Five Friends Hike into Chicago Basin

by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk

Text by Lindy Sisk
Photographs by Lindy Sisk, Cindy Crochet, and Tristan MacDonald
August, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Tristan MacDonald

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Our friend Tristan MacDonald has led Cindy, me, and other friends, on hikes in many interesting places, including Argentina, Chile, Spain, and France, as well as many, many, hikes in Colorado where the MacDonalds and we have been spending the summers for many years, mostly in Creede, Colorado. (Some of those hikes are documented on my travel page.)

In the summer of 2011, Tristan, his granchildren Brittany and Zach Fraser, and I spent Four Days on the Continental Divide Trail

In the summer of 2013, Tristan, his grandchildren Brittany and Zach Fraser, and I, hiked in to a camp near the base of two Colorado "14'ers", i.e., mountains taller than 14,000 feet, Sunshine and Red Cloud, and summited them on the morning of the next day.

This year, Tristan wanted to lead a hike into Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. Chicago Basin is often listed in the top ten scenic hiking destinations in the United States, and is visited annually by a number of hikers estimated at around or exceeding 100,000!

Various people were invited — and some had to decline for reasons of conflicts or injury. The final hiking party consisted of Tristan, Hal Murphree, Zach Fraser, Cindy Crochet, and me.

We assembled in Durango on August 16th. Hal and Tristan have adjacent houses, and Hal kindly put Cindy and I up in the bedroom of his and Verdi's lovely new home, while Zach bunked with the MacDonalds. On Sunday the 17th, we loaded up in Hal's pickup, and proceeded to the trailhead.

Most people who hike into Chicago Basin either hike in from Purgatory Trailhead on US Highway 550, a distance of about 14 miles, or they elect to ride in on the Durango to Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, which stops at Needleton to discharge and pick up hikers twice per day, which cuts the hike down to about 7 & 1/2 miles.

Tristan and friends had hiked the Vallecito Creek drainage north from Vallecito Reservoir, and found it so lovely that he proposed to hike up Vallecito Creek to the intersection with Johnson Creek, camp overnight, and hike into Chicago Basin over Columbine Pass the following day. After camping overnight in Chicago Basin, we would either hike out to the railhead, or hike out to the Animas River drainage, camp an additional night, and exit via the Purgatory Trailhead.

Here's the group assembled at the Weminuche Boundary Marker on Vallecito Creek.

L-R: Hal Murphree, Cindy Crochet, Zach Fraser, Tristan MacDonald

The hike up the Vallecito Creek drainage was as beautiful as advertised. Thimble berries were abundant along the trail, and we made slower progress than we might have to snack on the berries, which were so ripe that our fingers sometimes appeared to be dipped in blood. We stopped for lunch at a bridge which crossed the creek. We made camp after 9.6 miles, with a total elevation change of 4646 feet. It seemed easier than that, because we weren't in a hurry, and the grade changes were pretty gradual. There was one stream crossing we had to wade, but we weren't more than knee deep, and we changed to water shoes to wade in.

We made camp in a nice spot near the intersection of Vallecito Creek and Johnson Creek, and pitched in to Happy Hour and dinner. We were all carrying collapsing chairs, which made relaxing in the camp much nicer. (Had the ground been damp, our butts would not have been.)

Photo by Cindy Crochet

Lunch at the bridge

Happy Hour! Cheers!
Photo by Cindy Crochet

We enjoyed a beautiful sunset, and slept well after dinner. We arose around 6:00 AM to prepare for the climb up to Columbine Pass. First we had to cross Johnson Creek on some very slippery logs to reach the trail on the other side, but everyone made it without getting their feet wet.



Slippery stream crossing
Photo by Cindy Crochet

The trail heads west following Johnson Creek, rising toward Columbine Pass at an average grade of 14 percent! But the lower part of the creek drainage was at least equal in beauty to Vallecito Creek. We passed a couple of parties of hikers who were camped along Johnson Creek, one of which we would see again.

Photo by Cindy Crochet

Cindy and Lindy climbing toward Columbine Pass
Photo courtesy Tristan MacDonald

The trail rose above the creek level, climbing toward timberline. The views were magnificent and rocky to the east.

