request, but we ask you to understand the situation in Chicago Basin. Your cooperation will help maintain a high level of wilderness quality for other Chicago Basin users. We also ask that you don’t put the waste bag in any receptacle on the train. Wait till you get back to the station to dispose of it. For more information on the use of the human waste bags, see the Special Notices page.