Chicago Basin Trip Planning

Chicago Basin, mid-summer

Chicago Basin is a heavy use area within the Weminuche Wilderness. Each year this area receives about 10,000 visitor use days, mainly because the majority of visitors are there to climb three 14ers bordering the basin. The combination of convenient access via the narrow gauge train to Needleton and the access to iconic 14ers attracts visitors from around the world.

Access to Chicago Basin

See Access and Trail Information for train and trail access, trail statistics, etc.

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. Crowding during these times can be a problem, making campsites hard to find and solitude hard to find.

Backpacking Information

  • Chicago Basin

    Regulations and Recommended Practices: To minimize your impact, please review all San Juan National Forest regulations.

  • Camping in Chicago Basin: 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.
    • Use an existing campsite (at least 100 feet from water) to minimize your impacts in this heavy-use area.
    • Refrain from camping in the open meadows, so your tent does not compromise other visitors’ view.
    • Camping is not allowed in Twin Lakes Basin (north of Chicago Basin). This includes the entire area bounded by the three 14ers.
    • 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 camp in Twin Lakes Basin.
  • Camp Fires:
    • Campfires are not allowed in the Needle Creek drainage. This includes Chicago Basin, Twin Lakes Basin, and the alpine basins below Columbine Pass.
    • Wood gathering and disposal of ashes in campsites severely impact the basin, and future visitors.
    • U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Rangers patrol the area and will cite you if you have a campfire.
  • Other Regulations and Recommended Practices:
    • Organized Groups: Group size is limited to 15 people, including leaders. If you are planning a group trip to Chicago Basin, or anywhere in the Weminuche Wilderness, please contact the San Juan Mountains Association at (970) 247-4874 to obtain special information that may help you educate your group on wilderness camping and ethics before you leave home. Planning ahead will help make your trip go well and will help lessen your group’s impacts on the Basin and other visitors.
    • Water Contamination: Because of the issues above, water from Needle Creek should be filtered or chemically treated to be sure it’s safe for drinking.
    • 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 Issue - 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 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.
  • Pack out the toilet paper and hygiene products.
    • 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.
    • Pre-cut squares of paper towel work great as TP. Being tougher than TP, one needs less of it.
  • Since Chicago Basin is a heavy use area, it is challenged to naturally dispose of 10,000 human defecations per year. For that reason, the US Forest Service and the SJMA 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. Your cooperation will help maintain a high level of wilderness quality for other Chicago Basin users.
    • SJMA volunteers do their best to keep these bags stocked at the Needle Creek Trailhead. The bags are also available on-line or at many outdoor retail stores.
    • 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.
    • 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.

Climbing 14ers

Nearly 75% of the visitors to Chicago Basin plan to climb the nearby “Fourteeners”: Mount Eolus (14,083′), Windom Peak (14,082′), and Sunlight Peak (14,059′). If you are interested in more information, check out SJMA Climbing 14ers page.

Wildlife Encounters

  • Marmots:  Marmots 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.
  • Rocky Mountain Goats: The basin is overpopulated with these goats, which are obsessed with obtaining salt from human urine. The goats do a lot of damage to the ground and vegetation in their pursuit of urine. 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!
  • Snowshoe hare: They can be numerous, inquisitive, bold and destructive.
  • Bears: 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 head net along is useful.

Safety Information

  • 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

Not all trails are signed, and a topo map is very useful for general navigation and for day hiking in the area. For hiking to and around Chicago Basin, the following maps are recommended:

  • Overall: 7.5-minute USGS topographic maps or the new Apogee maps for the area: Mountain View Crest, Columbine Pass, and Storm King Peak or the Trails Illustrated map #140 “Weminuche Wilderness”.
  • Check out this 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 our 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.
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