My mouth is open because I am trying to breathe...
Photo by Cindy Crochet

The trail was so steep that eventually we all ran out of gas, except Zach, so we called a halt for lunch. We stopped near a small stream, where we got water, and cooked Ramen Noodles for lunch, with some small beef sausages. Then we resumed the grind to the summit, eventually reaching Columbine Lake.

Columbine Lake
Photo by Cindy Crochet

Columbine Lake - aye, there's the rub! We were now at 12,343 feet, only 363 feet below the summit. But the air is thin at that altitude, and we had only 1584 feet to ascend that height - which meant that the average grade for the summit climb was 23%, i.e., we were climbing up about 1 foot for every 4 we went forward — carrying heavy packs.

Just below the summit, Cindy sat down to take a picture of the lake. She slipped toward the edge on the tiny gravel of the trail, so I climbed slightly back down to pick her up by her pack and put her back on the trail — a fall at that point would not have been...good.

Columbine Lake
And, yes, the sky is really that blue...

At last, the summit - 12,706 feet. High fives were exchanged, and a brief celebration ensued. We had climbed to that point, 4232 feet — but we still have more than 700 feet to descend into Chicago Basin. The total elevation change for the day was 4,953 feet — at high altitudes carrying heavy packs.

And now the descent into Chicago Basin, the initial part of which was as treacherous as the ascent, albeit through fields of beautiful flowers. Eventually, we found a nice camp site near Needle Creek, and set up for the night.

Photo by Cindy Crochet

Photo courtesy Tristan MacDonald

While we were relaxing around a log which served as a table, we were visited by a mule buck with a nice rack, from afar, and by a doe which appeared to be fascinated by whatever Tristan was looking at.

Photo by Cindy Crochet

"What chew looking at?"

Photo Courtesy Tristan MacDonald

Photo Courtesy Tristan MacDonald

It started raining about 8:00 PM, which was fine with us, as we were all ready to turn in for the night after a long day. It rained off and on most of the night, but it had quit about an hour before we got up. While we were fixing breakfast, we were visited by some inquisitive goats. We have been warned that they were pests, and might go after our food and other things attractive to goats, but that proved not to be the case, as those two and another hung around the camp until we were packed and ready to depart. Another sizeable herd of goats could be seen descending the steep slopes to the north.

Photo Courtesy Tristan MacDonald

We headed down the trail toward Needle Creek.

More goats...

View to the west down the basin

More flowers...

Chicago Basin is huge — and has many dispersed camp sites.

View to the north and east up Needle Creek
Photo Courtesy Tristan MacDonald

View to the south and west down Needle Creek

Although there were more dead trees and deadfall down Needle Creek, there were some impressive sights, like this waterfall, a gorgeous yellow flower Cindy photographed, and another waterfall by a bridge which I discovered by walking downhill during a pack break to find drinking water.

Photo by Cindy Crochet

Photo by Cindy Crochet

During that pack break, we had a conference, and in view of the cloudy skies which promised rain, we reached a consensus to take the train out that day, rather than spend the night along the Animas River and hike out the following day to the Purgatory Trailhead.

We reached the rail stop in time for lunch, and relaxed while waiting for the 3:30 PM train, which picked up 17 hikers in addition to us. We enjoyed the ride down to Durango, which took about 2 & 1/2 hours. Several of us took advantage of the bar car to procure adult beverages.

Bridge over the Animas to the rail stop

Hikers waiting for the train

The Train! The Train!

The last day was 7.9 miles, and 5043 vertical feet, mostly downhill.

So, in three days, we hiked 25.6 miles, climbing and descending a total of 14,642 feet, an average of 4880 vertical feet per day. And we wondered why we were tired...except for Zach, who despite having come in from sea level two days before the hike, seemed to take it all in stride. He does work hard at physical conditioning, but, ah, to be young again...

My sister Judy Sisk Millspaugh says, "You get to keep doing what you keep doing." Yes'm, we are going to keep doing this, as long as the Lord permits us to.

And I was very pleased that Cindy did so well on what was her first real backpacking trip, and seems eager to do more, as she is a splendid hiking partner.

I don't know what Tristan will concoct next — but I am sure it will be interesting. Thanks to Tristan, and to all who went — we had a ball. There are for me fewer finer things than to be relaxing in camp with friends after a hard day in the mountains — and I am very grateful to still be able to do this at the age of 68.
© 2014 by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk, Cynthia (Cindy) Crochet, and Tristan MacDonald
All Rights Reserved